Charity through the looking glass of theater

Parents, kids stage benefit with `Alice in Wonderland'


October 09, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Each drama from Tree of Life Theatre Troupe in Eldersburg folds religion, charity and family into its production.

The plays, presented twice a year, involve children and parents in staging, costumes and weeks of practice. Rehearsals start with a prayer for the cast and crew and for the organization designated as recipient of the play's proceeds.

Formed in 1995 to give the community local theater opportunities, the company has raised thousands of dollars for organizations such as Carroll Food Sunday, ESCAPE Ministries and Piney Run Park - and along the way, offered children and their parents drama.

"Nothing was here, so we started a group that was strictly family-oriented," said Todd Wells, an electrical engineer by day who helped found the troupe. "Parents kicked in with everything including snacks for the cast. Right from the beginning, we were able to give a percentage of the gate to charity."

This year that beneficiary is Christmas in April, an aid organization that renovates and repairs homes for the needy.

"We really are acting for charity and it really is fun," said Amy Beachley, 13.

Alice in Wonderland opens this evening for a six-night run this weekend and next at Faith Lutheran Church. The donation could be considerable with as many as 1,200 people expected at six performances, organizers said.

"It is a colorful, exciting story where a lot happens," said Laura Ball, 13, one of two young actresses who will alternate in the lead. "Alice is naive in a good way, but she grows up in this story."

During performances when Laura is not Alice she plays a lady in waiting who, she says, "stands around and looks pretty" and Kristin Nemecek, 13, takes over the Alice role. Back up is essential when 43 of the cast of 46 are children, said director Scott Fairley, who works days as an insurance investigator.

"Tree of Life began because there was a need to provide family entertainment and to give the local community a chance to learn about the play process," said Anne Frampton, who shares production duties for Alice with husband, Keith. Their daughter Faith plays a flower girl.

"Now it has taken on a life of its own and become really child-oriented," Anne Frampton said.

More than 70 children auditioned for parts in this season's production. The director called with apologies to those who did not win roles and offered them work behind the scenes.

"I didn't get a part, but I am having fun helping on the stage crew," said Emily Rees, 13. "They told me to try again next time, too."

Lorraine Markosky has three sons involved, two on stage and 10-year-old Daniel, her youngest, working the sound equipment.

"He said he wanted to learn about sound, and they let him," she said. "This group highlights the abilities of children in the community and gets everyone in the family involved."

Kathi Uhland, assistant director, said the troupe offers her three children "a good Christian environment. These people put God first and donate their proceeds to charity."

"My daughters love to be on stage doing their drama thing," she said. "This group is teaching them good values along with drama."

The typically frenetic rehearsals open with a quiet petition from Fairley. He prayed for the cast "that they remember their lines and stay in character," for the crew "that they remain focused" and for "those we are reaching out to" with the proceeds of the play.

The prayer was the only quiet element at the dress rehearsal, where a few players still were not in costume. Sitting in the dimly lighted auditorium, Uhland held a script and put together a headpiece for a costume. She had sewn several costumes but left daughter Jessica's duchess finery until yesterday.

"I will get done, but just don't look at the hemlines," she said.

Often the seamstresses took apart costumes from previous productions that include Little Women, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Anne of Green Gables, and made them suitable for the current offering. But for Alice, they needed royal attire, animals and a slew of silly characters. Try creating a multilegged caterpillar look for a lanky teen-ager as Markosky did.

Several mothers kept sewing machines whirring offstage during rehearsal Tuesday. Fathers set up the backdrop, painted with bright flowers, and fiddled with props, lights and sound equipment.

Joe Shinault, one of the few "big kids" on stage, said his daughter dragged him into the show.

The computer programmer said he usually is a behind-the-scenes guy, but this time he plays Tweedledum to 5-year-old Jamie Shinault's mock turtle.

"Every year, my involvement gets larger and larger," said the elder Shinault.

The troupe gives younger actors an outlet for their dramatic abilities, an opportunity they don't often find during the school day, many parents said.

"Tree of Life is more than a theater project," said Stewart Dearie, father of two budding actresses. "It is an outlet for kids to be creative. In helping other kids, they are becoming creative themselves."

Allison Dearie, 10, and her 9-year-old sister, Lydia, play two of the show's five flowers.

"Humpty Dumpty yells at us to be quiet, but we just keep on giggling," said Allison, whose smiling face peeks through a ring of petals.

Wells, one of the original members, said his experience tells him that he will be seeing many of the young actors in high school and college productions.

"There are lots of things to wonder about here," said the Cheshire cat, played by Greta Stetson. "That is why it is called wonderland."

Shows start at 7:30 p.m. today, tomorrow and Saturday and Oct. 16, 17 and 18 at Faith Lutheran Church, 1700 St. Andrews Way. Tickets are $5; $4 for students and seniors; and $20 maximum for a family. Information: 410-549-0918.

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