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Santa Sophia ministry takes a dramatic turn

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SPRING VALLEY — In early 2020, the Santa Sophia Drama Ministry was about a month into rehearsals for its inaugural production.

“But this thing called COVID closed us down,” said Steve Browne, the parish’s youth minister, who also serves the drama ministry as the producer.

Still, the show must go on.

Two years later, the drama ministry is once again in rehearsals for “Meet Me in St. Louis,” based on the 1944 film musical starring Judy Garland and centering on a family in St. Louis, Mo., at the turn of the 20th century.

Since late March, the cast and crew have been rehearsing for eight hours every weekend to prepare for opening night.

Performances will take place during the July 8-10 and July 15-17 weekends in the parish hall. Showtimes are 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students, and can be purchased in advance at the parish office or at the door on the night of the performance.

Once the drama ministry has recouped the costs associated with the production, including theatrical licensing, set design, costumes, props and other expenses, all proceeds will benefit the youth group, which is raising money to attend World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, next year.

Though drama ministry is fairly new to Santa Sophia Parish, it isn’t to Browne, who has been involved with it for about 25 years.

In 1995, he founded a drama ministry at St. John of the Cross Parish in Lemon Grove after a friend expressed the desire to direct a show.

He was expecting “this little thing” like a school play. But the parish’s first production, the musical “Li’l Abner,” became something of a phenomenon, with many parishioners —  and even the parish secretary and associate pastor — joining the cast.

The production fostered a sense of community among its cast and crew and led some of them toward greater engagement in parish life. Among the many young people who signed up for the production, Browne found new recruits for his youth group. He also saw teens who weren’t regular churchgoers accept their castmates’ invitation to join them at Mass after rehearsal.

Suzanne Kennedy-Ballon is the music director at Santa Sophia Parish. Like Browne, she previously served at St. John of the Cross Parish, where she too had been involved with its now defunct drama ministry. Today, she oversees the musical aspects of the Santa Sophia Drama Ministry.

She shared that, through participating in the drama ministry, some people have discovered vocal talents and have gone on to join the parish choir and to serve as cantors at Mass.

Though it doesn’t actively seek participants from outside the parish, the drama ministry isn’t restricted to parishioners, nor even to Catholics, but is open to the wider community.

Browne said the drama ministry doesn’t turn anyone away. Kennedy-Ballon said that those who want to be involved can also contribute by helping with costumes, set design, lighting or sound.

The Santa Sophia Drama Ministry is a ministry in more than name. Its rehearsals begin and end with prayer. And when unexpected challenges arise, like needing to find a new cast member only a month before the play was set to open, the drama ministry brings the situation to God in prayer.

“We couldn’t do it without prayer,” Browne said.

It’s Browne’s hope that “Meet Me in St. Louis” is just the beginning. He would like to see new productions held at the parish twice a year, in both spring and fall.

If previous productions at St. John of the Cross Parish are any indication, audiences at Santa Sophia’s upcoming performances are in for a treat.

“You just wouldn’t believe it how a community can come together and put on such a great show,” Kennedy-Ballon said, reflecting on the productions at her former parish.

Browne recalled a production of “The Wizard of Oz,” for which a friend donated professional stage-rigging equipment that allowed them to include flying effects.

“The audience about fell out of their chairs at this little church play when (the actors) were flying,” said Browne, who later learned that his friend typically charges about $10,000 to set up a single rig, but set up four at St. John of the Cross Parish in exchange for a six-pack of beer.

“That was a heck of a donation!” Kennedy-Ballon said.

Eric Rubalcava, a 33-year-old member of the parish choir, will be playing the role of Mr. Smith, the father, in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

A professional voice actor who specializes in radio and TV station promos, Rubalcava said, “I’ve been behind a microphone, but I’ve never been in front of people as an actual role.”

He saw the play as a “good way … to give back and help build the community.”

Izzy Newman, 16, is playing Rose Smith, the eldest of the family’s four daughters.

For Newman, who has been a lifelong parishioner of Santa Sophia Parish, participating in the drama ministry is a case of “going back to my roots.”

Newman has about eight years of professional acting experience under her belt, including a guest-starring role on the Disney Channel series “Bunk’d” and appearances in various shows on Peacock Jr., including “Izzy the Answer Girl.” But she got her first taste of acting in first grade, after unexpectedly landing the lead in a production of “Annie” at Santa Sophia Academy.

She hopes that theatregoers will come away from “Meet Me in St. Louis” with “a sense of what community truly looks and feels like: people of all ages connected through their faith, and doing what they love, and working hard towards an end goal, which for us is putting on a fun and enjoyable production.”

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