It was something like out of one of those old movies.
Judy Garland or Mickey Rooney would shout, “Hey, there’s a barn! Let’s put on a show!”
That’s almost exactly what happened back in 1982 when Texas transplant Martha Murphy began a theater school for children in Langley.
In the beginning, classes were held in Murphy’s living room, church basements and the library, and even on the stage above the Dog House Tavern on First Street.
“My vision was to give local kids a creative outlet to express themselves through group activities including theater games, acting and singing, something
I had done all my life growing up in a big family in Dallas,” Murphy recalled.
“I wanted to help children grow into self-confident, self-expressive young people who would find empowerment through their theatrical experiences.”
Whidbey Children’s Theater will celebrate its first 30 years with an anniversary benefit “Standing Ovations,” a gala dinner and auction that starts at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, March 3 at Fireseed Catering and Event Gardens.
Murphy’s vision took on a life of its own and the community began to take notice and a larger space was needed.
Eventually the classes, showcases and the annual haunted house moved to the Third Street Barn, which Murphy purchased with her husband in 1989, while the Clyde Theatre became the favorite venue for the larger productions.
In 2004, Whidbey Children’s Theater was organized as a nonprofit thanks to a group of active parents led by Peggy Juve who founded the first WCT board of directors and became its first president. Soon after, the theater moved into its current home in the Porter Building at 222 Anthes Ave.
Through the years, WCT has presented countless productions which have given thousands of children the opportunity to experience the collaborative process of theater during the school year and through the summers.
Matt Bell is all grown up now, but still remembers his initiation into the WCT family.
In ninth grade he was in “Oklahoma,” which was performed at the Clyde, and then it was on to “The Music Man” when he was a sophomore. The new stage, later named the Martha Murphy Mainstage, was just being built that year.
“That was where SlapHappy happened,” Bell recalled, referring to the a cappella singing group he created with three other WCT boys.
“It was a space where we all felt safe to be ourselves; where I felt like I belonged, which, with moving from Waldorf to public school, was really what I needed,” Bell added.
Shows that are musical, dramatic, funny, serious, historical, seasonal, original and topical all have been produced on the tiny stage and on a tight budget. The company survives almost entirely on donations, volunteerism and sponsorship. However, no child has ever been turned away from the magic of making theater at WCT for lack of funds, and the scholarship program is one the company is proud to call a success.
In 2007, Whidbey Children’s Theater was the recipient of a National Youth Theatre Youth Award and its current artistic director, Susannah Rose Woods, received a grant to write an original work in 2011. Woods wrote, directed and produced the children’s musical, “Inside Frampton and Outside the World,” and is currently in rehearsals for another new work she wrote titled “Wingspan.”
Woods said, for her, there isn’t anything quite like seeing a child being transformed by the experience of theater.
“I love when children come to WCT for the first time,” she said.
“There is a kind of awe and a bit of fear and wondering if they’ll fit in. Within one hour of being with the other ‘seasoned’ theater children, all shyness is gone, they are laughing, fearless, willing to get up and sing in front of everyone. It truly is magical,” she added.
Woods said she sees the positive effects of the rehearsal process on children. They become supportive of each other, practice discipline and respect, and cheer each other on.
“By performance time, everyone is absolutely part of the same experience,” Woods said.
“Everyone helps backstage. There are hugs and cheers and squeals and tears after the performance. There really isn’t anything like it. It is transformational and magical all at the same time; and why I do it,” she said.
Managing director Shelley Marsanyi said she is impressed with the longevity of the theater and the dedication of its community.
“One thing I find amazing is that Martha usually has at least one second generation student in any of her classes and/or production she does,” Marsanyi said of Murphy, who is now a freelance acting teacher and director at WCT.
Marsanyi is also impressed by the alumni who keep coming back to the little theater to give back, such as the members of SlapHappy, who perform a benefit concert annually.
“Being back on Whidbey, I feel like I wanted to give back however I can, because I became comfortable being me at WCT,” Bell said.
“It was nice to be a part of something, and that follows me wherever I go.”
Tickets for the anniversary benefit auction cost $75 per person and reservations are required. For more information or to make a reservation, call 221-8707.
Fireseed Catering is located at 6051 Coles Road in Langley.