Tonawanda News

June 2, 2013

Acting ... in good company

Non-profit group aims to make theater accessible to kids

By Jill Keppeler jill.keppeler@tonawanda-news.com
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — They’ve lived a hard-knock life with “Annie.” They’ve danced and sung through a “High School Musical.” They’re been “Once on This Island.” And this year, they’re going “Back to the ‘80s.”

In Good Company Productions will kick off its ninth year of producing free shows in North Tonawanda with auditions Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at Grove Street Christian Church, 85 Grove St., Tonawanda. After weeks of rehearsals, set and costume production and the other behind-the-scenes tasks of running a theater company, the show “Back to the ‘80s” will be presented in late July and early August at the bandshell at Niawanda Park,

The group has grown from a experiment of sorts with about 30 members to an annual production with roles for more than 100 participants in multiple generations, said Melissa Tober of Sanborn, the City of Tonawanda native who serves as IGC president and director. Cast members have ranged from ages 2 to 50 and a variety of abilities and acting levels ... because even with auditions, no one winds up without something to do up on that stage.

”We take everybody, we don’t turn anyone away. We always try to make everyone feel special and included somehow,” Tober said. “I don’t know how we always manage to, but it always seems to come together. The kids always have a great time. We’ve got kids who have been there for nine years ... usually until they get to college. And we have the most loyal parents in the world.”

•••

The roots of IGC go back, perhaps appropriately for this year’s production, to the 1980s, when Tober’s mother, Deb Wanecski, was involved with local theater groups including Tonawanda Community Theatre. It was a family affair; Tober remembers taking part in a variety of shows with her siblings at the bandshell at Niawanda Park, from “Godspell” to “Willy Wonka” and “The Sound of Music.”

”We just piled into my mom’s station wagon and went down by the river,” she recalled. But “we were teenagers, we just kind of lost interest in it. But it was great when we were kids.”

Fast forward. Tober and her siblings are grown and all have children. They were talking about their summers performing by the water when something clicked. She called her brother ... and “he called it a double-dog dare,” she said. A bank account later (and eventually non-profit status) later, In Good Company was on its way.

”That year, we did ‘Godspell,’ because we knew that if nobody auditioned, we could probably still pull it off,” Tober said. “We ended up with 35 people or so.”

The next year, the cast doubled, to about 60 people. Lately, it’s more like 100, Tober said.

”We just love it. It keeps us together; it gives us all a reason to stay in Buffalo,” she said. “And it’s so magical to see how the kids grow from year to year.

”It’s something really special that makes our family really unique. And we just welcome everybody with open arms.”

While the group has expanded over the years, the family still forms the core. Tober serves as president, while one brother is vice president (another is on the advisory board) and her sister is the treasurer. Their children take part in the shows, while Deb Wanecski still helps with shows like the ones she organized back in the 1980s.

It means a lot that her children saw so much value in their childhood activities that they wanted to recreate them for the next generation, Wanecski said.

”It’s more special than words can say,” she said.

Like their mother before them, all three of Tober’s children — Olivia Tober, 14; John Tober, 12; and Allison Tober, 10 — take part in In Good Company productions. Olivia Tober said she’s involved since the beginning, when she was 6.

”I love it. I met my three best friends through IGC,” she said. “That’s my summer. What people don’t understand ... We put in 24 hours a day. It’s not just put in a few hours for rehearsal and then leave. But I can’t imagine my summer without it.”

While Olivia doesn’t plan to go into any form of theater in college or beyond, she can see starting it up for a fourth generation someday. And she said she’s learned a a lot about public speaking and self-confidence over the years.

”I can use that forever,” she said. “It’s not just theater.”

•••

While the family might form the core group, In Good Company Productions has grown over the years, pulling in friends and community members who often wind up involved for good.

Julia Nowak of Amherst, who serves on the advisory board, became involved because her oldest daughter was a classmate of Olivia Tober. Now, both her daughters, now 12 and 14, take part.

”We were in as soon as they started. Now I don’t know what we would do with our summers,” Nowak said. “Everybody enjoys it. My younger daughter, she’s not an actress, she’s a gymnast ... and they find something for her to do. They play to the kids’ talents.

”It’s really been an amazing experience. Now my older one is very involved in theater; she’s been in all her school plays, and productions outside school. She’s found her niche here.”

Jen Bogart of Amherst and her daughter, Annabella, gave IGC a try about four years ago, when the 7-year-old developed an interest in theater. 

”We thought this was a safe environment for her to try it out and see what theater was all about,” Bogart said. It stuck; Jen played Miss Hannigan in the 2010 “Annie,” with her daughter in the title role.

Bogart, a speech therapist, said the group helps children become more confident, to learn how to present themselves and how to speak in public.

”They’re not necessarily going to Broadway ... but they’re going to take the skills learned during the summer and apply them to their lives,” she said.

Annabella Bogart, 10, said that it’s nice to rehearse by the water all summer, “and the people are really nice.”

”They won’t let anyone not be in the show,” she said. “Everybody’s always included. No one feels left out. Even if you’re not the lead, you still get noticed.

”And they always pick really, really good shows. You can always trust them to pick a really good show.”

Patrick Crocker, 17, started with In Good Company when he was 8, after he saw an item in the Tonawanda News about the initial production of “Godspell.” Today, the recent St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute graduate is going off to minor in theater at Brockport State College after years of performing in IGC shows and helping out in general.

”It’s great to see little kids getting passionate and interested in the the same things I’m passionate and interested in,” he said. “It’s cool to help them develop their own love of theater.”

Although many families are veterans of IGC, newcomers have been pulled into the productions over the years. The Gambino family of Tonawanda — parents Mike and Amy, daughter Amanda, 11, and son Willie, 6 — saw the company rehearsing in 2010 while they were taking a walk in Niawanda Park. Now, they’re about to start their third season as participants.

“All they talked about all winter is coming back and doing the play,” Mike Gambino said of the kids. 

“They’re all inclusive. They don’t leave anyone out. They have parts for everyone ... they create parts if the children need them,” he said of IGC. “And they work with them. They don’t just say, ‘You can’t do it. Oh, well.’ 

”Whether you’ve been here for three years or nine years, they’re amazing.”

•••

The timeline for the 2013 season will start with auditions 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and noon to 2 p.m. Saturday at Grove Street Christian Church, 85 Grove St., Tonawanda. Callbacks will take place the following week, Tober said, followed by a parents-only meeting during which families will receive a folder full of information and rehearsal schedules. Families are also expected to take part in fundraisers for the group, although participation in IGC is free.

”There have been times the parents take one look at all the paperwork and say, ‘Whoa!’ “ she said. “It’s good for them to realize that it is a big commitment.”

Rehearsals for those 5 and younger are about an hour one night a week, with more time as the production gets closer. For the leads and the chorus, rehearsals take place longer for four or five nights a week. 

”The bigger the part, the more they have to be there,” Tober said, reminding parents to bring a calendar to auditions to check their availability. “We try to work around schedules, but we can’t always.”

At the send of the season, the shows will be presented at 7 p.m. July 29 and 30 and Aug. 1, 5, 6 and 8 at the bandshell at Niawanda Park. All shows are also free.

”I donate a lot of time and energy and money ... but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else with my summers,” Tober said. “Everyone’s there because they want to be there. We don’t have a ton of money ... but we have the most enthusiastic parents. 

”It sounds corny to say it’s one big family and everybody pitches in. But it is.”

IF YOU GO • WHAT: Auditions for In Good Company's 2013 production, "Back to the '80s" • WHEN: 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; noon to 2 p.m. Saturday • WHERE: Grove Street Christian Church, 85 Grove St., Tonawanda • INFORMATION: Those auditioning should come prepared to sing a song of their choice. For more information, call Melissa Tober at 408-7678 or email ingoodcompanyproductions@yahoo.com. • SHOWTIMES: The show will be presented at 7 p.m. July 29 and 30 and Aug. 1, 5, 6 and 8 at the bandshell at Niawanda Park, Niagara Street, Tonawanda.