'American Idol finalist' helping Nuremberg theater with benefit concert

Kelly Monitz, Standard-Speaker, Hazleton, Pa.
·6 min read

Feb. 23—No one knows when a small gesture or a word will change someone's life.

Or how one kindness can flow into another.

Joelle Witner wasn't looking for someone to help save her nonprofit, community theater in Nuremberg when she posted on social media about being a willing ear for someone who didn't have one.

But that post resonated with a woman in Baltimore, Maryland, who found herself and her children trapped in an abusive relationship.

Witner's small gesture changed Aryn Baker's life.

And that kindness continues to flow, bringing an "American Idol" finalist to Northeast Pennsylvania for a benefit concert to help save the DM Performance Works Factory Theatre.

Madison VanDenburg, who finished in the top three on Season 17 of popular singing competition show, will perform live on the evening of March 20 at the pandemic-shuttered theater.

VanDenburg has three original music releases out now, including "Eighteen" and "Roller Coaster Ride," which came out in December and January, respectively.

The 18-year-old from upstate New York said Friday that she has used the pandemic to write and record, like many other artists. But she also delved into producing her own music.

VanDenburg heard about the theater's plight through Baker, who had established a connection with the singer after her daughter fell in love with her on American Idol.

VanDenburg, who is involved in numerous charitable efforts, including Make a Wish and Feeding America, wanted to help after hearing what "amazing place for kids" that Witner had started.

And she wanted to see the theater continue to provide a place for young performers to hone and practice their talents now and in the future.

Unsure future

Witner wasn't sure there would be a future after the pandemic struck and the theater couldn't host shows. All the money generated from prior shows went right back into the facility, she said.

"It's truly a nonprofit," Witner said, adding that they hoped to open in the summer after doing renovations and restrictions were lifted.

The capacity limits, however, made any production unfeasible, she said. At 25% capacity, a show with 40 kids on stage and 10 to 12 crew members left space for 18 audience members, Witner said.

"Even if we only had 20 kids on stage, you can't pay for a show with only 30 audience members," she said.

They also dealt with issues with performing, and if they could safely sing around each other, if masks would be required and what other precautions would be needed to keep everyone safe, Witner said.

The theater considered virtual performances, but couldn't afford to pay $2,000 for the right to do a show, she said.

And the bills kept coming in, said Witner, who started dipping into her own funds to pay the mortgage and keep the heat on.

The DM Performance Works Factory Theater wasn't the only venue closed due to the virus and the ensuing restrictions — all across the country venues were shuttered.

Witner, who dedicated her life to teaching and performing, also wasn't working.

"There are three bands I play in. Music venues shut down. My dance studio shut down," she said. "I have five jobs and I couldn't do one of them."

She felt "purposeless" and her work was now considered "nonessential," which was sobering and difficult to take in, she said.

In the midst of everything, Witner posted on social media that she would be willing to listen and talk to anyone who needed it.

Baker, a young mother living 150 miles away in Baltimore, who had seen Witner perform at Knoebel's Grove, saw the post and reached out to her.

"It opened my eyes," she said, and she realized that needed to free herself from the abusive relationship she had been in for nine years.

Baker drove to Pennsylvania with her daughters in October and Witner helped her start a new life in the region.

"It was my time to give myself and my girls a fresh start and a chance at a normal life," Baker said.

Giving back

The young mother, who has since become like family to Witner, felt she had to return the favor in some way.

In November, Baker started a GoFundMe page, Help Keep the Arts Alive by Aryn Baker, to raise money and reached out to VanDenburg and others for a shout-out for the arts.

VanDenburg and her manager, Adrian Bowles, were so impressed with the theater and the work it does with young people in the community that they wanted to do more to help.

They also understood how dire the situation had become. Witner was negotiating with the bank and other creditors for more time to recover, but was about to lose the theater that meant so much to her and others.

VanDenburg wanted to do a benefit concert at the theater — it was a heartfelt and unsolicited offer that overwhelmed Witner, she said.

"I couldn't believe the generosity," she said. "She is the sweetest person for doing this for people she doesn't even know."

Witner didn't think the theater would survive through the end of the year, but the concert has given her hope. The bank and other creditors agreed to work with her, because there is a glimmer of light now, she said.

VanDenburg, on Friday, said she's really excited about being able to do the concert, which will be one of her first live performances before an audience of more than 10 since the pandemic began a year ago.

They're keeping the show to the bare minimum, VanDenburg said. She plans to take the stage with just her guitarist, and possibly play the piano as well, but they want to maximize the small venue's capacity with as few crew as possible.

Seventy-five tickets will be available for the show, which is under the 50% capacity of the theater, but they may be able to squeeze in a few more people, Witner said.

VanDenburg is hoping for a sellout, and Bowles said that they haven't ruled out doing a second show, if people are interested.

VanDenburg, who graduated from high school last year, has been doing streaming shows on Twitch and Instagram, as well as pay-per-view shows on Stageit.com, and one at Daryl Hall's club in October, Bowles said.

VanDenburg launched a subscriber service on Patreon, and is about to launch an internet radio show in March. She also has an upcoming recording project with a Grammy nominee in the coming month.

She is also planning more charitable events, including one in the Albany area this summer. VanDenburg said that her fans have been very supportive of the work they do, and she is grateful for their support.

"We've been very lucky and grateful," she said. "COVID hasn't taken everything."

More information on the benefit concert can be found at the theater's website, https://www.performanceworksfactorytheatre.com, or the theater's Facebook page.

Contact the writer: kmonitz@standardspeaker.com; 570-501-3589