This Sunday, Franklin Park Arts Center will resonate to the music and words written by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein in the popular 1959 musical, “The Sound of Music,” based on the memoir of Maria Von Trapp: “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.”
The cast will give two performances—at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
The production is unusual in two aspects: The First Act performance features a teenage cast of 20, headed by its founder, 16-year-old homeschooled director-producer Kristen Fitzgerald from Waterford, and, secondly, the production will benefit the Tree of Life Ministries in Purcellville.
The student actors come from area public schools, private schools, homeschools and even graduates now headed to college in the fall. At the center of the venture is Kristen Fitzgerald, who turns 17 at the end of the month. There is nothing uncertain about Kristen, who says she has been in love with theater “since I was 8 years old.” With a bubbly and confident personality, she has been the backbone of the production from the start, when she first had the idea to create a teen-based production that would also be a community outreach.
“My first show was the Sound of Music,” Kristen recalled this week, calling it near and dear to her heart. Her inspiration for this show came because “I wanted to give to the community and I wanted to take my love of theater to the next experience—to fuse my love of theater and the need to give back.” Rehearsals began in early summer at the Fitzgeralds’ home near Waterford.
“She asked me in February, ‘Can I do it,’” her mother, Susan Fitzgerald recalled. Her parents idly said “of course,” thinking she meant something in the backyard with a few friends, certainly not the full-scale production Kristen had in mind. “We didn’t realize she was researching it to the nth degree. She left no stone unturned,” her mother said.
Kristen started hand picking the actors, from among those she knew, had performed with or had seen acting. The path was not always smooth, as in having to keep pressing the Rogers and Hammerstein company for rights to the musical.
Nor was it easy working through all the regulations of the county-owned arts center, but the teens were determined.
“They have worked their tails off, I’ve never seen such a committed group of kids,” Kristen’s mother said. And everyone pitched in. A professional graphic artist did a poster to promote the play. Kristen put her life savings of $2,000 into the production, earned from giving voice lessons for two years. An audio-visual professional offered help. And everyone—cast, parents and friends—made sets, props and sold tickets. Her two siblings pitched in. Kristen plays the Mother Abbess, her sister Rachael plays Gretl, and her brother Michael plays the interlude theme on the piano.
Does she regret putting her life savings into the venture? “Really, it was a lot of money,” the teenager acknowledged, but no, she said, adding she feels good that everything left over after covering costs goes to Tree of Life. Area businesses also “have been very kind,” Kristen said.
Kristen followed up on a suggestion by a cast parent that she might look at the Tree of Life as a community partner. The light bulb went off, she said, noting she had family members who benefited from their programs, citing a cousin who received help with a job application, securing the position he wanted.
“They’re so direct and I loved their organization and there are so many facets of their outreach,” Kristen said. She credited Tree of Life COO Wayne Ruckman, with helping with the play’s website and promotional strategy.
The love is reciprocated. President and Chief Executive Paul Smith, a former bank officer, said what was remarkable to him was the group’s initiative: “They came up with the idea by themselves and they ran the whole thing. Marketing, that’s the big thing and they’ve done that,” he said. “They ran with it. We just turn up and demonstrate our appreciation.” Smith said with 12 different ministries, there are plenty of places where the money is needed—especially Tree of Life’s most recent programs—the transitional housing ministry for women and children, and the Still Waters program that provides respite care for children in need.
Ruckman, who has worked closely with the troupe, said, “They came to us out of the blue, I wasn’t expecting them.
“We feel really blessed by this young team; it help us to learn a lot by listening to the hearts of the younger generation,” Ruckman said this week.
“It’s been a roller coaster, and exhilarating,” Susan Fitzgerald said. Beyond the play, as a parent, she said what is important, is “how have you made the world better, what keeps giving beyond that, what is the legacy” the teens will leave.
After Sunday, the teens will have left a model for others to emulate—one that is fun, teaches kids about leadership and the importance of community involvement, and leaves a gift for others.
Kristen had the last word. In an interview this week, the teenager said the experience had allowed her to forge new friendships and gain leadership skills. “As a person, I tend to be rather in the back seat than the front, but as a director I learned to work with different people and how to teach them—everyone’s learning style is different.”
And she’s ready to do it again. “I’m already thinking of future shows—and volunteering at the food kitchen,” Kristen said.
Show times are 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 10. Admission is $10 through the website www/the-first-act.org or $12 at the door.