During the 2006-07 school year, Havre de Grace's Tom Barnes was looking for a place to make use of his dramatic talents. He had acted in community theatres throughout the country and had two sons in Meadowvale Elementary School, Ken Coughlan said.
"He [Barnes] noticed there wasn't much in the area for acting for that age group," Coughlan, president of the Havre de Grace Drama Guild, explained.
Barnes began with a production of "Mother Goose, Inc.," through Meadowvale Elementary School.
"It was such a success and garnered so much interest that the following year, he approached the Havre de Grace Parks and Recreation Committee about starting a recreation drama program," Coughlan said.
Since then, the Drama Guild has not only grown and prospered, but also has arguably become a mainstay in Havre de Grace, a reliable place for anyone interested in the performing arts – as well as for those who want to see a good show.
After starting with a Tiny Tots program, the Guild now includes a Teen Troupe, a Youth Troupe, a summer stock day camp program and three one-day summer workshops.
In 2011, the Lewis Lane Players were added as the Guild's adult and teen performance troupe, overseen by Coughlan.
A year later, KEG Productions, named after Karen Green, the local Parks & Rec program director, was launched to serve those interested in filmmaking.
It was the first film program in the state to be run through a parks and rec program, according to Coughlan. KEG's website notes it makes "an introduction to the art of film-making accessible to everyone without having to enroll in film school."
Coughlan jokingly said he was pushed into leading the program by Barnes, who stepped back from the Guild about two years ago.
"I knew he had ulterior motives because once he found out we had a background in film, he said, 'Hey, wouldn't it be great to start the first parks and rec film department in the state of Maryland?'" Coughlan said.
This January, the Guild plans to launch a seven-week acting class for adults, he said.
After starting with one show each year, a spring musical, there are now three shows each year. Coughlan also hopes to continue a new tradition of performing a live radio play version of "It's a Wonderful Life," which Lewis Lane Players presented Dec. 12 at the Havre de Grace Community Center.
Coughlan, a 43-year-old attorney by day, got involved with it, along with his wife, Mary Kay, in 2010 after meeting Barnes at a fundraiser.
Mary Kay Coughlan "was really gifted in make-up" because she had worked on make-up for area films, he said. Ken Coughlan's brother is also a filmmaker in Washington, D.C., with Tohubohu Productions.
The Lewis Lane Players, whose shows have been geared toward dinner theatre and murder mysteries, have performed at sites such as the Lantern Queen Riverboat and Silks restaurant in Bulle Rock. The Guild also performs each year in the Havre de Grace Halloween Parade.
Guild events have also taken place at Havre de Grace High School and Meadowvale Elementary School.
The group's home theater, however, is in the multipurpose room of the Havre de Grace Activity Center, which gets transformed into a black box theater for shows like "Steel Magnolias," "Blithe Spirit" and "Alarms and Excursions."
The multipurpose room can seat 80 to 90 people, but the annual musicals have been by far the best received, with hundreds of people coming to recent performances of "The Little Mermaid" or "Annie Jr.," an abbreviated version of the Broadway favorite, Coughlan said.
The Guild is trying to break away a bit from the musical focus, and Coughlan said the comedy "Bull in a China Shop," which ran for two nights in November, played to the largest crowds at a Lewis Lane Players show.
About 15 children are in the eight-week Tiny Tots program this year, 15 in Youth Troupe and 20 in Teen Troupe, he said.
One local parent, Amy Smith, said her 13-year-old daughter, Riley, has enjoyed being part of the Guild since she was 5 years old, in Tiny Tots.
"I think it's taught her valuable lessons. The kids have to learn to take constructive criticism," Smith noted, explaining the children often take notes after rehearsals or shows on how to improve.
"At times a particular actor is called out," she said. "You have to develop a level of maturity and trust with those around you... [The Guild's leaders] are invested that the kids are learning the craft and getting better."
Kevin Vienneau, who lives at Aberdeen Proving Ground since retiring from the Army, has been with the Guild for "a couple of years" and has enjoyed performing with Lewis Lane Players.
He played the lead male role in "Blithe Spirit" and had several roles in "Alarms and Excursions," as well as worked on "It's a Wonderful Life."
"The group of people, they are awesome people. They are all really into the theatre and like the theatre and they mix up the directors so you get to have different experiences," he said, adding he also performs with an acting guild at APG.
Coughlan, a self-described "Air Force brat," who moved to Havre de Grace in 2004, also juggles directing a Passion play at Joppa's Trinity Lutheran Church.
He has been pleased to watch the Drama Guild continue to grow.
"It's grown in size and it's grown in different types of people," he said. "It's for all age of kids and, to be honest with you, our biggest group has been Lewis Lane Players."
The troupe is working on "Doubt," the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about accusations of sex abuse in a 1960s Catholic school.
Coughlan noted the Guild has to abide by regulations of the school system or the Activity Center, so "you won't see us doing 'Avenue Q,'" a musical known for its profane puppets.
Nevertheless, "we like to mix it up to keep the audience interested. Part of the reason we exist is for the actors, to help train actors," Coughlan said.
"We are always willing to experiment and see what works," he added.
"Being a parks and rec program, we get to use the facilities," Coughlan said. "Financially, it allows us some more financial freedom. We are in a position to do more straight plays, like 'Doubt,' and be able to do that in a cost-effective manner."
Vienneau, of Lewis Lane Players, said he believes the Guild offers something valuable to the community.
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"Any art involved in any community is a wonderful thing, and I think the community is becoming more aware of us," he said.