A new theater and dance festival is coming to downtown State College this weekend, bring 105 events in an array of performing arts by more than two dozen local arts organizations.
The inaugural Central PA Theatre and Dance Fest will take place Friday through Sunday at locations around the downtown. Featuring something for everyone -- musicals, belly dance, improv circus arts, drama and puppets, to name a few -- the weekend will have performances, readings, workshops and plenty of friendly-family activities. Many events are free, some are ticketed and others require the purchase of a "Backstage Pass," which, though it doesn't literally get you backstage, gets you into a number of performances and readings and offers a 10 percent discount on ticketed events.
Webster's Bookstore Cafe owner Elaine Meder-Wilgus and Tempest Productions co-artistic director Cynthia Mazzant co-founded the festival. Meder-Wilgus, who has been active with Tempest and State College Community Theatre, said the idea came from Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins whose parents live in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, which has half the permanent population of the State College area and is home to an internationally-famous theater festival.
"He kind of said, 'Don’t you think we should have a theater and dance festival here?'" she said.
Meder-Wilgus called Mazzant, and both have experience putting together festivals. That "got the ball rolling" back in February 2017 and they began reaching out to every local performing arts organization in the area.
A total of 19 founding organizations representing a variety of performing arts got on board to produce events and workshops for the festival, and six other groups are contributing to the festival as well. Among the main stage performances, one of the founding members, FUSE Productions, will be presenting "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," its largest production to date, at Schwab Auditorium. Tempest will perform "Poe: Deep into That Darkness," at the State Theatre.
"We really wanted to celebrate the incredible depth we have in this area," Meder-Wilgus said. "We have so many schools for dance and theater as well. We have so many performance opportunities for people at every level, and people doing work at the professional level too. We really wanted to highlight that. Additionally, we felt this could push the Centre Region into a new understanding of how good the quality is here."
A tourism grant for marketing from the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau was key to moving the volunteer effort forward, along with support from Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and 12 other major sponsors.
The festival will have a number of free, family-friendly events, especially in Sidney Friedman Park, which will have themed days of "Dance the Day Away" on Friday, "StoryBook Theatre" on Saturday and "Shakespeare in the Park" on Sunday. At several locations, other free and ticketed events will take place, many kid-friendly, but a few -- like Lady Grey's Late Night Cabaret, Beer and Puppets with Adam Swartz and NSFW: A Comedy Showcase, all in the State Theatre Attic -- for older crowds.
"People of all ages can contribute to the arts in the region," Meder-Wilgus said. "I think it’s important for young people to see people of advanced years enjoying themselves and using their imaginations. It’s not something we want people to ever stop using, for certain.
"Tempest in particular focuses on early childhood literacy through a lot of the arts in education it does here and in New York and New Jersey. We feel that’s something we don’t want to lose no matter what your age is. We certainly have a lot of programming that’s family-friendly and designed to get kids out and stretching those muscles in their brain about using their imagination and getting excited about books."
In addition to a weekend of entertainment, Meder-Wilgus said she hopes the festival introduces community members to the plethora of arts organizations in the area and inspires some to become involved.
"I’m hoping there are people that may be new to the region who don’t know about all of the arts organizations here, or those that maybe have dropped some of that in their lives and that this will be a reason to re-engage," she said. "Take a dance class as an adult or try improv, or just connect with others who love the arts they way they do."
While the first Central PA Theatre and Dance Fest is nearing, organizers also are thinking about next year. The festival already has received a grant from the visitor's bureau for the 2019 edition, and organizers have heard from groups in Lock Haven, Pittsburgh and South Carolina who are interested in getting involved.
"We’re always going to keep that core mission to engage our community in creative play and celebrating our local regional arts," Meder-Wilgus said. "There are about eight [outside] organizations that have already asked to be involved next year. We’re going to sit down after the festival happens and look at the parameters of what that growth can look like and best serve our core group of founding members while bringing people in from outside of the area."
But this weekend -- whether its checking out State College Community Theatre's production of "Schoolhouse Rock Live," taking part in a playwriting workshop, enjoying ballet and other dance performances, and everything in between -- organizers believe the local community and beyond will find something of interest.
"For me the most exciting thing is when I start to talk about it and someone says ‘Oh yeah, I heard about that,’" Meder-Wilgus said.
"The response from the local performing arts groups has been tremendous. Every one of them is bringing their A+ game. They’re a tremendously creative group of people, as you can imagine, but they’re all really well-organized and committed to making the festival a success."
For the full schedule and details, visit centralpatheatre.com.