Between planning three events for next week-end and directing rehearsals for the organization’s first production of the season, the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre’s executive director hasn’t had a lot of time to reflect on what it means to “turn 30.”
But that’s the anniversary ECCT is celebrating this season — with Wayne Marek at the helm since it started in 1988.
“You don’t realize it has been 30 years,” he said. “Because it’s busy it just kind of flies by —it feels like really not that long ago it was our 25th anniversary.”
Yet, decorations around the office are set to mark three decades when the season opens this weekend.
Though Marek isn’t one for a fancy celebration, he is grateful to have been a part of the community for so long.
Elements of success
He remembers coming together with a core group of people all those years ago to bring ECCT to life. He said watching it evolve from three shows a season back then to around 15 shows now, plus adding new events, has been humbling.
Many of those people are still around, such as costume designer Anne Behrens, who has worked with ECCT for 29 years, and current and former board of director members like Steve Turek, who also came on board 30 years ago.
Turek credits the children’s theater’s success to “the people” — those behind the scenes, on the stage and in the crowds for all of those many years.
“They are a family all working together to produce the best product possible,” he said.
Turek himself has played piano, directed, designed sets, built props, presided as president of the board and performed in “many, many roles” for ECCT.
In addition to those behind the scenes, Marek said he is always honored to see people who were involved with ECCT as kids and teenagers return as adults to bring their families to watch shows.
He referenced one woman who now lives in the Twin Cities. As a teenager, Marek said she was “heavily involved” with the organization, acting and as a member of the board. After going to college and starting a family, she now returns with her husband, kids and grandparents each year to see an ECCT show.
Others are involved in many ways as well, he said, from ECCT’s consistent core of donors and season ticket holders to the familiar faces he sees at events year after year.
“You have to assume they wouldn’t come back if they didn’t have a good experience or if they didn’t believe it was a worthwhile organization to volunteer their time or donate money to,” Marek said. “It’s certainly fun to see people reconnect with us after maybe taking a break to do college, start a family. It’s always neat to see them come back around.”
Not wanting to do a large gala event to mark the occasion, Marek said he and his staff instead planned a weekend full of activities.
Those begin Friday and should appeal to everyone from their youngest audience member to a long-time ECCT theatergoer.
The celebrations kick off at 7 p.m. Friday with Dancing with the Eau Claire Stars, a fundraising event that also happens to be celebrating an anniversary this year. The 10th annual event will feature Eau Claire Stars All-Stars, meaning celebrity dancers who are returning from previous seasons.
“Most dancers are grand champions, fan favorites or a first-place winner from their original season,” Marek said. “It is a lot of winners and a lot of very competitive people all in one season.”
Festivities will continue from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday with “Be Our Guest,” a family-oriented open house that he said will feature songs from ECCT’s upcoming shows, a magician and activity stations focused on shows ECCT is doing this season — such as square dancing with Pa and Laura Ingalls Wilder, storytime with Belle and decorating pink cookies in honor of “Pinkalicious,” the organization’s first production that will run the last weekend of September.
Finally, the weekend will close at 6:30 p.m. Saturday with Drag Queens and Dessert, a fundraiser that Marek said was started last year and saw tremendous success.
“That’s just a fun night out for maybe a different crowd,” Marek said. “We’re hoping to hit everybody in our audience within those events.”
While Dancing with the Eau Claire Stars All-Stars will be at UW-Eau Claire’s Zorn Arena, 121 Garfield Ave., the other two events take place at The Oxford, 1814 Oxford Ave.
ECCT has seen a lot of changes in 30 years, going from all kid-friendly shows to being a place for “theater for all ages,” as its tagline goes. Marek said that distinction was made to not only attract more adult performers but also to appeal to a wide range of audience members.
He thinks that transition has worked well, leading to fun new events like Drag Queens and Dessert, while ECCT continues to provide theater opportunities to children and adults.
As Marek looked toward the future of ECCT, he paused to take a deep breath.
“When people start a group like this, I don’t know if they have an end game or expiration date,” he said. “You just assume you’re going to keep going until ... I’m not sure what the ‘until’ is.”
It happens the 30th season of the organization also is the first season they are performing shows at the new Pablo Center at the Confluence in downtown Eau Claire, having done the rest of their seasons both at The Oxford and the former State Theatre downtown.
ECCT also is undergoing a new ticketing site and website redesign, so 30 is looking quite new.
While those changes are exciting, Marek said it’s also keeping them from looking too far into the future at this point, especially because there is so much unknown about the Pablo Center’s RCU Stage — where they will be doing a number of productions this year.
“There’s a lot of new going on this season, so we kind of need to settle in and see how that affects our bottom line, ticket sales and audience reaction,” he said. “It’s a real large learning curve for us before we can think much past next summer.”
With a new stage comes new challenges — how to fill a larger space and what size cast works best, among others.
Though they are keeping the same number of productions this season, Marek said they trimmed the number of performances of each show to reduce rental costs.
It’s challenging but exciting, and Marek said he looks forward to meeting those needs and adjusting.
No matter what, though, ECCT’s mission has not changed. Marek said many people think local theater is important for the actors involved, but what’s kept him — and, he thinks, many others — around is really the impact they have on the community, especially its kids.
Between the school matinee performances ECCT puts on each year and the amount of child actors involved in the shows, he said he’s heard from countless parents and kids themselves about how ECCT helped children learn to be comfortable with “putting themselves out there.”
“Most people think it’s because it gives people a creative outlet, and that is certainly true,” Marek said. “But definitely over 30 years we’ve seen the real reason for it is the comments we get from parents and kids themselves, sometimes after the fact, about what it did and meant for them. That’s probably the bigger reason for us to exist — for the kids we interact with.”
So until they stop providing those experiences, Marek plans to keep going.
Contact reporter: 715-833-9214, email@example.com, @KatherineMacek on Twitter
Eau Claire Children’s Theatre 30th season opening weekend festivities:
• 10th anniversary Dancing with the Eau Claire Stars All-Stars: 7 p.m. Friday at UW-Eau Claire’s Zorn Arena, 121 Garfield Ave. $30.
• “Be Our Guest” 30th anniversary open house: 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at The Oxford, 1814 Oxford Ave. Free.
• Second annual Drag Queens and Dessert, doors at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at The Oxford. $20.
More information about each event and tickets are available at ecct.org or by calling 715-839-8877.