40 years later, Stewartstown Summer Theatre continues to grow as a program
In the basement of the Stewartstown United Methodist Church, a large stage with props, sets and sound equipment has been a second home for many children since the summer of 1980 — the start of Stewartstown Summer Theatre.
And, for 40 years, Stewartstown Summer Theatre has gone beyond traditional stereotypes and created a faith-based community of kids who spend their summers rehearsing songs and dance routines.
"Churches have a tendency to say 'We can't do this, we can't do that,'" said music pastor and producer David McDowell. "But this is just the polar opposite. It's always, 'How can we make this work?'"
This year, Stewartstown Summer Theatre is presenting "Singin' In The Rain," with a cast of more than 130 children and 25 staff members.
McDowell, who has been producing musicals since the start of Stewartstown Summer Theatre, said the program has evolved to adapt Broadway shows and use the overall themes and messages to convey certain Christian principles and teachings.
For example, one character in the show, Lina Lamont, sings a song called "What's Wrong With Me?"
McDowell said that song is a good theme to talk about with the youth, highlighting the importance of acceptance and loving oneself and erasing negative feelings.
"We don't shove anything down anybody's throats spiritually, but we usually take themes from the shows and apply them," he said. "I think that goes a long way to helping them grow not only performance-wise, but emotionally, intellectually and spiritually."
"Singin' In The Rain" will run from Wednesday, July 31, to Saturday, Aug. 10. For specific show times and ticket prices, visit www.sumctheatre.com. Tickets, which range from $8 to $13, can be purchased online. There are two performances, on Sunday, Aug. 4, and Saturday, Aug. 10, for which attendees can purchase tickets for dessert and a show.
McDowell said this year's production is one that many high schools don't attempt because of difficult technical elements that need to be executed properly, such as rain on the stage and tap dance routines.
Despite these struggles, Stewartstown Summer Theatre has solutions.
Pipes were installed to create the rain, with plastic grates to quickly drain it. Tap dance lessons were held in March and April to help newcomers get comfortable with the dance style.
"We've not been known to back down from a complicated show," McDowell said.
Sam Hyson, the choreographer for "Singin' In The Rain," said her favorite part about working on these productions is seeing each child's growth from the start to the end of the summer.
"I have kids that come in that have never taken a dance class before," Hyson said. "And it's so wonderful seeing their progression."
Stewartstown Summer Theatre plans many months in advance before auditions even start. In December, a musical is chosen.
Then, the production staff has meetings throughout January to discuss its plan for a successful summer.
This year's budget is $42,000, with only $1,000 coming from the Stewartstown United Methodist Church. The rest of the budget comes from previous ticket sales, donations and the pockets of staff members.
"This is not a small thing," said McDowell. "I've never seen another church do something like this."
Ashley Bowers, a student at Kennard-Dale High School who is one of the actors portraying Lina Lamont, said she first joined Stewartstown Summer Theatre when she was 10.
The 15-year-old said she loves returning each year to put on "a great production" with her best friends.
"Theater is just my passion," Bowers said. "It's just a really great experience."
The best part about Stewartstown Summer Theatre, she said, was meeting all different people from a variety of schools around York County.
With roughly 13 different school districts involved in each summer production, McDowell agreed that the best part about the program was the friendships and relationships made.
"When young people come here, they known they're going to be involved in a great performance," McDowell said. "That's what God wanted."
— Reach Tina Locurto at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.