How NoHo theatre gives back


The Group Rep Gives Back

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, especially for the Group Repertory Theatre Company, which for more than three decades has provided holiday cheer for children in need.

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In the beginning, a merry band of 10 actors, directors, writers and producers, with Santa in tow, would visit various group foster homes, play games with the kids there, put on a show, and bring a gift for each child. The event has grown over the years, as the holiday tradition continued and the need grew, the Group Rep moved the Kids Holiday Party to their theatre. Today, many company members serve as volunteers and performers, the show is more sophisticated, and a hot lunch is served up by the company.

Longtime GRT members Irene Chapman and Janet Wood organized this year’s event. The planning and fundraising for the event begins as early August. This year, in addition to contributions from GRT members’ family and friends, employees of the Turner Entertainment Network Original Programming Group, the Rotary Club of North Hollywood, as well as Marina Haroutunian, Christine Holmes and Hilary Wagner have made the Holiday Kids Party their charity for toy donations.

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“As the date approaches,” past Board President Janet Wood explained, “The company members wrap the gifts and decorate the theater from stem to stern. On the day of the event, the Helper elves (our company members) come in holiday costumes to extend the holiday spirit and host the day. For many of these children, this is their first experience of live theater. These children live in foster care facilities (not individual foster care homes) and most will stay there until they are 18 years old. We have been able to watch some of these kids grow up and help the little ones in their group. All in all, it is a terrific, heartwarming day!”

The groups of children’s charities change each year; most are foster group homes, but in years past, it has also included a group of children battling cancer. This year, guest organizations included group homes Hathaway/Sycamores, Hillsides, Penny Lane and Vista Del Mar.

“Each year always brings added precious memorable moments,” said event co-chair, Irene Chapman. “A couple of years ago the ‘We Can’ cancer group took part in the event, and there was one five-year-old boy who was sheer joy to behold. Even though his condition was tenuous, he participated well in all that we presented and with great enthusiasm. His gentle and humble demeanor affected us all. It stirs and warms the heart.”

Everyone’s experience with the kids exceeds any gift they could possibly imagine; except for one former member, Alan.

Starting in 1995, Alan served as Santa Claus for several years in the annual kids show. Although his involvement in the company had waned, Alan was asked again to perform as Santa at the 2002 Kids Holiday Party. After the show, Santa gives out gifts to all of the kids. As Alan aka ‘Santa’ made his exit, he felt his Santa pants falling down and he turned around to find this little child, tugging at Santa’s pants to get his attention. Natalie (not her real name) looked up and said, “Santa, thank you for the greatest Christmas I have ever had.”

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Alan shared the story about the little girl with his fiancée. She said, “That’s a nice story. Maybe we could look into foster care or adoption after we‘re married.”

“We married in February 2003 and around May 2003 we started the discussion again about foster/adoption. We took a five-week training class for foster parents at a local adoption agency; these used to be called orphanages. During a break in one of the sessions, I was looking out of the classroom window when, across my sight line ran Natalie. I had no idea she was at this foster agency. I called my wife over to the window and said “there’s that girl that I told you about.”

We spoke to the class trainer and inquired about Natalie and if she was available for foster care or adoption. The trainer made an inquiry on our behalf, and we found that Natalie was on track to be reunited with her parents and was not a viable candidate. We got busy with our careers, and put foster care and adoption on the backburner. In May of 2005, two years later, we received a phone call from the trainer asking if we were still interested in fostering a child. We decided we were. My wife and I began to meet with Natalie and her staff at the foster agency,” continued Alan. “We started slow by taking her out to lunch, then dinner then a movie, then a play. Soon it was overnights and after about three months she came to live with us for good.”

Late in the process, just before Natalie came to live with Alan and his wife, they learned that she had a younger brother. He spent time with them on weekends and then came to live with them as well. Eventually, both Natalie and her brother were adopted and the family was complete.

In December 2010, the Group Rep called and asked Alan to play Santa again. He had lost a significant amount of weight in the ensuing years, but he donned the costume and did so again at this year’s Kids Holiday Party.

Most, if not all of the theatre members and volunteers, knew nothing of this story until a couple of years ago, when they met Alan’s kids at the 2010 Kids Holiday Party. When Alan told them the story, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And, to paraphrase what Janet Wood said earlier, “All in all, it was a terrific, heartwarming day!”

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Lisa Bianconi
Author: Lisa Bianconi

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