LAKE STEVENS — Three dozen kids raced across the floor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, squealing with excitement. They only had a few hours to get “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” audience-ready. Opening night was the next day.
Director Bill Walles stepped into the fray. The kids rushed to their stage positions. It was time for another run-through of “Gaston,” the ode to Belle’s would-be romantic interest.
Grace Menzel, 15, flexed her muscles, bullied her lackey LeFou and sang about her “biceps to spare.”
Walles created Hope Theatre Group last year to offer more opportunities for kids interested in drama.
Walles dreamed for years about starting his own theater group. He went to Pacific Lutheran University to study acting.
“I fortunately realized it was more likely I’d be an out-of-work actor,” Walles said.
Instead, he became a pastor and founded Hope Church in 2011, which merged with Sanctuary Covenant in 2018. Walles started a theater program at the church and directed shows at Cavelero Mid High School in Lake Stevens.
He noticed a gap in activities for kids between 11 and 15 years old. Younger children always have plenty to do, and “in high school, you can get a (driver’s) license,” he said.
So last year, Walles decided it was time to put a theater group together. He reached out to some former students from Cavelero, including Ghett Hardwick, 19.
Hardwick said some of the group’s first meetings took place in Walles’ living room: small gatherings with a music director, a tech specialist, parents and former students.
“At first, I thought it was one of his crazy ideas,” Hardwick said. “I wasn’t sure how far it would actually go.”
The group has produced three shows in the past year: “The Music Man,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Beauty and the Beast Jr.”
Each of those shows required space to perform, costumes, production rights and staff time. Tuition for youth theater performances elsewhere in the county can cost upwards of $300.
Hope Theatre Group only charged $100 to perform in “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” Many of the expenses came out of Walles’ pocket.
“It’s not about making money,” said Walles, 51. “It’s about providing opportunities to the kids.”
“We had to literally beg him to make ‘Beauty and the Beast’ tickets cost $10 instead of $5,” said choreographer Holly Hooper, 19.
Walles has been fundraising and applying for grants because he wants to pay his staff and create a sustainable community. But for now, Hope Theater Group is cultivating community on a shoestring budget. Walles doesn’t cut anyone during the audition process. About 40 kids performed in “Beauty and the Beast Jr.”
Lucas Sharp, 15, said Walles moved lunchboxes around to different tables every day to make sure everyone got to know each other.
Walles said he loves watching kids’ confidence grow during a production. One girl showed up to auditions and “looked terrified,” he said.
“Over the course of the week, we were watching her,” Walles said. “She was bright, alive. Her face was beaming. She was having a blast.”
It takes dedication to create a show on a tight turnaround, the actors said. “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” came together with 10 days of rehearsal time.
Avryn Flores, 15, called her mom and screamed over the phone when she was cast as Belle. And then she got to work: She watched the live-action movie twice and the original cartoon once. She practiced waltzing and rehearsed her lines with her mom.
Sharp, who played the Beast, prepared for his role by watching YouTube videos of bears and warthogs. He also learned to navigate his costume.
“The wig was so confusing,” Sharp said. “There was so much hair on it.”
The choreographers, Hooper and Haley Tabor, 19, created footwork routines kids could learn quickly, even in their unique costumes.
“For the first week, it was really rough,” Tabor said. “It was a little bit funky trying to figure out how the teacup is going to dance. And Mrs. Potts really doesn’t have any arms.”
About a quarter of the kids in “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” had never performed in a show before, Walles said.
“Even over this short of a rehearsal process, they grow so much in their skills,” Hardwick said.
Opening night was “surprisingly very smooth,” Hooper said.
Menzel said Gaston was her “favorite role (she’s) ever done.” She wasn’t originally expecting to take the role.
“I had to learn how to be evil and vulnerable at the same time,” she said. “I had to walk around like I was better than everyone and look smug.”
Registration for Hope Theatre Group’s next show, “Seussical: The Musical,” will open in October. Walles also plans to put on “Little Shop of Horrors” and “The Little Mermaid” in the next year.
Many of the “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” actors hope to return to future Hope Theatre shows as actors or assistants.