Pumpkin Theatre founder begins 25th year of cultivating generations of theater lovers

October 10, 1991|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Evening Sun Staff

Once upon a time there was a young woman who studied theater, not because she thought it would be her life's work, but because she enjoyed it. ''I was able to indulge my preferences,'' says the now-mature woman looking back to her college days.

But life took the young woman in different directions than she had anticipated. It took her to a convent and to many classrooms and eventually back to that college where she had studied theater, but this time to teach theater.

And from that small drama department came the seed for a children's theater where grown-up actors put on plays that entertained and delighted youngsters for a long time. So long, in fact, that some of those youngsters are now adults who are bringing their own children to that same theater, sometimes to see the same plays.

This isn't necessarily a happily-ever-after tale because the story isn't over. For that theater grows on, sometimes struggling, sometimes soaring.

The woman is now Sister Kathleen Marie Engers, who has been a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame for 40 years.

The theater is the Pumpkin Theatre, which she founded in 1967 in connection with the College of Notre Dame, where she was, and still is, a faculty member.

This weekend Pumpkin Theatre begins its 25th season. And Sister Kathleen Marie has been there for every one of them.

She has seen it through the dissolution of Notre Dame's drama department, which prompted Pumpkin Theatre to go on its own in 1982.

She has seen it through a sometimes bitter clash with residents of Roland Park, who said the Theatre and its young patrons brought too much noise and trash to their neighborhood. It was a clash that forced the Theatre to move from the North Baltimore Mennonite Church to the Roland Park Elementary School last year. And a clash that took its toll on the Theatre's audiences.

And she is seeing it now through some financially difficult times when ticket sales no longer pay all the bills.

Sister Kathleen Marie's title is executive producer of Pumpkin Theatre. Her job is ''keeping it going . . . whatever is needed,'' she says, adding that her roles stretch from fund-raiser to janitor. She has directed productions, designed sets and, until a few years ago, was in charge of costumes.

This year she has two full-time jobs: Teaching communication arts courses at Notre Dame and managing Pumpkin Theatre.

''When I'm not in the classroom, I'm here,'' she says during an interview in the Theatre offices on North Charles Street. That includes "most Tuesdays and Thursdays and most Saturdays and Sundays.''

Next year Sister Kathleen Marie intends to cut back her teaching load. ''I'm more replaceable at Notre Dame,'' she says.

The beginnings of Pumpkin Theatre came nearly 30 years ago while Sister Kathleen Marie was teaching a film course at Notre Dame. "It became evident that [the students] didn't know what they were going to see until after they had seen it,'' she says. By that time, they had already paid their money, she told them, and it didn't matter to the filmmaker if they liked it or not.

Sister Kathleen Marie decided she had to begin with youngsters if she wanted "some kind of discriminating audience.'' In 1963, the college's drama department presented a three-act version of "Cinderella" in its 1,000-seat LeClerc Auditorium.

The play was too long, and the house too large. From it, though, came the idea to do a ''regular series that was miniature, just as children are,'' she says. The first series included film, puppetry and creative drama along with plays.

It began with "The Frog Prince."

"We had 10 people in the audience; by the end of the season, we had a full house,'' Sister Kathleen Marie recalls. And what the audience liked best were the plays. So, the next season, and for every one thereafter, Pumpkin Theatre's season featured four plays and one puppet show, by an independent puppeteer.

The plays are chosen by a committee of three: Alice Houstle, the Theatre's artistic director and 20-year associate; Mary Louise Kane, assistant producer and former kindergarten teacher; and Sister Kathleen Marie.

The women look for plays with a good story and a small cast. Also, those that ''don't have things that might give children strange ideas,'' says Sister Kathleen Marie. ''We are very cautious, perhaps overly so; our witches are not terribly wicked.''

Each play runs just less than an hour -- in keeping with the natural attention spans of its primary audience, children 4 to 11 years old.

Although demand for tickets has traditionally been "quite high," the Theatre's following diminished last year. After "that very unpleasant situation with the neighbors," many people thought the Theatre closed, Sister Kathleen Marie explains. "Instead of calling, they just didn't come."

That, coupled with a larger house -- the school seats 150 more than the church -- meant more empty seats. This year the Theatre is cutting the number of performances.

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