Astra History

 

Nurturing the Body of Christ
By Chris Weigand, July 2008
What happens when God brings together a parish priest, the chair of the Parish Life Commission and a creative thinker—a young man fresh out of college and on fire with the Holy Spirit? When God brings people and ideas together you get something truly amazing…you get ASTRA!
The All Saints Theatrical Repertoire Association (ASTRA)
began as the brainchild of Mario Peñalver.

 

In October 2003, with a passion for youth and the performing arts, Peñalver had a vision. He wanted to produce musical theatre using church facilities and inviting parish members to participate. With the help and encouragement of Fr. Woody McCallister, priest at All Saints Parish, and Karyn Schwab, then chair of the newly formed Parish Life Commission, Peñalver dreamed of a parish ministry designed to nurture the Body of Christ through the shared gifts of time and talent. His vision was to foster fellowship, build community and provide quality arts and entertainment on the Parish Center Stage at All Saints Parish. What’s more, he wanted to include a sit-down dinner at every performance!

One might think these rather high aspirations in a young college guy from a community church. Admittedly, it didn’t happen overnight, but happen it did. Now in its fifth season, ASTRA has accomplished exactly what its founder set out to do.

Let us recall the ministry’s brief but eventful history.

 

Schwab already a theatre buff, was looking for ideas that were new to the parish. When Peñalver pitched his vision, the Parish Life Chair was sold. “It was hard not to get caught up in Mario’s enthusiasm. He was filled with the idea of doing something really wonderful within the life of our parish community. He won my support from the very beginning!”

After a hasty collaboration of set building and hectic rehearsals, ASTRA debuted on the Parish Center Stage three short months later. With funding from the Knights of Columbus, Peñalver produced and directed what would become the first of many theatrical productions. He chose Barbara Robinson’s family comedy, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The cast was limited, sets were minimal and the small crew worked overtime to pull it all together. Despite the fact ticket sales were closed to the public, attendance soared. Patrons enjoyed a hot spaghetti dinner complete with tossed salad, dessert and coffee. The most expensive seat—dinner included—$15. When the curtain closed on The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, it was to a standing ovation from well-pleased audiences. The show raised over $2,000 in revenue, funds used to benefit Youth Ministries at All Saints Parish. “We had hit a gold mine,” Peñalver recalls.

“There was a general consensus that we would be fools not to do it again.” With the support of fellow parishioners and thespian enthusiasts alike, Peñalver went to All Saints Parish Council on a cold February evening, one month after closing The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. There atop the conference table he placed a photocopy of his next brilliant idea—The Sound of Music. The show had twice the cast, a full pit orchestra and was double the cost. Says Peñalver,

“There was this silence, and everyone was looking at my proposal. Then came a rustling sound, and I saw this frail, seventy-year-old woman reach into her bag and pull out her checkbook,  ‘How much do you need to get started?’ she said.” [This generous lady was later identified as Annette Milanoski.]

As plans for The Sound of Music began taking shape, it soon became apparent the show needed a lighting designer. Peñalver went directly to Don Lotz, All Saints parishioner. His experience and knowledge in theatre and stage technology made his participation a prize to be coveted. Likewise, Peñalver needed musical accompaniment. Paula Schmitz, pianist for the early Masses at All Saints, was a perfect fit. For set design, long-time parishioner Nancy Morris was equally invaluable.

This pattern of welcoming and affirming others has held fast; it’s become a central part of ASTRA’s core mission. In speaking with some of its leadership, one of the most often repeated responses to the question, “What makes ASTRA a ministry?” was, “The way its members welcome, nurture and affirm anyone who walks through its doors.” Steve Miller, ASTRA’s current chair said it best, “ASTRA brings us closer together and helps us grow.”

With Peñalver once again serving as producer-director, auditions for The Sound of Music got underway in early spring 2004. The show was scheduled to run that summer, and early efforts went exceedingly well. As the cast and crew began taking shape, many talented individuals stepped forward, filled with enthusiasm and ready to share their extraordinary gifts.
Everyone wondered who would play Maria.
Enter Kelsey Kovacevich, a bright-eyed 16-year-old
with dreams of being the next Julie Andrews.

 

Then a member of St. Andrews Parish in Sumner, Kovacevich had ties to All Saints through family members and the fact that she’d been baptized there. It was enough to consider her for the role. Others were talking about auditioning and wondering which parts might be best for them. ASTRA was on its way to something wonderful, and people, young and old, wanted to be a part of it. Kovacevich enthusiastically stated during an interview for that season’s playbill, “No one will forget their lines, and the musical is sure to be a success!”

Overcoming newly discovered obstacles, including enduring record summer heat in a gym without air-conditioning; a limited sound system and a growing need for additional sponsorship to help defray costs, ASTRA proudly opened The Sound of Music to the wider Puyallup-Sumner area. The show enjoyed a highly affirming review in The Catholic Progress as well as the Tacoma News Tribune. Audience members were filled with excitement and bursting to know what ASTRA would do next. It almost seemed impossible. “Despite our euphoria over the amazing things we’d accomplished, most of us were utterly exhausted,” recalls Schwab. “What’s more, our beloved producer-director was returning to college, and we had no idea what to do next.”

It was shortly after the final curtain came down on that summer’s musical that Rod Nirschl, who played Captain von Trapp, accepted Schwab’s invitation to consider rising to the challenge.
“We all desperately wanted to keep the momentum alive.
We just needed someone to take on the role of ASTRA’s chair.
I was delighted when Rod accepted” said Schwab.
Little more than a month later, the newly appointed Chair received an eager message from young Kovacevich. In it she resolved that ASTRA had to do another Christmas show. “If we wait a whole year, the excitement that surrounded The Sound of Music will go away!” Kovacevich believed she had the perfect show. While it was similar to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, this show had a twist. “There’s a fifth ghost, the ghost of Scrooge’s long-lost love Belle.” In addition, it was “a lot easier [to produce] than The Sound of Music.” It called for 18 actors, 47 costumes, 8 sets and had pre-recorded accompaniment. By comparison, Sound of Music required at least 26 actors, 150 costumes, 9 sets and a full orchestra. “I’ve done my homework,” stated Kovacevich. As for volunteers, “There must be people in the parish and community that would be willing to help. You never know until you ask.” But who would direct? In answer to the question, Kovacevich put it simply: “Me!”

And so it was, plans to produce The 5 Ghosts of Ebenezer Scrooge in the winter of 2004 got underway. 5 Ghosts provided ASTRA with another unique opportunity and a significant honor. Written specifically for the Auburn Avenue Theatre by local playwright, Mark Banton, ASTRA was the first theatre company to produce the show on a public stage apart from its intended venue. Banton, together with Mark Vail, composer, expectantly attended the performance. Both were equally astounded by the quality of the production and its show-stopping special effects.

By now, there was no thought of stopping. Riding on the wave of their back-to-back successes, ASTRA secured the rights to perform The Wizard of Oz in July 2005.
To their surprise and delight, an anonymous donor
stepped forward to cover the costs of installing a
permanent air-conditioning system in the gymnasium/theatre.

The positive impact was incredible, and the show was seated to capacity. Patrons were delighted by the ostentatious sets and grandiose costumes. The interior design paid off, giving patrons the experience of walking into Kansas and being personally transported to the Emerald City along the Yellow Brick Road. It was another unquestionable triumph for ASTRA. Bonds of fellowship were being knit together, and the Body of Christ was being nurtured, just as its founder had envisioned.

Nevertheless, it was becoming apparent that producing more than one major production per year was to take on more than its members could chew. Despite the joy of involvement, volunteers were apt to become too weary to commit, jeopardizing the core mission of the ministry. Still, seeking to provide faithful audiences with a meaningful performing arts experience, Peñalver—on his summer break from college—and Kovacevich teamed up to produce the awe-inspiring Songs of Godspell, a Lenten gift to parishioners in the winter of 2006.

That summer ASTRA went on to produce The Music Man, with Kovacevich directing once again. Imaginations ran wild, and at the sheer inspiration of Don Lotz, Kovacevich and he, together with assistant producer Nanette Flynn, decided to hop a plane to California! There they secured a large number of band uniforms intended for use in the show’s grand finale. To the utter astonishment of many, the trio flew back the same day, hard-earned treasure in hand. It had been a wildly exhausting, twenty-two hour trip! More than a commitment to theatre, these volunteers demonstrated the true and genuine love for community that has made ASTRA possible. Ticket sales for The Music Man went so well that extra tables were added to accommodate enthusiastic patrons.

When The Music Man closed, ASTRA finally took some time to regroup, making improvements in several key areas before bringing Cinderella to the Parish Center Stage in July 2007. Once again, the cast and crew worked day and night to create a powerful dramatic experience, packed with talent and superbly choreographed special effects. The production was so well received that additional programs had to be printed, despite recycling gently used copies. At the close of each performance, young princes and princesses from the audience who had been invited ‘to attend the ball’ were welcomed on stage to receive their ‘royal crowns.’ “It was a magical moment for everyone involved, creating heartfelt memories that will live on in many of us for years to come,” stated Schwab.

Since its first show five years ago,
ASTRA has ignited enthusiasm for the arts

through its continual search for new talent.

 

Once discovered, it is nurtured with the hope of encouraging strong leadership, creativity and community-centered values. ASTRA’s production of Anything Goes is the perfect example of this. The show is directed by Kovacevich, who was once an actress; with house management by Lindsay Neutzman, once a server; and a set designed by Darren Diggle, former stage hand. The list goes on. ASTRA is sailing into the future with the next generation; many of the crew leads for Anything Goes are young people age 19 and under. In fact, Diggle and Neutzman are both high school students, and the cast includes children as young as ten.

From the humble vision of one young college student came a ministry rich in Christian virtue and blessed by the Holy Spirit. ASTRA has enjoyed an interesting journey, one that knows no gender gap, no discrimination, and no apparent end to its creative energy. In its brief history, it has grown from the confines of its own limitations to become truly ecumenical, inviting Catholics and non-Catholics, young and old alike to participate. ASTRA understands that together, we truly are the Body of Christ.

With the help of our wondrous and living God, all things are possible.

 

While other groups may indeed be welcoming and nurturing, what makes ASTRA different is its respect for all, its spirit of collaboration and love, no matter how great or small the contribution. Quoting last season’s director, Don Lotz, “ASTRA is not a production company that happens to be a ministry; it’s a ministry that drives the company and guides the play; the play is what enhances the ministry.” The glory of God stands at the core of this ministry called ASTRA. It wasn’t designed to raise revenue or to become the next best thing to Broadway. Its goals are much simpler and much more admirable than that. Ultimately, if we fail to keep our core mission alive, we risk losing our focus—risk losing the vision for which it was all created for in the first place.

Before every performance, cast and crew gather to lift up prayer and thanksgiving to the One who truly makes it all possible. “We do it for love—love of God, love of each other, love of art,” concludes Schwab.
When all is said and done,
“We are not a parish that has a theatre company,”
said Fr. Woody, “We are a parish that does theatre.

It is the way we share the Word of God.”

 

Let us all share in the glory and honor of God as we participate in ASTRA’s mission to nurture the Body of Christ. And now, come along with us as we set sail on the SS American for exciting ports yet to come. Final destination: Heaven.

Article reprinted from ASTRA’s 2008 Anything Goes show program.