For the past 40 years, Creative Theatre Experience has been putting on summer shows and inspiring South Sound children and teens to work together and discover their gifts and passions. On March 11, the program will celebrate its birthday — and longtime artistic director Kathy Dorgan — with a gala.
“I believe in the power of the arts to transform hearts and minds and lives,” Dorgan said in an event announcement. “I know it’s true, because I’ve seen it happen every summer for 20 years at CTE.
“That’s what has meant the most to me,” she told OLY ARTS. “I’m so grateful for the experience.” Dorgan started working with the program in 2002, when she directed “Annie,” and served as artistic director from 2003 to 2022. With her retirement, the nonprofit program is in the process of hiring a new director.
Educators Tracey Foster and Lois Wofford started CTE in 1981 with the mission of promoting self-discovery and confidence through the arts. The program, which produces three shows in each season (a musical, a straight play and a festival of shorter pieces and songs), has evolved through the years; the mission has remained the same.
Stephanie Kroschel, education director at the Tacoma Little Theatre, describes herself as an example of the program’s power to change lives. She first attended in 2002 and was in the cast of Dorgan’s “Annie.”
“CTE was just the right thing for me,” Kroschel said. “I had been homeschooled, and I didn’t have a lot of connections outside my family and my church community. It was my first opportunity to be among peers and doing something that I loved. … I felt really seen and significant in that place. It kept me coming back again and again.”
Indeed, she spent 19 years with the program — four as a student, six as an intern, and the remainder in various staff roles. She never missed a year — except, for obvious reasons in 2020 — until last summer when she ran the theater camp at Tacoma Little Theatre.
The program made her the person that she is today, she said, and Dorgan was a big part of that. “She is an amazing and beautiful person,” Kroschel told OLY ARTS. “If there’s one person in the world who was significant to my growth and development as a person, it’s her.” Dorgan’s input gave her the confidence to release her creative energy, and it was Dorgan who suggested she move into the intern program, which led her to the career she has today.
“Last summer, I had the great joy of designing and running my own summer theater arts camp for kids,” she said. “It’s something I could never have done if not for all of my years in CTE. CTE and Kathy Dorgan are the reason I became an educator.” Kroschel is still acting and singing, too. She’s currently starring in Broadway Olympia’s “Baby” — directed by none other than Dorgan.
The interns — older teens and young adults — are at the heart of the program, Dorgan said. “The youth mentoring youth piece is really the core,” she said. “The interns are kids who’ve had a positive experience in CTE and in the arts. They looked up to their interns — and they want to be that person for someone else. It’s a remarkable thing to watch.”
The program has inspired devotion in many over the years. Louise Doran enrolled her daughters in 2006. All three attended for years and Doran has made it her job. “Since my kids and I loved CTE from day one, I decided to join the board in 2007,” she told the Olympian. After years as a volunteer, she became the office manager and is now the managing director.
“CTE truly empowers the kids to discover their gifts and be themselves, and to do the best they can,” Doran said. She particularly loved the Arts Festival shows — the ones starring first through seventh graders, with direction and support by the teen and young adult interns. “They were always so moving to me as a parent,” she said.
“CTE has been a big part of my family’s life for many summers, and is always a highlight of our year,” said Elizabeth Swanson, one of the organizers of the gala and a former board member. “My daughters Lynlea, 16. and Chloe,15, have participated in every CTE season since 2015. … The welcoming community and amazing staff and board have worked hard to create an environment that celebrates children’s unique gifts. The program helped my introverted daughter find her voice. She was seen at CTE in a way she never had been before in the education system. I’ll be forever grateful.”
The program changed Dorgan’s life, too, she said. When she started as artistic director, she was already teaching theater at Olympia High School and loving it, but she’d never worked with younger children. “When I took the job, I said I’d do it for three to five years,” she said. “And now it’s 2023.
“I learned as much or more from the interns and the kids than I ever got to teach them,” she said. “I learned to look at things from that child’s point of view — from that point of view of discovery. I learned to see things in a new way.”
CTE 40th Anniversary Gala
5 p.m. March 11
The Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts, South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia.
Photo credits: Photographs from the shows are courtesy of Creative Theatre Experience. Photographs of Kathy Dorgan are courtesy of Kathy Dorgan.