WAXAHACHIE — For the last decade, the Ellis County Children’s Theater has provided a creative outlet, especially during the summer months, for youth to push the boundaries of comfort. And, for the last four weeks, the theatre, students and professional staff have prepared to wow audiences with a production of “Beauty and the Beast, Jr.”

Over 50 children led by three professional directors will take center stage this Saturday, July 15 for two performances of the Disney classic and recent blockbuster, “Beauty and the Beast.” In the adaptation, Bailey Ballard stars as Belle, while Carlwell Redmon plays the role of Beast, Simon Bailey as Gaston, and Noah Reynolds as Lefou.

Though the Ellis County Children’s Theater (ECCT) has been in the community for 10 years, ECCT founder Gail Stutts Harrell said she frequently receives mixed responses when discussing an upcoming production or class session. According to the longtime educator and choir director, responses typically range from confusion on Ellis County having multiple theatre production companies to general head scratching as to how a children’s theatre has hidden behind a curtain in the community for a decade.

“Sometimes I just want to bang my head against the wall and say ‘Yesss we are here,’” said Harrell.

“At the Ellis County Children’s theatre, we give them the tools to create and then the skillset to create and then we add the confidence. Without those three things, we will not have confident leaders. If you think Ellis County Children’s Theatre is just about theatre, it isn’t. It is about ‘how can I be a dynamic leader.’ Sure, some of these kids might go into theatre but, probably, most won’t. But that is not what we are there for.”

The ECCT is a 5013C non-profit, with all of the money donated directly funneling into productions and not salaries for board members, explained Harrell. She noted funds raised by the organization are used to build sets and props, purchase costumes and hire directors. Harrell also said any extra excess funding goes into a long-range building account at the end of each year.

Through all of the classes and instruction, what remains at the core of the ECCT is creativity.

“If we take away the ability to create then we, as a society, will be reduced to machine-like creatures or having machines running our lives,” Harrell said. “Think about it. We have to have creativity.”

ACT ONE

Harrell served as the choir director at Waxahachie High School for 17 years and has spent more than 30 years in education, which included a stint at the Dallas Children's Theatre. While at WHS, she later added a title of music director for the musical theatre class.

Harrell said she came from a musical theatre background and, shortly after arriving at WHS and receiving approval from then-principal John Aune, helped produce the school’s first musical, “Bye, Bye Birdie." One of the actors in that musical and 2008 WHS graduate, Andrew McGlothen, played a role as a young child in the production and is now an instructor for the ECCT.

“He’s going to croak when he sees this,” laughed Harrell as she proudly spoke about the history of the theatre program and talent it has produced.

“From there, we (musical theatre department) became the premier group to go out and entertain, like for (Rep. Joe) Barton, or would leave campus to go to dance classes. That was the fundamental group that morphed into the musical theatre department at the high school.”

Two years later, Andy Reynolds joined the staff and, despite still not having a dedicated musical theatre class, helped further grow the musical theatre culture with a production of “Godspell.” The musical theatre and theatre programs again expanded five years later with the addition of Ryan Mullican.

“I loved teaching choir, but I always knew the bigger part of my heart was in theatre. I felt compelled when I moved here and saw that there was very little for children and teenagers to do during the summer months that I just, this sounds weird, but I just felt called to try and recreate my experience as a teacher with the Dallas Children’s Theatre.”

TAKE A BOW

Throughout the summer, ECCT held 10 camps ranging from beginning lessons to an advanced acting class for high school students under the direction of 2015 WHS graduate and current New York-resident actor, Taylor Wright.

Wright graduated with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in musical theatre from Coastal Carolina University and has since worked in regional East Coast theatres such as Northern Stage, Hangar Theatre and New London Barn Playhouse. He is also available for private bookings through the ECCT or by contact through his website, www.jtaylorwright.com.

Showtimes for Saturday’s productions of “Beauty and the Beast, Jr.” are 3 and 7 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children and students. Tickets can be purchased at the door of the Waxahachie High School Fine Arts Center. For more information, visit www.ecctheater.org or search “Ellis County ChildrensTheater” on Facebook.

“Everything I have ever asked of the community, there have never been any stumbling blocks. Every door has been opened. But I feel like God has called me to do this. I love every moment of it (musical theatre), and I can’t imagine not doing it,” Harrell added.

“[…] We would like for the community, as it has for the last 10 years, to get behind us, both emotionally and fiscally. Get aboard because this has to happen in order for our culture and our kids to be strong. Like (Andy) Reynolds says, ‘Make bold decisions.’”