Longtime Central Park Players volunteer and actor Peter Drost remembers being an eighth-grader in English class, listening to the morning announcements, when he first learned about the local theater group.
“There was something on the announcements about needing a 13- or 14-year-old for a (role),” he said. “My English teacher said, ‘you should go do that,’ and here I am 30-some years later.”
The camaraderie among dedicated volunteers, ranging from newbie actors in elementary school to adults with theater degrees, is what keeps Central Park raising the curtain on community theater.
Celebrating its 60th season, Central Park Players presents It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play this December. For this version, picture a 1940s radio station with actors telling the story as if it was a radio broadcast. They use voice inflection and facial expressions to play multiple characters, along with a foley table to make sound effects.
The season continues with A Delicate Ship in March and Sylvia, directed by Drost, in May.
“I think the biggest thing, we’re a very inclusive group,” said CPP Board President Trudi Kerkstra. “We try to offer two to three shows a year that are fairly well-known and we do one more artistic kind of play. The community is very receptive to that.”
Kerkstra started volunteering 12 years ago when her children participated in CPP’s summer children’s theater program. They went off to college and she stayed involved. She didn’t have a theater background, but has done nearly every job on the stage and backstage.
“It just became a fun creative outlet and like a family,” she said. “It’s a great way to meet new people and it’s a great passion to bring art in this way to the community at large.”
Drost, who serves on the board, acts, directs and does lighting and sound for many shows, went on to study theater at the University of Michigan. He said it can be stressful trying to bring a production together, but also exciting and rewarding.
“You make great friends while doing it, lifelong friends,” Drost said. “And one thing I like about this particular group, we will take more chances than you would think a fairly conservative group in Ottawa County would.”
CPP carries on a long history of community theater in the Grand Haven community. Local performers entertained Civil War soldiers at the Ottawa County Courthouse in the 1860s. The tradition continued with traveling troupes and the Grand Haven Dramatic Club putting on plays at the Music Hall into the 1930s.
The theater remains essentially an all-volunteer effort, with board members and a core group of 30 volunteers serving as producers, directors, and set designers and working the back and front of the house. There is no paid staff and only a small stipend for a few technology and creative positions.
“People give up countless hours to work on things,” Kerkstra said. “We’re lucky because we have people from various backgrounds that can do all the things that need to be done.”
CPP presents four main season shows a year, and one in the summer featuring children under 18 years old. The organization offers paid summer day camps for ages 4 to 12, which gives younger actors the chance to work with experienced thespians.
Participants learn theater basics, including teamwork, character development, staging and music memorization. The workshop also covers drama, dance, blocking and technical skills.
“They learn and put together an entire production, but they do all of that in two weeks,” Kerkstra said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Now raising teenagers, Drost said theater teaches children a variety of skills such as working together, public speaking and honoring commitments and deadlines.
“Theater, especially at a young age, is one of the few things where there is absolutely a drop-dead deadline,” he said. “It teaches them the importance of honoring your obligations. There’s really no way out.”
The troupe is sometimes limited on what it can present, based on budget and the limited size of the stage. But Drost would put CPP’s smaller, dramatic plays up against surrounding theater organizations when it comes to the quality of acting and poignant issues it chooses to tackle.
Last year, CPP presented August: Osage County, which confronts opioid addiction, infidelity, incest and a dysfunctional family.
Despite the changes and moves over the decades, CPP has maintained solid support from the community. The organization became a nonprofit in 1986 and offers memberships for $15 a year or $25 for a family. Membership has its perks, including a free ticket to a show, voting privileges at the annual summer membership meeting, and advance notice of special events.
The fall musical Annie was a big hit and sold out six of seven performances. With numerous demands on people’s time and money, CPP also keeps ticket prices at $10 or $15 in an effort to make it affordable for families.
“The amount of talent in the Tri-Cities area is phenomenal, from kids through adults,” Kerkstra said. “We do quality productions that would rival any other theater groups in the area. It’s just a great night out, at about what it would cost to go to a movie.”
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
Central Park Players
Grand Haven Community Center
421 Columbus Ave, Grand Haven
Dec. 13-16, $15