If it's summertime in Howard County, it's time for another musical production from the Howard County Summer Theatre.
For nearly 40 years, this nonprofit organization has been providing local theater lovers with a classic community theater experience.
At the same time, the group has provided a family-oriented, creative outlet for thousands of avid, amateur actors of all ages — and, over the years, raised an estimated $100,000 for county charities.
"It's the most unique company I've ever been with," said Chuck Bagley, 54, vice president of the company's board, who has been involved in local theater groups off and on since high school.
"Theater, in my past experience, attracts a lot of people with egos — there's a lot of drama off-stage," Bagley said. "I don't see that here. Howard County Summer Theatre is really much more of a family theater. It's just people having a good time, in it for family and fun."
Bagley, who lives in Ellicott City, plays Jacob in this year's production: "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the Old Testament story of Joseph.
Like all of HCST's productions for the past few decades, it will be staged at Mt. Hebron High School and involves a large cast of exuberant local amateurs of all ages, including a number of parents and children working and acting together.
The family-friendly nature of the company, in fact, is a huge draw for many.
"We love it," said Heidi Bertaux, an Ellicott City mother who is acting in the play with her 21-year-old daughter, Rene. "There's such a great community here, people of all ages."
"The way people connect and click is great," agreed Rene. "It really is like a family."
Fellow actor Gary Reichard of West Friendship, expressed a similar sentiment, praising the "great people" and the great experience, as did his two teenage daughters, who also appear in this year's production.
"It's the highlight of my summer every year," said 18-year-old Kelsey Reichard, who, inspired in part by her experiences with HCST, plans to major in theater arts education in college.
"It's a blast," added sister Kayla, 15. "It's like family here."
Kayla was unsure of her college plans, still years away, but she sure of one thing: "I'll at least take theater as a minor."
The family-friendly nature of the company is perhaps best exemplified by the three people who have been a major part of the group for at least three decades — Tom Sankey, 60, the theater director at Mt. Hebron High who has been directing HCST shows since 1984; long-time choreographer Amanda Tschirgi, 49, of Ellicott City; and, long-time costumer Laural Clark, 52, of Glenwood.
None of the three — nor anyone else still with the company — was part at the formation of the group. That was the work of three Howard County mothers and musical lovers — Hazel Philbrick, Elise Best and Jeanne Grennon.
The three were looking for local theater opportunities for their college-age children. Finding little, they started the Howard County Theatre Group, staging "Guys and Dolls" in the summer of 1975.
For the next several years, a revolving cast of directors and actors kept the group going. Then, in 1984, Sankey, who had worked as a rehearsal pianist for the group, was asked to direct.
"I said, 'Yes, but that I'd only be comfortable with the 'Sound of Music,' " Sankey recalled. "It had always been my favorite."
The company's leaders hesitated, worried about the child actors needed for such a production. But eventually they gave Sankey the go-ahead. And with that, the company took a pivotal turn toward larger, more family-oriented, multigenerational productions.
Veterans credit Sankey with taking the theater group to the next level.
"What we have now was Tom's vision," Clark said. She noted how the productions have grown in size, from an average of maybe 40 people to 100 or more. "It was just a natural growth, away from a mom-and-pop production to a bigger, community production," Clark said
Sankey has directed the musicals since 1984, bringing stability to the organization. Also bringing stability were such stalwarts as Clark, the show's costumer for 29 years, and Tshirgi, the choreographer for 32 years.
Both women also have performed in the shows. And both, in classic HCST fashion, have children who have worked on- and off-stage in the company's productions.
All three of Clark's daughters performed in shows for years. One is now majoring in theater in college and another, the youngest, starts college this fall and plans to major in theatrical design and construction.
As for Tschirgi, all four of her children have appeared in shows with her and daughter Laura, a drama teacher at Howard High School, is assistant choreographer for this year's show.
Tschirgi's husband also has appeared in shows. In 1988, the two appeared together in "Fiddler on the Roof," playing a couple who eventually get married. A week after the show closed, they got married for real.
On to bigger things
A generous helping of HCST alumni have decided to make a career out of theater or the arts, including a few who have gained national attention. Among the latter group are Risa Binder, a Howard High graduate and professional singer recently nominated for an Emmy award, and Natalie Johnson, a singer and actress who has appeared on Broadway.
But while the Howard County Summer Theatre members are proud of the alumni who have gone on to bigger things, they say that's not what the group is all about.
Rather, it's about the group's policy, instituted in 1994, of giving away most of the money taken in to local charities. This summer's recipients, for example, are Prepare for Success, which provides school supplies to low-income county students, and the county's Meals on Wheels program.
HCST's spirit also is exemplified by the creation seven years ago of a separate junior show for children in grades second through ninth. (Because this year's production uses so many young children, there is no junior show this year.)
But more than anything else, participants say, the heart of the Howard County Summer Theatre is the people involved.
"I came here to watch a friend (in 1996), and I've been coming ever since," said Sandy Cromwell, 46, who acts and is in charge of T-Shirts and the cast photo.
"I love the spirit of community, the spirit of togetherness. I love watching the families work together. … It's a great atmosphere."
"It's people who love live theater," said director Sankey, who, every summer, on the weekend before the first show, hosts a picnic at his Ellicott City home for the cast and crew — usually 100 people or more.
"People here are so welcoming, so willing to work together … to put on a quality production, for the community, for charities," Sankey said. "We have engineers, students, nurses, grandmothers … people from all walks of life.
"There's a family feel to this group. It has an endearment that crosses generations."