By: Amanda Earp
“If you don’t do it, then who will?”
Those eight simple words have stuck with Linda Haskett. She remembers the conversation like it was yesterday.
She was talking with a friend about her disappointment in the Baylor Children’s Theatre being closed, when her friend told her to start her own children’s theatre.
“I said, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ She looked at me and said, ‘If you don’t do it, then who will?’” Haskett said. “I remember that. It hit me like someone just threw water on me.”
Fast forward 33 years and Haskett is sitting in her office telling the story of how she was destined to start the Waco Children’s Theatre.
“I didn’t choose it. It chose me,” she said in reference to starting the theater which she calls “God’s theater.”
She firmly believes that God created every baby perfect, with tools and talents they use to find their assignments in life. The joy in life, she said, is finding your assignments.
“I’ve gotten this wonderful assignment where I get to hang out with kids all the time. Kids who are often times extremely gifted, sensitive and beautiful people,” she said.
Haskett’s mother and brother were her biggest theater influence. She was born into an acting family. Her mother was an actress and played both the piano and organ. Her brother, an actor turned minister, performed Shakespeare plays in the yard when they were little.
Like her family, Haskett has always been a performer. She began playing piano when she was 6 years old, but her first performance was at age 3 when she sang “Away In A Manger.”
“I just lived for music class, that’s all I cared about. I would go to school all day, I could make all A’s in just anything really, but I didn’t care about it. I just didn’t care. I wanted to be in the choir room,” Haskett said. “In the choir, singing, or I wanted everybody to go away from my house so I could put my record player on and get in front of the mirror and sing, dance and put on shows.”
Haskett, from Fort Smith, Ark., moved to Waco about 35 years ago when her husband, Bill, accepted a job at McLennan Community College in the fine arts department. Haskett hated Texas and did not want to move to Waco. Instead, she wanted to stay in Arkansas where she was directing the church choir and had lots of friends.
“I was young and I had a baby and I just wanted to die. I just wanted to die,” she said referring to her move to Waco.
Once in Waco, Haskett thought she gave up theater to focus on being a mother. That was until she was asked by her pastor of Lakeshore Baptist Church to direct the spring musical in 1977.
“Penny Eden always wrote a musical for my church every spring. It was always a spoof on a major musical and I was in a couple of them. My pastor, Dr. Richard Groves, met with me one day and said, ‘Linda, Penny is sick. You’re going to have to direct it,’” Haskett said
At first, Haskett politely declined the offer, saying she was no longer into theater. About a week later, he asked her again.
“I was teaching Sunday school at the teen house and I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I will do it if I can do it with kids,’” Haskett said.
Groves agreed. Haskett began directing the spoof of “West Side Story” with three kids and eventually she had 40.
“It was a big hit,” Haskett said, smiling.
It was a week later when Haskett was told those magical eight words, “If you don’t do it, then who will?” Not being able to forget the words, she began talking about starting a children’s theater, but she found herself not knowing how to do so.
Haskett began directing melodramas at the Waco Civic Theatre and in 1989 she was offered the chance to direct the summer musical.
“The board director came up to me and said put your money where your mouth is. Do a musical, do a children’s musical. Direct ‘Annie’ and don’t lose any money,” she said.
At the time, the Civic Theatre had never done a musical or made more than $3,000 on a show. Haskett’s “Annie” made about $26,000, showing the theater she could do children’s musicals and make it a success.
The Civic Theatre would close during the month of July for employees to vacation and Haskett finally saw her chance to create a children’s theater. She asked if she could rent the Civic Theatre to start a children’s theater.
“They said, ‘Haskett, are you crazy?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I admit it,’” Haskett said, laughing.
In July 1992, she was allowed to rent the Civic Theatre for $1,500. Thirty-five children signed up for the children’s theater after Haskett placed an ad in the newspaper, 17 children in the morning class and 18 in the afternoon.
It was then that Haskett started the Waco Children’s Theatre.
She taught classes for the children and directed “12th Juror.”
“We did a play, classes and I taught everything I knew in one hour. I had to learn more stuff,” Haskett joked.
The theater grew from those original 35 children. Now, there are two summer camps with about 150 kids participating, fall and spring classes and a Christmas show. Currently, 85 children are enrolled in the fall classes.
Many parents will enroll their children in classes wondering when the children tryout for parts and what play they will be performing. The children’s theater, however, is primarily a teaching institution designed to focus on helping children develop.
It is not about putting on plays, it is about building character and finding passion, Haskett said.
Robyn Miller, now 25, joined the theater at age 10 and participated in the summer programs until she was a 19-year-old college student. She credits the theater for her creativity. As a current law student, she said the creativity she gained by participating in the theater helps her think outside of the box.
“The theater has benefitted me more times than I can say,” Miller said.
Besides creativity, the theater taught Miller how to work as a team member and gave her self-confidence.
“Self-confidence is just a side effect of working with Linda Haskett,” Miller said.
Miller is not the only person the theater and Haskett have affected.
Will Mormimo, a current member of the theater, said he “found himself” at the theater. He started attending the theater when he was 11, about seven years ago.
“My first play was ‘The Jungle Book’ and Linda graciously gave me the part of Mogley. I just fell in love with it and knew this had to be a part of my life,” Mormimo said.
“The children’s theater is a kind of family. The program provides opportunities to be loved and build confidence for life. The whole thing is about self-esteem,” Haskett added.
The Waco Children’s Theatre’s mission is to “help young people develop confidence, self-awareness and character through the performing arts.”
Haskett said this development is important because the kids are the future.
“If they don’t have confidence and morals and sensitivity and passion, we’re dead. That’s what we do. I could care less if these kids do theater when they grow old. I hope they grow up and see plays and support the arts, but I just want them to know who they are.”
The children are currently rehearsing “Matchstick Girl,” a story of a girl who died of starvation at Christmastime.
“I just saw 25 kids down there listening to the “Matchstick Girl,” and you could see what was going on in their mind… you could see their face changing.”
Hardship, however, is nothing new to the children of the theater. Haskett said, like her own childhood, a lot of the children come from unstable homes.
“A lot of them come from divorce, death, poverty, abuse and rape,” Haskett said. “You’d be surprised. We get kids from all kinds of backgrounds.”
Despite the wonderful kids and shows, the children’s theater has been struggling financially over the past three years due to the economy.
“The economy has just made it where I lost a fortune of money in the show, even though the show is wonderful. They are wonderful shows, they just don’t pay for themselves,” Haskett said.
The past summer, the theater produced “42nd Street.” Haskett had to write a $2,500 check to receive the script to produce the show and the expenses increased from there.
“In the summertime we take in about $18,000 and we spend about $60,000 to $80,000. But that is my choice,” she said.
On top of production costs, other expenses keep increasing. The rent at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church – where the children’s theater is located – just doubled, the insurance went up and many children enrolled cannot afford to pay for the classes.
“Most of the children you saw didn’t pay this year; they paid half or didn’t pay at all,” Haskett said. “I have parents who pay for an extra child’s tuition. They can afford it, but most of my children can’t afford anything.”
Haskett said she just cannot turn the children away and joked that this is the reason her sons call her a horrible businessperson.
Despite the serious financial issues the theater is facing, Haskett remains positive.
“I just have made this decision that as long as we can keep these doors open, God wants them open. God will keep them open, if he wants them open.”
She wants to keep the theater open and eventually pass it down to her son because that was the plan from the beginning.
Haskett has hopes that even if the children’s theater has to close, one day someone will reopen the theater.
“I still think even if I’m dead and gone and it closes down, one of these kids will grow up and fix it because they know the mission,” she said.
Haskett said the children’s theater changed her life by making her focus on something bigger than herself.
“In a simple way, it took my focus off of me and onto the world. It’s not about me anymore. It’s about the kids,” she said.
She no longer has the desire to perform because she wants all of her energy to focus on the children and the theater.
When asked if she felt she was saving lives, Haskett said she hopes she is, but doesn’t think so. Others, however, disagree.
A family friend of Haskett’s, Allison Shopbell, said Haskett is just being humble.
“I think her influence is great and vast.… She did save some lives along the way; she is just humble and doesn’t admit it,” Shopbell said.
She added that Haskett is making a difference in the community by instilling character, leadership, ethics and morality in the children.
“She is a big influence. She really is,” Shopbell said.
However, Haskett humbly keeps her focus.
“It’s not about me. It’s about the children, the future of our nation,” Haskett said. “It’s just about love.”