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Pumpkin Theatre's 45th birthday party is a tribute to its founder

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Five-year-old Nathan Green didn't want to see Pumpkin Theatre's "Beauty and the Beast" because he thought it was "a girls' show," his mother said.

But Nathan and his brother, Gavin, 4, had a fine time at a performance Sunday at St. Timothy's School's Hannah More Arts Center, in Stevenson.

"It kept their attention the entire time. That's what we hoped for," said their mother, Heidi Green, of Govans.

Sunday was a special day for 270 families, because it was also Pumpkin Theatre's 45th birthday celebration, withfoodand arts and crafts for the children.

And the happiest child of all was a child at heart, 87-year-old Sister Kathleen Marie Engers, who founded the enduring children's theater in 1967 at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, now Notre Dame of Maryland University.

Engers, a School Sister of Notre Dame and retired drama teacher, who still lives on the Notre Dame campus in Homeland, had the honor of blowing out the candles on a birthday cake and received a proclamation from State Sen. Jim Brochin, of Baltimore County, with many of her old colleagues from Notre Dame in attendance.

For Engers, the party was a culmination of her work in helping to build up the theater company into one of the premier children's theaters in the region.

She began teaching at the College of Notre Dame in 1949, moved to New Hampshire for several years, came back in 1955 and never left again.

In the early to mid 1960s, she produced and directed several performances of fairy tales, including "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Alice in Wonderland," at LeClerc Hall on the Notre Dame campus. But the theater and the seats were too big for little kids.

"The children were lost and some didn't realize it was a live play," she said. "It was too overwhelming."

Pumpkin Theatre was born in 1967 when "we decided to have a season," Engers remembered.

She moved to Fourier Hall and staged selected scenes from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that were suitable for young children, as well as ballets, drama and musicals. When she started, there were as few as 10 people in the audience. But by the end of 1967, she was selling out the hall, she said.

As Pumpkin Theatre evolved, Engers focused more on puppetry, dance and plays, mostly fairy and folk tales. Drama majors at Notre Dame directed the plays and supervised everything from props to costumes.

"It was wonderful training for drama majors and a good learning experience for children," she said. "The children just loved it and there was a lot of audience participation."

And she would talk to the children before each show about the importance of listening and the fact that the scary characters weren'trealand wouldn't hurt them.

Pumpkin Theatre left Notre Dame in the early 1980s and called several locations in north Baltimore home, including Roland Park Elementary/Middle School and a nearby Mennonite church, before moving to St. Timothy's School for the 1993-94 season.

Today, Pumpkin Theatre stages 8 to 10 productions a year at the 320-seat Hannah More Arts Center and sponsors a "kinder-series" for pre-kindergarten children.

The company, which has a $200,000-a-year budget funded through ticket sales, donations and grants, including from the Maryland State Arts Council, also teaches spring drama classes at Garrison Forest School and sponsors summer camps in musical theater at Park School. Pumpkin Theatre also sponsors Pathway, a program for inner city children, Engers said.

Each production costs about $5,000, and actors and production, design and costume staff are paid, said Engers, who stopped leading Pumpkin Theatre when it left Notre Dame, but serves as board secretary.

Audiences have followed Pumpkin Theatre over the years — many of them people who came as children and now bring their own children, Engers and other Pumpkin Theatre officials said.

But Engers also said, "Over the years, we've had very little publicity. Our fundraising is minimal. That's got to change."

Soon, Pumpkin Theatre may be on the move again, because St. Timothy's School is expanding "and we're sort of in the way," Engers said. "We're a theater without a home. We're here, there and everywhere."

There are tentative plans to move next year to Har Sinai, a spacious Jewish synagogue in Owings Mills, and to start a capital campaign in June to raise up to $10 million to build a permanent home in the Baltimore area, said Ana Goldsecker, chairman of the theater's board of directors.

"We're looking to make a move and continue Sister's legacy," said Goldseker, whose family runs the philanthropic Goldseker Foundation.

Leading Pumpkin Theatre since last year as producing artistic director is Jimi Kinstle, former director of the now-defunct, Hampden-based Baltimore Shakespeare Festival.

"It's been wonderful for me to have (Engers) on the board," said Pumpkin Theatre's producing artistic director, Jimi Kinstle, former director of the now-defunct, Hampden-based Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. He said Engers has given him invaluable guidance and advice, such as not to talk down to children in the audience and how to engage them by making the performances more interactive.

That interaction was obvious in the first of two performances of "Beauty and the Beast" on Sunday, when Beauty and her father shared the stage, but for purposes of the plot, couldn't see each other. As Beauty's father called out her name in vain, a group of children near the stage cried out, "She's right there!"

Many children got autographs from the actors after the show.

Carli Lederman, 6, of Pikesville, said she liked the show, "because it's entertaining."

"We're subscribers," said Amy Schulze, of Baldwin, who brought her daughters, Addison, 6, and Finley, 4. "The girls always like the plays. They always know they're in for a good show."

Antoinette Williams, 57, of Reisterstown, said her daughter, Nikeya, 36, was a regular at Pumpkin Theatre shows as a child. Granddaughter, Jaylin, 8, grew up on Pumpkin Theatre. Now, Williams' granddaughter, Jaylin, 8, is a Pumpkin Theatre fan and enjoys going to other theater venues such as Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Comments like that make Engers happy. When asked why she has stayed involved with Pumpkin Theatre for more than four decades, she said. "I believe in it. It's worked."

And she added, "Let's hope it goes another 45 years."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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