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Published: Thursday, 8/26/2004

Toledo: Children's Theatre Workshop shines spotlight on 50 years

BY LINDSEY MERGENER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
At a Children's Theatre Workshop rehearsal, Pat Tansey, left, theater president, chats with actress Amanda Witkowski. Theater officials say it is the oldest operating children's troupe. At a Children's Theatre Workshop rehearsal, Pat Tansey, left, theater president, chats with actress Amanda Witkowski. Theater officials say it is the oldest operating children's troupe.
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It takes a special occasion to make thespians trade the spotlight for candlelight, but members of a local theater group plan to do just that when they celebrate the organization's 50th anniversary.

On Saturday, supporters of the Children's Theatre Workshop - a Toledo-based nonprofit organization that claims to be the nation's oldest continually operating theater group for children, by children - will gather at the group's home, the Chapel Theatre of the Collingwood Arts Center.

During the school year, 5 to 14-year-old children in the Main Company and 13 to 18-year-olds in the Teen Company assemble there and in rooms upstairs for rehearsals, performances, and Saturday classes.

The 100-seat theater that used to be a convent chapel, still smells like incense. Various donated items, including pianos and an oven; - even a confessional and a sarcophagus - are scattered around.

Church pews have been pushed to the side of the room; the audience won't need to sit on them anymore because donated seats from the closed Franklin Mall 6 cinemas were recently installed.

To the students, it feels like home. Sitting in a room upstairs, three young veterans of the group flipped through old programs and reminisced about their favorite shows.

They are attractive teens with sparkling eyes and clear voices. They are not, on the other hand, ingenues hoping to become the next Lindsay Lohan, the actress in the film Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. And that suits the group just fine.

"We try to avoid having one person constantly as the lead [role]," said president Pat Tansey, 67, who manages the facility and oversees the technical aspects of the productions.

At least one alumnus has made it big - officials said actor Rob Lowe participated in the program as a young man. But the teenagers here don't necessarily intend to be actors. Instead, they speak with maturity and poise about the friendships they've made in the group. That's why most of them keep coming back, they said.

"I love theater, and I love being on stage, but I think [I stay involved] mostly because I love the people," said Amanda Witkowski, 15.

Her friend and fellow thespian Haley Matuszynski, 14, agreed.

"Coming here is like a second family," she said, adding that her time with the group has been "a great learning experience."

The teens spend their Saturdays here, except for breaks for Christmas and summer, and during the school year it's not unusual for them to rehearse four or five days a week. But they don't seem to mind. Between the two companies, the group puts on five shows a year.

Amanda said she would love to be on Broadway some day, but she admits it isn't very likely. Even so, she has learned far more than articulation and memorization.

The teens learn responsibility and teamwork, and they are charged with running their own lights, props, and sound - and overseeing the work of their younger counterparts in the Main Company, which performs two shows a year for school field trips and the public in the Lois M. Nelson Theatre at the arts center.

"That's what's great about here," Amanda said. "Even if you don't grow up to be rich and famous, it teaches you so many other important things."

And it makes for a good time, they said.

"It's just a fun experience all around," said Connor Briggs, 15, who has been with the group for about eight years.

Mr. Tansey thinks so, too. The Toledo native has been with the group for 49 years. The best part of the volunteering with the group, he said, is the children. He looked like a doting grandfather when he indicated rows of photos on the wall.

A touch of pride in his voice, Mr. Tansey said the group has never been in debt. With the assistance of volunteers, donors, local foundations and grants, the Toledo City Council, and the Toledo Board of Education, Children's Theatre Workshop manages to stay afloat.

The group works with an operating budget of about $50,000 a year, Mr. Tansey said, some of which comes from tuition and ticket sales. All 16 members of the board of directors are volunteers, he said, and four to six teachers are paid to instruct and direct the productions.

The program began in the Toledo Zoo's Indoor Theatre 50 years ago, after the Junior League of Toledo and the American Association of University Women organized the workshop to providing theater training for area youth. The group is no longer associated with either organization, but the mission has been constant through its history.

During the anniversary party, which is open to the public, students will perform a song-and-dance review at noon and tours of the facility will be available throughout the day. Sign-up sheets for next semester's classes will also be available.



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