When Lee Hotovy first began directing backyard plays for a handful of neighborhood kids in Lincoln, Neb., she never imagined that the lawn chairs and humming cicadas would someday be replaced by cloth theater seats and a professional sound system.
After reading John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” in 1999, however, the mother of six desired to combine her love for God with her passion for the arts on a larger scale.
Shortly thereafter, Hotovy created Student Theatre and Godly Evangelization (Stage4Kids.com), a theater group that now performs several productions per year, each involving 15-35 kids, ages 5 and up.
“Part of Stage is our faith in action,” Hotovy said. “Yes, the children are learning … to work with other kids and how to present themselves to other people. They’re also learning to evangelize with the words they’ve been given.”
Hotovy’s original scripts often build upon a set of characters already familiar to an audience, such as Shakespeare and the lives of saints, while adding a series of amusing twists. “I have always felt that art should offer some kind of inspiration to its viewers, some kind of thought that stirs their souls in a positive direction.”
Most recently, Hotovy directed Something Super, starring Mediocre Man, three Secret Service COA (Choirs of Angels) and villains such as Rat Man and Mat Woman. Through music, dancing and comic-book-style fight scenes, the characters portrayed how ordinary people can achieve true greatness through small acts of service.
While acknowledging the importance of providing an enjoyable experience for the audience, Hotovy said she gives greater priority to the kids involved in the show by working to ensure each young actor feels important and confident in his or her role on stage.
Parent Tom Korta witnessed this dynamic during the most recent summer camp with his 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.
As principal of Pius X Catholic High School in Lincoln, Korta has noticed that theater also creates a strong work ethic and respect for others among students. “In a month’s time, I’m just so grateful for all the lessons these kids have learned — all centered on Christ.”
From the first audition, Hotovy works to instill virtue in the young actors. Each participant signs a contract promising to clean up after rehearsals, take good care of costumes and speak kindly to one another and to the many parent volunteers. They also pray as a group before, during and after each activity.
Hotovy specifically seeks the intercession of Blessed John Paul II and St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus (both playwrights in their time), along with St. Janisius (the patron saint of theater).
For Karrie Seeman, the choreographer and mother of several young thespians, this immersion in prayer is crucial. “All focus is brought back to giving glory to God,” she said.
Hotovy and her family have grown in the spirit of sacrifice. Her husband and children ages 8 and up often help build sets, sew costumes, write music and act.
“The challenges that arise when you do something like this have propelled us into really living that quote on the wall there,” Hotovy said, pointing to an inscription of 1 Corinthians 13 above the family’s fireplace mantle. “We consider our mission in life, if you will, to be about love and to extend that love out to the greater world.”
Msgr. Joseph Nemec, pastor of St. Teresa’s in Lincoln, has witnessed this dynamic because he gladly offers his parish’s facilities for many rehearsals and performances. “With the Hotovy family, Stage is truly a work of love, generosity and sacrifice,” he said. “It has benefited many young men and women and children, and it has inspired many adults.
“In our day and age, when the movie theaters and the television have declined in quality and morality, all the more it’s important that someone is providing entertainment which is beautiful to behold.”
Over the years, the theater troupe has performed at local theaters, churches, high schools and Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
More than a decade since its humble beginnings, however, folding chairs and the buzz of cicadas still mark the group’s annual production of Hotovy’s first and favorite play, a personal rendition of the Marian apparitions at Fatima.
Fatima is performed outdoors each September, in conjunction with the Diocese of Lincoln’s Marian Mass and candlelight Rosary procession. Hotovy said it holds a special place in her heart.
“I loved the idea that [Fatima] was about children who were chosen for this big task,” Hotovy said. “If there is an importance to our work that goes beyond giving students opportunities to learn theater and to perform, it lies in spreading this message in particular: that we are called to ‘pray, pray very hard,’ as Our Lady stated to the children.
“The story and its message are as relevant today as they were in 1917.”
Kimberly Jansen writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.