CenterStage for Christ : Giving back to our community, one laugh at a timeJun 23, 2020 10:24PM ● By Traci Burns
Diane Kinsley wanted to find a way to contribute to her church home, Perry United Methodist Church but she didn’t sing in the choir or play hand bells, and she wasn’t too keen on making casseroles for the bereavement committee. A veteran community theater performer and past drama director at Houston County High School, she had a passion for the stage, so when the church granted her permission to start an adult drama ministry, Diane was elated.
CenterStage for Christ performed for the first time in 2006, putting on a corny little murder mystery, complete with spaghetti dinner, in the church’s fellowship hall. The room was ill-equipped for theater, but the troupe made it work. The drama bug bit, and soon they were searching the Christian catalog for material for their next show. The problem was, they kept coming up emptyhanded, uninspired by the scripts they found. Enter Michael Kinsley, Diane’s husband. A Perry dentist whose office, Dentistry at Houston Lake, is decked out in exuberant showbiz-themed style, Michael is a lifelong aficionado of theater, music and all forms of performance. He was ambitious enough to suggest writing a script of his own for the troupe to perform–even though it would be his first time writing a play.
“We wanted something bigger, longer and funnier than anything we were finding in the catalog,” says Diane. Michael’s solution was to pen his own riff on the popular musical “Damn Yankees,” which he cleverly reconfigured as “Darn Yankees,” complete with retooled songs. With this performance, CenterStage for Christ began a nearly 15-year streak of ministering to the community via laughter –and building an amazing family of friends in the process.
Currently, CenterStage for Christ puts on two original performances each year. For the past four years, they’ve added a pop-up murder mystery dinner theater to their roster. They’ve also been able to branch out and perform their original material at other venues.
Warner Robins Little Theater recently wrapped a revival of “Two Mamas Too Many,” which garnered rave reviews from audiences and performers alike. “In theater, there can be a lot of drama, because of the big personalities, but we have such great camaraderie, there’s none of that,” Michael says. “People said it’s a breath of fresh air not to have a soap opera going on backstage."
The sometimes-edgy material in Michael’s plays has been the subject of some isolated instances of pushback. “Our plays are about flawed people,” says Diane, “and in a church sometimes people don’t want to see flawed people; but that’s real life. We want to present something real, and something funny –because heaven knows we need laughter these days.”
“The play ‘Saddle Sore’ was about four prostitutes who become missionaries, and people didn’t like that there were prostitutes in the show,” says Michael. “But there were prostitutes in the Bible! We respectfully accept the criticism, but the positive feedback far outweighs the negativity. People respond to the subject matter of our shows. So, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”
The Kinsleys reached out to church members and contacts from their community theater days to be part of CenterStage, and built a core group of creative powerhouses who quickly bonded over their shared enthusiasm for performing and for the underlying message in Michael’s plays.
Actor Mark Blankenship says, “Through these shows, what we’re doing is planting a seed. Michael writes scripts that are about a family, or a crisis, or about grief or addiction. Whatever it is, it’s something people can relate to. We know we’ve done our job when people keep coming back for more. People who weren’t raised going to church and who might be uncomfortable in that atmosphere see us onstage having a good time and dancing to disco songs by Neil Diamond, not being straitlaced or judgmental, and that plants a seed. There’s a message in that.”
“It’s all about reaching people where they’re most comfortable to be reached,” says actor Anita Williams, who has been with the troupe since their very first show. “And that doesn’t just refer to our audience –the people who come together to put on these shows support each other, and people come here when they need a place to fit in, to be creative, to feel included. We all believe in the mission; we’re doing it to contribute to the community.”
CenterStage found the community willing to contribute right back. Corky Powell, after seeing two of their plays, contacted them to ask if they needed help building sets for upcoming shows, and he’s been doing just that ever since–plus taking on the occasional acting role.
“One thing I love is sitting and talking with Michael about the sets for new plays,” says Corky. “These plays have never been done before, so there’s no existing design. I have to pull it out of my head. It’s a challenge and a blessing. And it’s one of the reasons we’re so appealing to actors. They’re playing characters that have never been portrayed on stage before, so they’re able to make it their own and really let their talents shine.”
In 2011, after seeing a CenterStage production, Fred Cusick offered his services as tech director, a position he holds at a sister church in Warner Robins. “The first play we did, Michael wrote in a part for me,” Fred says.
Laughing, Michael interjects, “I didn’t know he would do the tech without a part, that’s why I wrote him in. I found out later he would’ve done it either way.
”Fred still heads up sound and lights for CenterStage, but limits his onstage participation to smaller parts. Once he played the voice of God, and another time he was a DJ, with his sound booth costumed as a DJ booth. “My memorization skills aren’t the greatest,” laughs Fred, “so I’m better if the script can be in front of me while I’m reading.”
Elaine Moncrief reached out to the troupe via the contact info in one of their playbills, and wound up acting in “Saddle Sore” for her CenterStage debut. “I absolutely loved it,” she says. “Diane’s an amazing director. She pulled a good performance out of me.”
The play was set in the wild wild west, and during rehearsals, Elaine found herself enjoying the job of set dresser, searching her home for unique props and loving the creative outlet of set design. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I am a hoarder,” she laughs. “I’ve inherited tons of things from my parents.” Over time, Elaine also took on the mantle of stage manager.
Gale Bryant, an actor who met the Kinsleys via the Perry Players, says, “I can’t say enough about these two. They give us so much positive feedback; they share their time, energy, praise, instruction and encouragement. In theater, you become a family with each new show, but this is different. This family doesn’t separate –it’s always there. When new people come into the fold to work with us, they’re often nervous, but it doesn’t take them much time to calm down and realize they’re in a safe, nonjudgmental place.”
All this positivity radiates throughout the community in waves of goodness. “We have a very large outreach, which is something not every church can do,” says Michael. “We attract both members and people who have never stepped foot inside a church, and we draw in people from Perry, Warner Robins and Macon.”
Most shows draw an audience of between 700 and 1,000, and all ticket proceeds go directly to charities like the HALO Group, the Methodist Home and Family Promise, who were able to buy a much-needed van with the $9,000 received from CenterStage.
Michael recently completed his 32nd original script, entitled “One Mississippi,” tentatively scheduled for fall 2020.This time, he’s branching out into drama, and the troupe is perfectly poised to branch out along with him. Because of their high standards and loyal core group of actors and crew members, the Kinsleys say that their performances are 100 percent on par with those from community theater. They’ve been able to revamp Perry United Methodist Church’s fellowship hall with new seating, lighting and a new stage, and they’re always looking for ways to innovate and improve.
“This is the most can-do group of people I’ve ever been around,” Diane says abouther CenterStage for Christ family. “I’m unworthy of the sacrifices they make for us. There’s no pay; it’s all volunteer and it’s a lot of work. We build everything from the ground up, every performance. I didn’t expect it to get this big, but I am so glad God had bigger plans for us. When I think of the lives this ministry has touched, I’m in awe. It’s so humbling to know we’re part of serving our community in ways that we probably don’t even know about. We are so grateful.”
CenterStage for Christ
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