WAYNESBORO, Pa. — The magic of live theater triumphs on stage as children from all around the region participate in the Waynesboro Children's Theatre Troupe's annual productions.
These large-scale musicals that incorporate elaborate costumes, set design and choreographed numbers originated from one man's appreciation for the art of theatre.
Stephen Kulla, 48, of Waynesboro, Pa., the organization's founder and director, is an avid proponent of the importance of theater for youth. The Waynesboro Children's Theatre Troupe is not only an arena for children's theatrical expression, it is also a way for those involved to build confidence and self-esteem.
"Children learn to be less inhibited in speaking with people, develop self-esteem, work in a structured environment," Kulla said. "They learn that no one person is more important than the other."
Inspiration for the theatre troupe came from Kulla's own experiences with theater growing up. He was involved in productions throughout high school and in college at Colgate University in New York.
Upon returning to the area in the early '90s, Kulla thought it would be great to create a children's theater in Waynesboro. An attorney with his law firm, Kulla, Barkdoll, Ullman & Painter, Kuller formed the Waynesboro Children's Theater Troupe in 1995. From small beginnings, he and three other members on staff worked together to organize the productions for a handful of children.
Over time it has evolved.
Now, the organization has 16 committees that work on their respective aspects of the play: sets and props, choreography and costumes, to name a few. The shows and performances involve 100 to 110 children in each show, aged 5 to 18 years old. They have performed numerous plays including "Peter Pan," Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Cinderella" and "Annie."
Although named the Waynesboro Children's Theatre Troupe, they have a large radius of participants. Children come from numerous communities from all around Pennsylvania, as far west as Mercersburg as far north as Chambersburg, and every town in between including a few in Maryland.
For Kulla and his team, the planning process begins months in advance. This time is used to select which play will be performed.
"We do a major, full-scale musical. The play has to be large scale to get over 100 children in it. It has to be fun. It has to be age appropriate, nothing risqué," he said.
In the past, they modified plays for language and theme. When performing ‘Grease' in the fall of 2002 they altered the part where Rizzo thinks she's pregnant.
"We edited it so instead she thought she was failing school and, with the help of her friends, she passed," Kulla said.
In addition, while planning they consider casting choices — a mix of the veteran participants and new participants — by inviting back previous actors and holding casting auditions for new ones.
Everyone who auditions is casted. No child is ever turned away.
"It is a requirement that anybody, no matter their talent, can be in the show," Kulla said. "You can come to auditions and refuse to even say your name, as long as you come to practices and participate you will be dancing and singing just like everyone else in the end."
The primary focus is to build self-esteem in children to show they can accomplish something that might be beyond their comfort zone.
"That's one of the reasons we refuse to cut anyone," he said. "I'm not going to tell you that you aren't good enough to do something. If you put your effort into it, you are good enough to be in the play."
This quality of acceptance includes children with disabilities. Over the years, children with muscular dystrophy, hearing impairments and autism have participated. They are welcome and treated equally.
In 1998, a mother called Kulla to ask if her daughter, Marianna Krawczak, could be in the play. Marianna was in a wheelchair at the time.
"I asked her, 'Why are you even calling me? Of course she can be in the play. Why would she be different from anyone else?'" he said.
Two years after participating in the play, Krawczak passed away. To commemorate her perseverance, the Waynesboro Children's Theatre Troupe created the Marianna Krawczak Award, which is given to a child who has overcome challenges to be in the play.
"Every year it's enjoyable to see kids come out that are new to theater," Kulla said. "Those are the kids I enjoy the most. To see the evolution of the children's talent develop over the years is exciting and rewarding as well."
This year, the Waynesboro Theater Troupe will be perform "Oliver!," a musical based on Charles Dickens's novel "Oliver Twist." It will run from Thursday, Nov. 29, through Sunday, Dec. 2, at the Waynesboro Middle School. There is a $10 registration fee for children to participate. General admission tickets will be $6 and refreshments will be sold at intermission.
Though it might be a challenge at times to organize such large productions or hold the attention of a large number of children during rehearsals, it is always worthwhile for Kulla, because it provides a positive outlet for youth.
"This is a place where children of all ages can build camaraderie regardless of class level or age or disabilities; everyone's the same," Kulla said. "It is just a fun and wonderful way to see kids working together."