SCOTTSBLUFF — Leaders drive a community forward and the Nebraska Arts Council and Humanities Nebraska recognized two leaders in the arts from the Scottsbluff and Gering communities during a recent conference.

Judy Chaloupka, who has dedicated many years to making Theatre West a professional theater venue, and Billy Estes, who has transformed the Midwest Theater by attracting unique and diverse artists to the area, were recognized and awarded the BiTSy award.

The BiTSy award recognizes people who work behind the scenes to make the arts happen and recipients are selected by the Arts Council staff.

Every two years, the NAC presents the Governor’s Arts Awards to artists, patrons and organizations who have made a significant contribution to the cultural landscape of Nebraska. This year, after listening to feedback from constituents, NAC Executive Director Susanne Wise said they organized a second arts conference that was specific to the Panhandle.

“This was just a Panhandle conference,” Wise said. “We recognize it’s difficult for people from the Panhandle to come to Lincoln or Omaha. It’s really outreach on our part and listening to our constituents.”

As part of organizing a Panhandle conference, Wise said they decided to highlight area talent at the conference. Since NAC works with local nonprofits throughout the year, Wise said they know who is running the organizations well, so they recognize those leaders with the BiTSy award.

“Judy has been around with Theatre West as long as I can remember,” Wise said. “She brought live professional quality theater to the Scottsbluff and Gering area. She had a lot of help in that endeavor, but she took on a great amount of responsibility.”

Wise added, “Billy has elevated the Midwest Theater and programs to a level that you don’t find in Scottsbluff. The programs are equivalent to those you would find in the Omaha and Lincoln areas.”

The day of the conference, Chaloupka was busy handling Theatre West dress rehearsal for Lion King Jr. as well as addressing the needs of other Theatre West actors.

“When I got there to sign in that morning, Susanne Wise told me I needed to be here for lunch,” Chaloupka said. “I asked her, 'What for?' and she said, ‘You’re getting an award, so you need to be here.’”

Lion King Jr. dress rehearsal was scheduled for 12:30 p.m. and one of the actors had a doctor’s appointment after breaking his ankle. Luckily, Chaloupka was able to address the needs of the actors as the awards recognition was scheduled for 3:15 p.m.

“It’s like we wear a fireman’s hat everyday,” Chaloupka said. “We have about 30 people who work with us with Theatre West and then people with the shows and kids. Every day is a treat.”

Once Chaloupka was called on stage during the awards ceremony, she remembered not knowing what her award was, but recognized Theatre West is successful because of the people.

“I think my reaction was I’m like the spoke in a giant wheel that makes it go around,” she said. “There are so many people who make things happen at Theatre West to make it successful.”

Tami Lippstreu, Theatre West managing director, shared how selflessly and tirelessly Chaloupka has worked on promoting theater in the community.

“Judy has led Theatre West and provided our region with solid theater programming for over 30 years,” Lippstreu said. “From volunteer to executive director, her dedication and love of all art and arts education has made a big impact on lives in Western Nebraska. Mostly, Judy has proven to be a selfless and tireless worker for the cause. We’re really lucky to have such a true friend and leader in our community.”

This is not the first time Chaloupka has received the BiTSy award from NAC. In 2000, Theatre West celebrated the centennial where they presented the plays “Through Her Eyes” about the history of Scottsbluff, “Quilters on Pioneer Women” and “Big River.” She received the award for helping with those events.

Still, receiving a BiTSy award this year was special for Chaloupka as the arts council recognizes the work done behind the scenes.

“It’s an honor they know what happens behind the scenes because that is the only way to get things on the scene,” Chaloupka said. “I’m grateful for them because they’re always available to us. We wouldn’t be able to function nearly as well if we didn’t have their expertise and ability to support us.”

Estes was also selected as a BiTSy award recipient and said he was shocked when he found out.

“I was dumbfounded,” he said.

He added how the award is a reflection of the staff’s and volunteers’ contribution to the theater.

Estes is thankful for the support NAC provides the Midwest Theater to provide programs to the community.

“They help out Scottsbluff,” Estes said. “We wouldn’t be able to do our programs without their support.”

As the Midwest Theater executive director, Estes said his focus is on fulfilling a need for the community.

“My work at the theater is about having the theater service the needs of the community,” he said. “We want to service our community. I’ve been given the opportunity to lead us and push us, but it’s not just me. Our board and amazing crew of volunteers keep the building open and meet the needs of Scottsbluff and Gering.”

After receiving the award, Estes sent a photo to Celestina Godinez, theater office manager and volunteer coordinator. Godinez was excited.

“I got a text of the picture and we had no clue,” Godinez said. “It was just wonderful. We work so hard and he works so hard and it was nice to be recognized.”

Wise is hopeful the arts council’s recognition of local leaders hard work will bring awareness throughout the community for how they impact the community.

“We had two winners from the Scottsbluff/Gering area,” Wise said. “I think that we had people who were so deserving, which just shows the high level of arts activity and community support. They can’t really do their jobs and we are always impressed by the level of support arts organizations get in the Scottsbluff/Gering area.”

Chaloupka and Estes were two of four industry leaders honored at the July 25 Nebraska Panhandle Arts Conference at Western Nebraska Community College. Kyren Conley of Alliance from Carnegie Arts Center and Carrie Brown, executive director of High Plains Arts Council in Sidney, were also recognized. Conley was applauded for bringing young ideas and young people into the arts center and Brown was applauded for growing the arts council following the closure of Cabela’s.

Fifty-three people as far east as Valentine and Cambridge, Nebraska, attended the conference.

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Lauren Brant is a reporter with the Star-Herald and the Gering Courier. Contact her at 308-632-9043 or by email at

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