Howard County Summer Theatre marks 40th year with timeless classic
By By Janene Holzberg and For the Baltimore Sun
Jun 26, 2014 | 6:28 PM
Tom Sankey has had an ace up his sleeve for over a year, and he's about to play it.
On Wednesday, the 40th season of Howard County Summer Theatre will commence, and the longtime director and his all-volunteer cast and crew will present the first of eight performances of "Les Miserables."
Sankey, who is also a math teacher at Mount Hebron High School, was one of the first in the country to obtain the licensing rights for a live performance of the full-length stage version of Victor Hugo's classic tale of redemption, which were granted to the summer theater troupe in February 2013.
He's waited for over a year to tackle "Les Miserables," which opened on Broadway to critical acclaim in 1987, and he has savored every minute of anticipation.
"Many of us grew up with the iconic play," said Sankey, who marked his 30th year as HCST director in 2013. "People will know they're part of something grand."
Toby Orenstein, founder and creative director of Toby's Dinner Theatre, agreed.
"This is a fabulous thing for everyone in the community, as they held on to those rights forever and ever, and Tom and I were waiting for a very long time for them to be released," said Orenstein, who launched her own production of the musical last summer.
"Tom does a terrific job, and now he's giving people an opportunity to see or perform in a great piece of live theater," she said.
The community obviously recognized the magnitude of the opportunity, Sankey said, with 290 people auditioning for 104 parts, an all-time high. But having to reject one in three high-caliber hopefuls was difficult, he said.
The play's heavy themes about pockets of revolution in 19th-century France were a challenge for the actors, but Sankey said they have risen to the occasion.
"I put a lot of thought into choosing a play — considering its redeeming qualities, whether it will challenge the cast, and how we can put our own spin on it," he said.
He works with Howard County Summer Theatre on top of teaching calculus and directing two or three high school productions at Mount Hebron every year. He's taught at the Ellicott City school since 1980 and began directing there a year later.
Sankey often is asked about the dichotomy of his two pursuits, and he replies that passion and a love of order are integral to both.
"I find it all totally appealing, but I'm not going to lie — it takes a lot of time to do all this," he said. "But I get energized by all the wonderful people around me."
The director deflects a lot of credit to other regulars who, like him, have been involved for 30 years, such as choreographer Amanda Tschirgi, who started with Sankey at age 19 and currently teaches at nearby Hollifield Station Elementary School.
Chris Hettenbach, Mount Hebron's music teacher; Kevin George, Glenelg High's orchestra teacher; and Laural Clark, costumer and Wilde Lake Middle School teacher, also lend strong support and continuity, he said, as does Joe Blasko, a systems engineer who builds sets.
Lauren Stetson, a 2004 Mount Hebron graduate and professional freelance lighting director for the Boston Ballet and other New England outlets, has returned this summer to volunteer her time and talent.
"Everybody's just so compassionate and giving," Sankey said. "They know what they're supposed to do and they do it."
But things hadn't always run so smoothly for the theater, which hit some bumps early on.
Several years after presenting its first show, "Guys and Dolls," in 1975, the theater board met to discuss dissolving.
Performances by the all-volunteer company, which was founded by two moms who wanted to a summer acting outlet for their college-age kids, were poorly attended. Don McBee, who had followed in local directing legend Mo Dutterer's footsteps, had died after the 1983 production and the group was floundering.
But shutting down was not in board members' hearts, so in 1984 they asked Sankey, who had been playing piano for HCST for a year, if he'd take the helm. He agreed, on one condition: He wanted to direct "The Sound of Music," his all-time favorite show.
The board balked. They weren't keen on using child actors, which casting for the show's von Trapp family would require, and negotiations seemed to be at an impasse.
But the board eventually agreed to Sankey's request. They told him they would "see how it goes."
"Well, the production was very, very successful," Sankey said. Howard County Summer Theatre had found its niche, and Sankey had found a decades-long summer job he still adores.
As the group marks its 40th season this summer, that focus on family-friendly, quality productions at a reasonable price is still in force.
"Even if [the play we're doing] has an edgier theme, we stay true to the story but don't emphasize the raunchy parts," Sankey said.
Barbara Bogart, who began attending HCST productions in the early 1980s when her college-age daughter was acting in plays, made the 4-foot-by-7-foot rustic flag for "Les Miserables" and remains a steadfast patron because "it's such a family-oriented experience," she said.
"Tom had so many people try out this year, and he wants everyone to be involved, but the stage can only hold so many. The choreographer and the costume designer were saying, 'Hold it, hold it,' " she said with a laugh.
Despite the cost of putting on a play every summer — most of the expense lies in renting the Mount Hebron auditorium and paying for air conditioning, which they turn off for rehearsals — Howard County Summer Theatre has been able to donate more than $100,000 over the years to various nonprofit organizations.
This year half of the play's net proceeds will benefit the American Heart Association in memory of Stephen Namie, "a dear friend of HCST" who died suddenly of a heart attack last fall at age 43, Sankey said. The other half will go, as it does every year, to Prepare for Success, which collects backpacks and school supplies for needy county students.
Sankey, 61, says he has no plans to retire — from teaching or directing.
"I can't imagine not teaching math to kids," he said of his 39 years in the field. And he has no thought of leaving Howard County Summer Theatre. He credits his lengthy run to his wife, Mary Ann, a chemistry teacher at Mount Hebron, and her wholehearted support of his directing efforts.
"Everybody takes the work very seriously," he said. "But we're not really a theater group — we're a summer family."
Performances of "Les Miserables" are scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday and July 9-12, and at 2 p.m. July 6 at Mount Hebron High School, 9440 Old Frederick Road. Tickets are $17 for adults and $13 for seniors and kids under 12. They can be purchased at ticketleap.com or at Music and Arts in Chatham Station shopping center. Tickets will also be sold at the door as long as seats are available.