Aug. 26--Fresh out of college, Wayne Marek, director of the Eau Claire Children's Theatre, was busy applying to graduate programs and thinking of the direction of his career.
Waiting for responses, and with university performances and directing opportunities over, Marek had dabbled in directing theater opportunities throughout the city of Eau Claire. From there the idea snowballed, and next month the Eau Claire Children's Theatre is celebrating its 25th anniversary with Marek along for the entire ride.
"It has grown. There are always new shows and new people, and that keeps it fresh and exciting," Marek said.
The theater's first show, "Scrooge," was one of three shows in its first year. In 1993 the theater expanded to five shows a year, and in 1994 it physically expanded and began leasing an office on Barstow Street.
For the 10-year anniversary, in 1998, the ECCT expanded to 10 shows and then bought a structure on Oxford Avenue. In 2009, The Oxford, the ECCT's own performance space, was built. Now, the ECCT is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Beginning as a small community production, the ECCT has transformed to a 20-show-per-year outlet for the arts.
Steve Turek played Tom Jenkins in the very first "Scrooge" performance with the ECCT. Over the last 25 years, the former teacher for the Elk Mound school district has acted, directed and assisted with theater in the area, including the ECCT. He said that, through the years, the theater has continued to give opportunities to Chippewa Valley residents, young and old, to express themselves in a safe space while producing quality entertainment.
"The technical standards are up there, from costumes to the set to the sound," Turek said. "It's just a quality production, and it's the friendships that you make onstage and off."
Katherine Rapacz, 24, was born and raised in Eau Claire. She first auditioned for the 1998 production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" after encouragement from her parents and was immediately hooked on theater.
"When I was younger it was something to do and something fun, but as I got older it became a process," Rapacz said. "A musical outlet. More of a craft rather than just for fun."
Rapacz estimated she has at least 24 shows in her 15 years of acting with the ECCT. Her involvement with the theater inspired her to continue her passion to college, where she graduated from Mankato State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theater. She said her involvement with the theater has assisted her with acting skills but also with life skills.
Marek said being involved in theater as a child can be just as beneficial as joining a sports team because kids learn teamwork, punctuality and hard work in a fun, creative setting.
"We hear from the parents about the experience of their child; it always comes back to it increases self-confidence," Marek said. "We've been told their child can get up in front of their class and do a speech with no big deal, compared to other kids their age."
Now returning to Eau Claire, Rapacz is teaching these lessons to kids as the instructor of acting classes she took as a kid.
Turek said watching the young actors and actresses grow up and have their children act for the ECCT has been a special part of reaching 25 years.
The 25th anniversary celebration, which takes place at The Oxford on Sept. 21, will feature returning cast members from shows throughout the years.
"It's just fun to see all these people that are coming back," Turek said. "Just seeing how far some of these people have gone."
Turek will be reconvening with the casts of "Annie," for which he has played Daddy Warbucks, and see his orphans from years before.
Rapacz said she will be attending the celebration and hopes for a big turnout of people who have been involved from throughout the years.
"It's something that was a part of your life regardless if you were involved in one show or 20," Rapacz said.
Marek said the most repeated shows -- and the most repeats in 25 years is only three times -- include "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Annie," "Peter Pan" and "Grease." Those shows incorporate all ages, big songs, fun choreography and a lot of fun.
The highest attended shows include classics such as "The Sound of Music" but also pop-culture nods like "High School Musical." Marek said the theater even scheduled a second round of "High School Musical" because the performance was such a hit.
The 25-year mark isn't slowing down the theater at all. Marek said they are taking a break from construction projects, but the community can continue to expect a variety of shows -- musicals, comedy, edgier dramas -- and a lot of enthusiasm for Eau Claire theater.
"There is more to be done," Marek said. "There is more we can do."
Landry can be reached at 715-833-9203, 800-236-7077 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c)2013 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)
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