Call it a dream fulfilled for Lorra Brannen.
“When I went off to college, my goal was to eventually own my own children’s theater, and this is pretty darn close to what I imagined,” she said. “I get to work with young people, and I just feel that when you can expose young people to the fine arts, it’s a win-win situation.”
She and co-director Nicole Tafe are celebrating the 10th year of the Abbey Players, a community theater group for students in seventh through 12th grades based at St. Benedict the Abbot Church in Peters Township.
The group wraps up the anniversary season with “Children of Eden JR.,” scheduled for 7:30 p.m. June 14 and 15 at 7:30 p.m. in the church’s Pope Benedict Center.
“I’ve been wanting to do this show since Abbey Players started, but they didn’t have a ‘junior’ version,” Tafe said about the Stephen Schwartz-composed musical – book by John Caird – based on the biblical Book of Genesis.
The condensed version, as approved by Schwartz, since has been released, and Tafe is excited about the Abbey Players’ opportunity.
“It definitely is the right time,” she said. “These voices are quite incredible for their age.”
“Children of Eden Jr.” also will feature a chorus of children in first through sixth grades, adding to a cast that totals about 45 members. The production’s student director is Landry Oliver, who is wrapping up his junior year at Peters Township High School.
Brannen and Tafe, who has a master’s degree in opera performance, met while working with Peters Township Middle School students on a production there.
“We bonded immediately, because we’re just kind of the same soul when it comes to theater,” Tafe said. “We love it so much, very passionate about it.”
They approached the St. Benedict leadership about the church hosting a theater group, and the pastor at the time, the Rev. Sam Esposito, was all for it. In fact, he and member of the clergy, the Rev. Michael Ruffalo, were part of the cast of the Abbey Players’ first production, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
“We started off doing just one performance, and over the years we’ve expanded,” Brannen said.
The group has developed a relationship with Peters Township Parks and Recreation Department, and is scheduled to perform “The Rainbow Fish Musical” Sept. 8 as part of the Summer Concerts and Events series at the Peterswood Park Amphitheater.
“Being that we have other opportunities to perform for the community, that’s one of the reasons why we’re succeeding,” Brannen said. “It’s not just one and done.”
While providing a creative outlet for young people, the group also gives them an opportunity to practice philanthropy, with money raised going to Relay for Life and other charities.
“What’s also interesting about our group is that we do not have the opportunity to rehearse every day,” Tafe said. “We rehearse Sundays only until show week, which means a full-fledged musical in a very short amount of time.
“So it really asks the kids to step up,” she added. “It can be a stressful experience, but it’s a rewarding experience, because it really teaches them time management and performance management.”
Many of the group’s alumni have gone on to study theater in higher education, and some are succeeding professionally. And some return to lend a hand to Abbey Players productions.
“People are always stepping up to the bat to help us,” Brannen said, including members of her and Tafe’s families, and especially the parents of performers.
During its first decade, the group has grown substantially and always attracts a good amount of young people from Peters Township and other nearby communities.
“A lot of it has to do with word of mouth, and the kids having a good time and getting their friends to do it. I think we’ve grown, too, as directors, as friends,” Tafe said about her relationship with Brannen. “Everything just kind of gets better along the way, and I think the kids see that.”