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By | September 8, 2021

A 25-year-long love letter to creating, performing, growing and making friends that have become family.

That’s how C. Lynn Johnson describes East Valley Children’s Theatre.

The Gilbert woman’s talents run the gamut from theater hair stylist to playwright, all of which have won her awards.

As a teen, she starred in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the theater’s first production.

“EVCT has been family to me for 25 years,” she says. “It’s a safe space where I can play and create freely. It’s the place that I can say that outside of my family’s influence, shaped me into the person I am today. 

“From being one of the performers to myself then being one of those adults shaping the performers who came after me, it’s been an honor to be part of EVCT’s impact on our community,” she adds.

For nearly 25 years, the Mesa-based children’s theater has shepherded nearly 14,000 youth ages 5 to 18 who have donned costumes, assumed roles, walked, danced, sung and spoken their practiced words on stage.

The nonprofit has produced 86 shows and has grown from a single production and workshop in the first year to a full-service theater offering numerous additional programs, classes, camps and performance troupes among them. It’s also known for its playwriting contest,  presenting original works for children annually.

EVCT was an all-volunteer organization until two years ago, when it hired an office manager and a bookkeeper. Its current annual budget is about $250,000 and its main donors have included The Boeing Co. of Mesa and Arizona Commission on the Arts.

“I just enjoy working with the theater; I enjoy the kids,” says Karen Rolston, the producing artistic director who played a vital role in the theater’s development.

Rolston, a teacher from Mesa Public Schools, Chandler-Gilbert Community College and Arizona State University, took on the theater in her retirement. Now that the 25th season is about to begin, she plans to retire in earnest. 

Also departing is Kathie McMahon, who served in many roles within the organization, the last as past president, head of the advisory board and marketing director.

McMahon, who leads the 25th year anniversary celebration committee, observed, “From performing in a junior high auditorium to becoming a Founding Resident Company of the Mesa Arts Center; from rehearsal in a pre-school building to offering classes, troupes, camps, and performances in a four-suite studio; from an unknown theater to a highly regarded, award-winning nonprofit organization; it’s been a miraculous 20-plus years.”

A professional musician, McMahon composed original music for seven of EVCT’s productions. She received six ariZoni nominations and four garnered awards.

Parents enroll children in the theater for many reasons, but interest is perhaps key.

Five years ago, Tre Moore of Mesa was enrolled in a musical theater summer camp. That was the beginning of a new passion for the now 17-year-old. 

“Theater appeals to me because the possibilities are endless. Nothing is impossible in theater. With the right amount of imagination, you can go just about anywhere,” says the self-confessed “completely unapologetic Broadway and musical theater nerd.”

Parent volunteer Marco Velasquez Sr. of Gilbert said that he enrolled his son, Marco Velasquez Jr. four years ago because he expressed a sincere interest in it. His daughter followed suit.

Now 13, Marco is a seasoned thespian. He began at 9 with a performance with EVCT’s Performance Troupes and moved to stage productions for eight shows and participated in three virtual productions.

His 6-year-old sister Victoria, also a participant, performed in a cabaret show and a production of Tales with Baba Yaga & A Bowl of Soup.

Their father says it has been one of the best decisions he’s made for his children and his family. 

“EVCT provides a place where our children can perform, grow in confidence and respect of theater and their fellow performers, and experience true joy. It’s just such an incredible experience we’ve been fortunate to have,” he says.

“EVCT is so unique in that they’ve created a community and home whereby our children are challenged, can grow in confidence, and can experience such fun and beautiful experiences that we, as a family can also enjoy,” says Velasquez, who considers himself an unofficial ambassador for the organization.

The theater has drawn some kids out of their shell.

“EVCT has shown me how to show up confidently in a space, be myself, and not worry about looking funny,” Tre says. “I have always been extroverted and outgoing, but EVCT has definitely kept that spark alive. 

Some nontheater-related skills last much longer than the applause. Tre lists learning the importance of teamwork, time management, adaptability and sociability as part of his theater education. 

East Valley Children’s Theater was created when there was nothing similar in the area.

Its precursor is the Chandler Children’s Theatre, begun by Robert and Patricia Goyer in 1994. They have since both passed.

The organization dissolved after a few years, but the community-minded group, which also included Angie Majed, Christi Moffat, Hazel Morgan and Steve Furedy, decided to build it.

In 1997, they reorganized it with a grant from The Boeing Co. 

“There wasn’t anything like this at that time. Now there are lots of children’s theaters. In the late 1990s and the early 2000s, there wasn’t anything. It was important for them for something to be here,” Rolston recalls.

In 2005, shows were moved to the prestigious stage at Mesa Arts Center.

Rolston organized a playwriting contest around the same time due to a dearth of plays written for children with a focus on stories and fairy tales.

“It has been so successful,” she says. The last competition received about 60 entries from around the world. 

Johnson is perhaps a poster child of how children’s theater can shape someone’s life. 

She has written about 10 of the plays that EVCT has performed over the years and has won original script AriZoni’s four times.

“One of my favorite parts of writing for children is the out-of-the-box way they interpret my work,” Johnson says. “Kids are so creative and unencumbered by expectations and preconceived notions. They’re spongey-clay, soaking everything up and ready to be molded.”

Everybody is equal on stage.

“Everybody welcomes them and they can be themselves and not worry about being judged about who they were or where they come from,” Rolston says. “Theater is like that.”

Even during the pandemic’s peak, EVCT managed to produce plays virtually, making good use of technology. 

“In a field where theaters open and close all the time, and especially during the last year-and-half when theaters went dark across the world, this feels like an almost miraculous milestone,” Johnson says.