By Kristin Emery

Photos by Celeste Van Kirk

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Washington Community Theater music director Dennis Taylor with choreographer Carleen Vilella during rehearsal at Washington Park.

Summer is around the corner and that means one thing to Patty Thompson: It’s show time! Thompson, a Washington resident, has served as the longtime producer for Washington Community Theater’s summer musicals and this year marks the organization’s golden anniversary with the staging of “Mamma Mia” June 25-30 at Washington Park’s Main Pavilion. Once the final curtain falls, it’s right back to work for Thompson and others.

“The next day, I call the park and make arrangements for the following year,” Thompson says. “As soon as we know what show they’re going to do, I make arrangements to get the royalties. Then it dies down for a while and then we start planning auditions.”

That’s where director Joe Wagner comes in. The Washington resident got involved with WCT back in 1997 and began directing in 2001. WCT does more than just the summer musical, staging several productions each year. Wagner admits taking on a musical is a whole different animal, but he’s able to accomplish it thanks to the support of everyone involved with WCT.

“It’s like when you’re driving a car,” says Wagner, “but your GPS is telling you where to go. You certainly have people helping and that’s the key is having the right people doing all the right jobs. It makes it a lot easier when you have all these other people, talented people doing their job right.”

That includes a musical director, orchestra director, choreographer and many others. Wagner works with Thompson to find someone to do lighting, props, sets, costumes. “You start out with a blank sheet of paper and you think, ‘how am I gonna fill this up’ and then people come forward,” Thompson says. “It’s a great group of people to work with.”

Thompson sounds nostalgic as she remembers how she first got involved back in 1976. “I was in Current Events Club and they announced that community theater was looking for ushers. That was my start.”

She appeared in a few shows onstage. “But then I came to a point where I thought, time to put that to bed and be one of the behind the scenes movers and shakers.”

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Washington Community Theater choreographer Carleen Vilella during rehearsal at Washington Park.

She served as a board member and handled WCT patrons for many, many years. “I just love greeting them at the table and making them feel welcome when they walk into our theater. I’ve had a great experience and people have always been so helpful. With producing, I really kind of feel like I found my niche. I love doing it.”

She credits one of WCT’s longtime members, Dennis Taylor, with guiding her along the way. “He has been so kind to me and has really been a leader,” says Thompson. “If he hadn’t helped me through getting to that point, I would have never been able to do it. But I learned a lot.”

A small group of theater-loving Washingtonians founded WCT back in 1969. That fall, they staged their first play, “Anniversary Waltz.” The summer of 1975 marked WCT’s first ever musical production, “The Music Man.” Through the years, WCT has staged every type of production you could imagine, including popular musicals such as “Fiddler On The Roof,” “Annie,” “Oliver,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and “South Pacific.” In 1976, WCT staged a special production of “Rifles & Roses” to celebrate the country’s bicentennial. From kilt-wearing Scotsmen in “Brigadoon” to farmers and ranchers in “Oklahoma!” and Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” the summer musicals at Washington Park have delighted local theater fans year after year.

“I’ve watched children who were eight, nine years old graduate from high school and saw how community theater helped them along,” Thompson says. “On stage, they learn to interact with adults. So I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of time that I put in.”

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Washington Community Theater members during rehearsal at Washington Park.

WCT’s shows were first staged at Beth Israel Synagogue. Through the years, the Elks Club, First Presbyterian Church and many other venues around Washington have also hosted productions. Of course, WCT’s summer home for musicals since 1975 has been Washington Park’s Main Pavilion. Just in time for the golden anniversary, the venue has gotten a much-needed facelift with a new roof and restrooms, sandblasting, painting and updated lighting. Thompson says WCT’s success is only possible due to the loyal patronage of Washington theatergoers and advertisers and the cooperation of entities such as the park and First Presbyterian Church, which hosts board meetings, auditions and rehearsals. Thompson says, “The Washington community has truly been wonderful and so has the park.”

Summerlea Kliner remembers doing her first show as a member of WCT back in 1996 when she was in high school. “I just really loved singing and theater and doing the musical at my high school,” says the Washington resident. Klinar went to college, got married and moved away but knew she wanted to be part of WCT when she returned home in 2008. Since then, Klinar has served as board president and helped to start WCT Kidz children’s theater three years ago.

“We had been talking about a kids program for many years, but nothing ever forced us to pull the trigger,” Klinar says. “The next meeting, we voted on the show and had auditions set up within two weeks.” This August, WCT Kidz will stage “Dorothy In Wonderland”at The Elks in Washington. “We’ve had 40 kids involved the past two shows,” Klinar says.

Getting families involved has always been a part of WCT and has helped to keep the organization strong after 50 years. “It’s definitely still going strong for us and hopefully with the beginning of the kids theatre, we can start teaching that new generation how important it is and they can grow up through it and carry it on.”

Much of WCT’s longevity can also be attributed to the group’s founding members and a core group that has worked hard on every production for decades.

“They’ve done just about every show,” says Klinar, “and their loyalty and their dedication means too much to the organization.” While the group adds new members each year, some people come and go or do shows occasionally when their schedules allow.

“Its lasting 50 years can be attributed to that small group of people that have just directed and music directed and produced all of these shows,” says Klinar. “They just kind of kept it going in bad times and good. We’re in a good spot now, but there were many years when it kind of operated in the red and it survived because they love doing it. And hopefully we can find a younger generation that is interested in doing that.”

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Washington Community Theater members Jeff Zollers plays the guitar during rehearsal at Washington Park.

This summer’s musical will appeal to all generations with the staging of “Mamma Mia,” a jukebox musical based on the 1970s chart-topping songs from ABBA.

“It’s fun music,” says director Wagner. “What you don’t want to do is drag out storylines. The old musicals, they would be on for three hours. I’ve had a couple of people who were unfamiliar with this music tell me this is really pretty music, the different tempos.”

He says the cast includes 58 members. “It just gives you that time where you have a whole big extended family,” Wagner says. “You don’t always agree on things, but it all works out and you do it again the next year. It’s a community.”

That’s what he credits with giving WCT such longevity. “We have people that are involved who started 50 years ago and then you have people that do maybe one or two shows,” Wagner says. “I think sometimes it helps them get away from life’s craziness for that couple of hours. It’s just a fun thing to do.”

And while producing takes a lot of work, Thompson says it also is a lot of fun. “We welcome everybody,” adds Thompson. “We welcome them with open arms and we want them to stay and become a part of our little neighborhood.”

Columnist

Kristin Emery is a meteorologist at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, an O-R columnist, and writer for Total Health magazine and other publications. Kristin is a Washington native and a graduate of Washington High School and West Virginia University.

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