As the Monroe Youth Theater (MYT) prepared for the Spring production of Dearly Beloved–a Southern comedy, one would think the cast, crew, producer and director would be all laughs and smiles. Yet, this was not true as practices began in the Spring and the reality of this season fell upon them all. This play would mark the last with the MYT for not only seven of the troupe, but for long time Producer Kathy Grace.
“Who would have ever believed that time would go by so fast,” she says, remembering an interview just one year ago, where she laughed bitter-sweetly, “We have a couple of seniors graduating this year — and the junior class — that will be a huge loss in talent when they leave us next year. I have been with those kids since they were babies and I think I will retire when they graduate.”
Yet, there she was, counting down the days to that graduation ceremony and the final act on the MYT stage for those “babies.”
During springtime practices, which ended abruptly due to the COVID1-19 crisis, Grace sat alone in the auditorium watching intently with paper and pen in hand. Her pen rattled as she shook it back and forth, making notes and encouraging the kids, while seeming a bit bewildered.
“Very good, but next time–you did very good-but when you say it…get in her face! You did good!” She stopped the students, still reading from scripts and learning lines, ready to give her assessment and was interrupted, “we still have lines.” She replied, “ok, finish them and let’s talk.”
The scene ended as she loudly proclaimed, “lights up,” and the kids all stepped forward for their review. The banter between the students and their Matriarch was something to see as this family–both on and off stage–interacted with humor and love. The students have grown up together with Grace as their leader and following in her example, the older students directed the incoming actors with patience and encouragement.
Yet something was missing, and it was apparent to everyone involved. The seat next to Grace sat empty as her counterpart–long time director Allison Pickerell–had relocated to Florida.
Pickerell, former MYT member and 2011 Monroe County High School graduate, had been directing the MYT for three years, as she took the job upon the retirement of Peggy Holbrook. Grace explained that Pickerell was offered a job that she couldn’t refuse, “She started out down there part-time and they begged her to stay. She is doing something with her degree–that she went to college for– so while it is killing her– and us–she has to pursue her career and I am very proud of her.”
Grace continued, noting that Pickerell had met with the cast for three days the previous week, before having to return to Florida. “She held auditions, gave them their parts, had one rehearsal and left. She came back three days last week and then had to leave again,” Grace shook her head sadly.
Now it was only Grace, left to do the directing and producing. “It has been challenging doing everything–Allison’s knowledge has been phenomenal in helping though, so was Peggy’s,” she sighed.
Grace speaks fondly of Peggy Holbrook, noting that the pair worked together for 15 years. “I’ve been here 18 years. I worked upstairs before this building (the old Tompkinsville High School) closed,” she looked around lost in a memory at the dilapidated auditorium, “It’s home…”
Grace noted that she has worked with the MYT as long as the graduating seniors have been alive and said she “loved every minute.” She continued, ” it breaks my heart to leave but my health…,” she trails off, smiling, “… and well… I want to spend more time with my grandkids.”
Grace has been with the Monroe County School District for almost twenty-three years. She began her career as a teaching assistant in the special needs classrooms. She then moved on to the adult education department where she worked for six years before becoming the Community Education director.
MYT began under the Community Education Program to address the fact that there was limited opportunities for the arts in the community.
She noted that the first year she held dance classes for local children. “The next year I talked Peggy out of retirement. When she left, drama was dead. I got her to come back and well, the next 15 years is history.”
“For 18 years the MYT was self-sustained. I managed everything. I applied for grants, I collected donations– I even went dumpster diving,” she laughed.
“The only money we had was from ticket sales and ads. The Jaycees were wonderful and let us do concessions at events. We have the Murder Mystery Dinner, which also travels –that makes some money…oh and the kids–I have to credit the kids– they do a lot of work.”
She speaks lovingly of those kids. “They have come so far. Most of them came in as five-year-olds for the Summer Drama Program. Once they got to middle school, they started doing real plays.”
She calls them by name, “Austin (Lee), he was so shy-loved to sing- the theater pulled out his true personality. He’s going to WKU to be a Drama teacher and his twin brother Alex who worked for years behind the scenes, he’s going into Aviation;
Marissa (Simpson), remember how hard and long we worked with her to get her to project? Now she’s one of the loudest on the stage. She’s going to LWC and someday hopes to have mine or Alison’s job;
Madison(Hollinsworth), she tagged along with Marissa to that first summer camp and found her true calling– she’s incredible– I don’t think she is going to major in theater but I’m pretty sure it’s her minor;
Kennedy (Thurman) has just blossomed. She takes her roles seriously. She plans to pursue music but that’s still the Arts;
Gracie (Taylor), she’s such a character–so funny to watch on stage, she keeps everyone laughing. She’s going into the medical field;
Courtney Pickerell is our house manager and she’s done wonderfully. I can always count on her.
She includes the younger kids noting each of their accomplishments. “This is Ozzy’s (Oscar Layne) first year and we had to beg him to do it, but he’s doing really good.
Sydni Watson, Emma Threet, Zaydee Wade and Karlee Watson do a great job as part of the crew-they work together and keep things running smoothly.”
Brynley Starnes is such a treasure and Shady Wood, this is her first play and she is doing very well.
Evan (York) he’s only in eighth grade and already a seasoned and talented actor. He has stepped up many times to help us out in the high school plays.
Then we have Noah Holbrook and Sydney Watson from the middle school. They have stepped up as well since we don’t have enough high school actors. They are finding their way in the theater quite nicely.
Grace’s pride in all of the children was obvious, however she noted that those seven of her “babies” who graduate this year, hold a special place in her heart. ” I am so proud of them. I know they’re seniors and they’ve got a lot going on, but I don’t worry about them, they can do it.”
She has been with them since their first “fairy tale” performance in kindergarten summer camp and she promised to be there for their final act– this comedy that would have no doubt brought tears of sadness and joy to her eyes.
That day in early Spring, Grace noted that she would officially retire, if everything went according to plan, sometime after June, once she made sure that the future generation of the MYT completed their summer youth program and the one-room schoolhouse skit which was set for the Monroe County Bicentennial Celebration.
Unfortunately, that day Grace had no idea, nor did the rest of the cast and crew, that they would not set foot in that auditorium or hold a practice, yet alone perform their last production, for the remainder of the season-or at all for the seniors. The heartbreak took an extra toll and while normally, “the show must go on,” the curtain closed on the MYT 2020 season and on Grace’s lengthy career.