Much has changed in the world since 1959, when the Children's Theatre of Annapolis produced its first play in a local recreation center. But as the theater gears up to celebrate its 40th anniversary, one thing has stayed the same -- the kids who perform and work behind the scenes most times come away with memories that last a lifetime.
"I came here and I could be anything I wanted to be," said 17-year-old Kathleen Scott of Millersville, who has worked in the theater since she was 12 and stars in its current production of "The King and I." "I used to be really shy."
Volunteers at the theater are hoping similar fond memories will effect a homecoming, bringing former actors and crew members who were inspired by the theater back for a series of anniversary celebrations, including the current play and a formal ball this spring.
"It is such a wonderful sense of family and belonging," said Pat Roberts, a member of the theater's anniversary committee. "We think they'll all want to come home again."
Started by Jane Young Davis, a professional pianist and playwright, the children's theater has served as a launching pad for the careers of thousands of child actors who auditioned and performed there through the years. Davis said the experience of working with other children in a structured, competitive environment offered great opportunities for the actors.
"We weren't out to make an Ethel Barrymore or a Shirley Temple, but we were there to make the children's lives better and to teach them responsibility and respect," said Davis, who stayed active in theater productions until about 10 years ago. "I think it's worked pretty well."
Though the lessons are generally the same, plenty of other things have changed since Davis' early days at the theater. The coffee cans that used to hold up stage lights have been replaced by high-technology lighting equipment, and sets that used to be borrowed are now created by children at the theater's new rehearsal and set-making facility in Cape St. Claire.
Even with early help from the Junior League of Baltimore, which supported the nonprofit theater for four years, and the Colonial Players of Annapolis, the first years were a struggle.
"This was really a baby project, and it just took off like wildfire," Davis said. "After that first summer, everybody wanted to go on. I realized we needed help. It took money and time and especially volunteers and paper and paint."
Bob Rude began volunteering at the theater in 1978 and directed his most recent play, "Pinocchio," there last year. For the elementary school teacher who retired two years ago, it was a way to inspire confidence in children like Scott.
"Some kids, it just completely changes their personalities," Rude said. "They come in quiet and reserved, and the plays just bring out their confidence."
Rude said the biggest change he has seen during his tenure was the moving of performances from elementary schools to Anne Arundel Community College.
"The big thing now is working in a real theater-type setting," Rude said. "Before, everything we had, we had to do ourselves. But the heart of it is still there. We have a lot of volunteers. That's the main thing that keeps us going."
Director Mianna Jopp is one of those volunteers. She got involved at the theater in 1982 when her daughter auditioned there. Although her daughter is grown, Jopp continues to direct plays. She said she was especially excited to direct "The King and I" because it is the 40th anniversary play.
"I was very pleased and proud to be able to direct this show," Jopp said. "We have a lot of interest" from theater veterans, she said.
Organizers said the anniversary celebrations will reflect the importance of former actors and volunteers like Jopp.
"Every kid needs to find their niche in life," said Lisa Boss, a member of the anniversary committee. "We want to celebrate those people who helped to make it a great experience for these kids, as well as those who performed."
The anniversary play, held this weekend and next at Pascal Center for Performing Arts at Anne Arundel Community College, features actors 8 through 18. Tickets for the two-hour musical are $8 and are available by calling the children's theater information line at 410-757-2281. Show times are 2 p.m. today, March 25 and 26, and 7 p.m. March 24 and 25.
Theater organizers are also planning a ball at the London Town Publik House in Edgewater on April 8. The $40 dinner and dance will be open to alumni and current members and will feature a display of costumes and other memorabilia from the theater's history.
On June 11, the group will hold its final anniversary event, a family day at the theater's facility in Cape St. Claire.
Visitors can see the rehearsal hall and set construction area. Afterward, members are invited to the group's annual meeting.