Town is no longer waiting in the wings

Productions: Carroll County's smallest burg jumps on the community-theater bandwagon.

May 18, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Tucked away in rural Carroll County, Union Bridge is a one-stoplight town, a burg without a movie theater or trendy restaurant, a place where shopping is limited to groceries and hardware, a community where bingo and pancake breakfasts are entertainment staples.

But Carroll's smallest town just introduced its residents to seasonal drama, with the debut last night of the Little Community Theatre's two one-act plays at the elementary school on Main Street. With everyone from schoolchildren to town elders involved, organizers expect sell-out crowds.

This community theater is the culmination of years of effort to give this isolated town a chance to show off its culture. Volunteers built a portable stage and made the school auditorium into a 200-seat theater. A local business purchased blocks of tickets, and Carroll's recreation department awarded a $10,000 grant for more lighting.

Schoolchildren have all 37 parts in a musical version of Johnny Appleseed. Veterans and novices perform True Blue & Trusted, a melodrama that revolves around a darling named Lily, her hero and a villain.

"It literally takes a whole village to do this kind of thing," said Mandy Shaughness, organizer of props. "This really is an odd little neighborhood of cow folk and newcomers, but I know we all can support this neat thing."

Union Bridge, with about 1,000 residents, joins a growing trend across the state, where more than 30 community theater groups are thriving, said Theresa M. Colvin, executive director of the Maryland State Arts Council. Carroll has several theater groups, some of which are in fledgling stages.

"Community theater is a wonderful grass-roots effort that offers social opportunities for people and brings different elements of the community together," Colvin said. "Anything people do to build relationships adds to making the neighborhood a great place to live and work. And, it's a great way to get to know your neighbors.

Without theater, a community is bankrupt, said Arnie Hayes, a retired Carroll County educator who has been involved in the arts all his life. The project will be of greatest benefit to the children who will be involved in all aspects of putting on a show, Hayes said.

"Children will learn a hobby that will follow them the rest of their lives," he said.

But will audiences come to a theater off the beaten track? A reception last week drew nearly 100 people to the school.

"Think of a yellow brick road in northwest Carroll, with Union Bridge as the Emerald City," said Audrey Cimino, who has appeared in productions throughout the Baltimore area and helped organize the community theater. "If we have a company here, we don't have to schlep to Baltimore to do a show or to see a show."

Jody Ledford knows about schlepping from her Westminster home to Baltimore and beyond to indulge her 12-year-old son's interest in theater. Danny Ledford has appeared in several shows that entailed long drives to rehearsals and performances. He is closer to home with a role in the musical, and his mother plans to enroll him in the theater's drama camp this summer.

"We were looking for local venues, and this one will be great," she said.

Joyce Farkas' son is so thrilled with the project that he celebrated his 15th birthday backstage last night.

"He had never done anything with theater, and this has opened up a whole new avenue for him," said Farkas of Michael, the oldest of her three children. "He is in the stage crew and loving it. Theater is a great opportunity for kids to express themselves and get over their fears. Who knows what will happen? Some of the brightest stars we have today came out of the backwoods."

Hayes, a retired educator who wrote his first play at age 10 and has stayed involved in theater, directed the melodrama.

"I love shows and performing and what they do for people," said Hayes. "The theater brings people together -- people who want to perform, people who want to go see those performances -- and now we have a place to do it. We are giving people who never had the chance an opportunity to be in a play. Half of my cast have never been on stage."

More than 20 years into retirement, he is still working to bring theater to his community "because of the wonderful thing it does," he said. "It enables the kids to feel worthwhile, find camaraderie with a group of people, get poise, confidence and a good feeling about themselves."

Hayes promises a vaudevillian evening, complete with signs -- "boo, hiss, laugh" -- telling people how to react. He hopes the audience will "break the bubble and lose themselves in the show."

Hayes is certain he has a hit in this little theater: "How could we fail? There are so many people out there who are interested in real, true community theater, and we are going to provide it in our area."

The company has long been the dream of Mary Stong, principal at Elmer A. Wolfe Elementary School. She has encouraged pupils to test their stage abilities and seen the benefits theater provides them.

"Our purpose is to train children to have multi-interests in theater," Stong said. "It may be their niche. Maybe it won't be acting, but it could be lighting or staging."

The Little Community Theatre will offer "plays with a purpose." Its mission is to "provide northwest Carroll with a broad range of performing arts opportunities for all ages and to enhance the cultural life of the community while serving as a vehicle for community philanthropy." Profits from the shows are dedicated to The Shepherd's Staff, a Christian outreach ministry.

The curtain rises at 8 p.m. today and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the school, 119 N. Main St. Information: 410-876-5505 or 410-857-5944.

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