KEEP THE CENTER IN YOUR COMMUNITY
“The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Center for Theater Arts has been severe, and is unlike any other challenge in our history. We’ve been fortunate enough to weather the storm thus far, and have successfully and responsibly reopened our doors for reduced-capacity education this fall. However, as we celebrate our 40th year of operation, we’re faced with the grim reality that the future of The Center is very much in jeopardy. Current enrollment capacity restrictions, lack of revenue from live performances, and the loss of tuition from our spring and summer sessions will not allow us to cover our operating costs in the first and second quarter of the new year. With the support of our Board of Directors, we’ve launched an aggressive fundraising campaign with a goal of reaching $150,000 by December 31. These funds are vital in ensuring that we have the resources needed to continue in our mission of providing the highest-quality performing arts to all students, including those with special needs, opportunities to improve their self-image and self-confidence through artistic expression. We’re encouraging everyone to go to our website, centerfortheaterarts.org, and learn more about how you can help to keep The Center in your community.” —BILLY HARTUNG
ith programs for all ages from preschool to high school, classes in voice, acting and several styles of dance—including classes for students with special needs, who attend tuition-free on Friday evenings—the Center for Theater Arts (CTA) provided 39 years’ worth of great memories for students, and launched a few professional careers.
Then 2020 happened.
Along with schools and businesses throughout Pennsylvania and most of the country, CTA shut down in mid-March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My initial reaction was, ‘This will last a week,’” recalls Birch Avenue resident Billy Hartung, CTA’s executive director and a former Broadway and Hollywood performer.
But as weeks passed and winter turned to spring, it became clear that the center would remain closed: no spring classes or middle school musical. Summer loomed, and kids were going into their fourth month of isolation. Hartung, a father of six, was well aware of this. Would a CTA summer session even be possible?
“There’s a lot that’s being taken from the kids,” Hartung notes.
“We were looking at dire circumstances,” says board member and local attorney Andy Reinhart, whose three daughters have attended center classes. “Billy came to us and said, ‘Can we open?’” Board members, including medical professionals and lawyers, reviewed current guidelines, and offered guidance.
With their input, Hartung says he “re-imagined” the center’s space, with safety the priority. Plexiglas walls were wheeled in. Six-foot squares were marked off in the studios. Entrance and exit paths were re-configured.
Hartung brought kids back in June for Car-baret, a drive-in revue of favorite Broadway songs, staged in the parking lot. Then a total of 85 students, age 8 to 16, participated in two summer camp sessions, which culminated in a filmed and edited production of Godspell and another show, Summer Stock. Families received a link to the final product.
“I am amazed at what he was able to pull off,” Reinhart says.
“Letting the kids participate in the solution seems to be kind of magical,” says Hartung. “I know that if I can protect the place, the kids will do things that are incredible.”
Reinhart agrees. “Kids are really free to experiment with what they love. It’s important for them that we keep this going.”
The center re-opened for the school year in September, and students are flourishing, despite the masks and the masking tape. An anniversary show, Magic Behind the Masks, is planned, to be filmed and produced like a movie: four or five casts of 15 students each, singing selections from the center’s past musicals. There’s a 40th season after all.
But as Hartung acknowledges, “We are having our struggles.” Like many nonprofits and small businesses, challenges include strict limits on occupancy, which has drastically reduced enrollment. In addition, it’s likely that the Center’s three major fundraisers—the annual gala, along with the high school and all school musicals—will be canceled or modified, further impacting the balance sheet.
Longtime voice teacher Tina Capecci, who retired a few years ago after 35 years, was among those who helped create the center back in 1981, along with Judy Gelman, Carol Ponzio and Marian Bollman.
“It was Judy’s idea,” Capecci recalls. Gelman had the dance background, while Bollman and Capecci were skilled singers. Ponzio had been an organist at St. Bernard’s Church, where Capecci was a cantor.
“I thought ‘How great, kids love to dress up.’ At first it was just our children and their friends,” Capecci recalls. “Then it was like a wildfire. I believe we were the first (performing arts school) in the area.”
The center was a nonprofit organization from the beginning and remains so. Another constant: No student is turned away because of an inability to pay.
Their first classes were held at the Woman’s Club of Mt. Lebanon on Hollycrest Drive. Other temporary venues included Jefferson School and the Mushroom Family Learning Center. The school moved to its current location, above the Mt. Lebanon Boulevard shopping centers, in 1995.
Among Capecci’s students (and occasional overnight guest of her family): Billy Porter, the Grammy/Tony/Emmy winner who was an early CTA student. “Billy didn’t need to be in a voice class,” she says with a laugh.
Hartung also attended, starting in the early 1980s, and as noted, went on to a successful stage and screen career, including an appearance in the movie version of Chicago, and a stint in the original Broadway stage production of Footloose. Other notable CTA alumni include Rema Webb, who appeared in The Lion King on Broadway and Chris Laitta, a well-known presence in Civic Light Opera’s cabaret productions and other local ventures.
The center “is such a positive,” Capecci says. “The kids were charming and delightful. I want to go back. I miss it.”
Sadie Stang’s son, Niko, who has autism, was nonverbal when he first came to CTA at age 8. But “we knew he had speech because he would sing along with Disney songs,” she says. However, when they drove to CTA for his first Friday evening class, Niko declined to get out of the car.
Over his first year, Niko worked his way from “car to lobby to hallway,” Stang says. Three years later, he performed at the center’s yearly gala.
“Unfortunately, the outside world can sometimes let you down,” Stang notes. “But the kids know the center is safe.
“The lobby on Friday nights is just as important as the classes,” she continues. “This is where the parents support each other, get advice and (share) legal information.”
Niko is now 24 and “more verbal each year he participates in the program,” Stang says. Sometimes he’ll help out with unloading trucks or other work at CTA. “Billy wants the (Friday students) to be a part any way they can,” she adds. “Niko says his job is at the center.”
(For now, because of COVID concerns, Friday students must be under 60 years old, but ordinarily there’s no upper age limit.)
“The friends Niko has made, he’s made at the center,” Stang says. “What Billy has done for the community—he doesn’t want the light to shine on him, but I think it needs to, a little bit.”
Cindy Gray, known to CTA parents and students as the helpful lady at the front desk, has been part of the center for 27 years, and currently serves as associate director. When asked what has changed over the years, she reflects instead on what has remained the same: “The child is what matters here and always has. If you take your eye off the child, you lose the direction.”
“For months now, I’ve been embracing the ride,” Hartung says of the travails of 2020. “We’re part of these kids’ lives, and they’re watching us.
“We’re falling forward,” he adds, passionate as always. “It’s a direction that embraces what could be, at a time when hesitation sets the tone.”
DON’T STOP BELIEVIN’
Every institution has its traditions, and the Center for Theater Arts has quite a few, including two yearly musicals, an annual gala, and other showcases for the students’ talent. Most of them have been impacted by the COVID pandemic–either canceled or “re-imagined,” as the Center’s executive director, Billy Hartung, likes to say.
One much-loved tradition that must wait for better times is the annual prom for the Friday night special needs students. Usually held in November, it’s a fundraiser for the program. But it’s also a big blowout for CTA’s families and friends, and for students who may not have the chance to attend more typical proms.
Sadie Stang, whose son Niko attends Friday classes, has long chaired the event. She recalls that parents had held a Day at The Races fundraiser for adults, but when Hartung became executive director in 2008, “he said, ‘If we’re raising money for the kids, why don’t we invite the kids?’”
So the prom was born. Every year has a theme: last year’s was country and western, and one year they had a beach party, complete with a beach ball drop instead of the usual balloon drop that begins the night’s festivities.
“I love getting all dressed up and dancing with my boyfriend!” says Andrea Little, 27, who has attended Friday classes for 10 years. “I love Billy’s band and trying to win the raffle baskets. There’s always so much delicious food, and the balloon drop is so fun. I sometimes get to sing in the microphone and dance in a circle with friends.”
Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church on Gilkeson Road donates the event space and homemade Greek favorites as part of the dinner buffet. A 10-piece band, fronted by Billy as lead singer, plays for free, and partygoers toss money and make requests. (One guest always throws in $200 and asks for Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Sadie says – appropriate, since the musicians include a former member of Daniels’ band.)
Two songs are a prom tradition: Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” and “Don’t Stop Believin’,” originally recorded by Journey. As the band plays, prom-goers gather in a circle, and CTA teachers, armed with microphones, circle the circle, giving students the chance to sing along.
“Those are our theme songs,” Sadie says.
“It’s such a special night, just seeing the happiness of the families,” she adds. “It’s my favorite night of the year.”
As for 2020, going into an uncertain 2021, “we don’t know what to do. Various ideas are being discussed,” Sadie says. “But I’m sad.”