Reviving youth theater in the Hilltop

By Dedra Cordle
Staff Writer

Messenger photo by Dedra Cordle
Seated on the far right in the front row is Charles Easley, a 15-year-old freshman at Bishop Ready High School who is trying to revive youth theater in the Hilltop. On the weekends of March 22 and March 29, Easley will be presenting his major directorial debut of the junior version of “The Wizard of Oz” at the Run the Race Center, located at 880 S. Wayne Ave. The cast, shown here, will be comprised of children and adults from the westside, most of whom are also making their own theatrical debuts.

Avery Bassham was ready to throw down.

After an exchange of angry words with Caroline Mocharski, the 11-year-old spitfire had to be held back as she took steps toward her nemesis and then wagged her fingers in the air when her momentum was stopped.

Suddenly, the pair of hands that had grabbed Bassham loosened and went to cover the face of Steve Polk who was trying to muffle the sound of his laughter. It was a poor effort as more people who stood there watching joined in.

“We’re trying to get into our roles here,” Bassham said with a big grin. “She threatened my dog. I have to do something.”

“Save some for the actual show,” the 14-year-old Mocharski jokingly volleyed back.
Off the stage and seated in the director’s chair was Charles Easley whose expression quickly changed from shock to joy.

“I was not expecting that level of intensity right now at this rehearsal,” said the 15-year-old, “but I love it. Keep doing that. More, more!”

Having finally bottled his laughter, Polk watched the interaction between the three youths as they once again went over the scene where Bassham, who is playing Dorothy Gale in the upcoming junior version of “The Wizard of Oz” confronts Mocharski, who is playing Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West. He couldn’t help but be overcome with the sense of hope.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen something like this on this end of the westside,” he said. “I want this to be the beginning of something special for our kids.”

It was the early 1980s when Polk, a native of Upper Arlington, began working with local schools and organizations to put on theatrical productions primarily starring elementary, middle and high school aged children.

“There was opportunity for it then,” he said. “There was a lot of promise and even funding.”

Having a deep appreciation for the arts, Polk said he was heartbroken when the desire to establish youth theaters and clubs throughout the community was seemingly put aside.

As the decades passed, a young boy sat in front of the television in his home on the westside, singing along to the musicals he was watching. With his interest sparked, he set out to put his burgeoning talents on the stage.

“I wanted to be seen and heard,” said Easley, a freshman at Bishop Ready High School. “I wanted to sing and act and make people happy.”

At the age of 9, Easley made his stage debut in a Christmas production at the Run the Race Center, a youth-oriented organization that offers sports, tutoring and other recreational activities for children and young adults on the westside. The following year, he began writing his own plays.

“He always loved to help us put on small plays and shows,” said Rachel Muha, the center’s founder.

With several performances under his belt, some with the Columbus Children’s Theatre and CATCO is Kids, Easley set out to start his own theatre company last year.

“I wanted kids on the westside to have that opportunity to explore the arts,” he said.

In the summer, he pitched the idea to Muha, who encouraged him to run with the idea.

Shortly thereafter, Muha-Easley Productions was established. The first order of business for Easley was to purchase the rights for a junior edition musical. He quickly realized the ones he wanted were out of their budget.

“I’ve had to learn budgeting as a director so this has been a new experience,” he said.

Eventually, they settled on “The Wizard of Oz” and began casting and rehearsing in October. But things did not go smoothly for the production or for Easley, who was going to make his first major directorial debut.

“It was one disaster after another,” he said.

At the beginning of the year, the actress who was set to play Dorothy had to drop out, as did the actress who was slated to play multiple adult roles. The stage manager had knee surgery and could not put pressure on her knees for months and then his family suffered a personal loss with the death of his grandmother. Still, Easley refused to give up.

“We just went back to work,” he said.

In the following weeks, Easley found his Dorothy in Bassham, a resident of the westside who has acted in several plays with the Westgate Theatre Co. and Carriage Place Players, while Mocharski’s mother Andi offered to play a majority of the female adult roles.

“I’m making my acting debut,” said Andi. “I usually only get to be the mom while my kids are up there so this is exciting for me.”

Each weekend for the past few weeks, this cast and crew have been honing their skills, growing ever more excited for the opening weekend. There are, however, still things to be ironed out.

“We’re still struggling with the effects and our Toto does her own thing sometimes,” said Easley, referring to Mimi, the canine star whose human Ginger West is allowing her to debut her talents.

But he has faith that everything will work out come opening weekend.

“This cast can do it,” he said about the 15-strong cast of children and adults, most of whom are newcomers. “They have proved themselves to me. I was expecting a train wreck at first, but now I have confidence in them. I think we’re gonna pull it off.”

After the productions are held later this month, Easley said they will brainstorm ways to grow the company.

“I have a lot of plans,” he said.

Muha even hinted they may start their own acting classes at the center.

“It’s a possibility,” she said.

But until then, those at the center are looking forward to what they hope is the start of a youth theatre revival on the westside.

“The Wizard of Oz” junior edition will be presented on March 22 at 7 p.m., March 23 at 6 p.m., March 24 at 3 p.m.; and March 29 at 7 p.m., March 30 at 6 p.m. and March 31 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $5 and there will be a dinner held after the March 24 and 31 shows for an additional $5. The one-hour play will take place at the Run the Race Center, located at 880 S. Wayne Ave. in Columbus.

For more information, contact the center at 614-276-2171.

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