Penny Notter is preparing for her 26th season with GRCT and has worked in community theater for more than 40 years. Photo by Michael Buck
This summer, the American Association of Community Theater honored Grand Rapids Civic Theatre Associate Director/Education Director Penelope (Penny) Notter with its Fellow Award. The Fellow Award is considered the highest honor within the national organization and is bestowed upon members of the AACT who, over a period of years, have contributed significantly to the idea and ideal of community theater.
“To me, it was a huge deal,” Notter said. “I’m not going to belittle it and act modest because the reason it was a huge deal is because of the people who came before me — all the other fellows. They are such amazing people and for me to be a part of that was really special. They are people who I respect enormously.”
Notter received this award as she prepares for her 26th season with GRCT and more than 40 years into her community theater career.
She has been recognized for her work previously, as well, receiving the AACT Distinguished Merit Award in 2010 and, in 2009, the Community Theater Association of Michigan’s Robert A. McKenna Community Theater Achievement Award.
From the age of 7, Notter was in love with theater, she said, attending productions in Chicago with her mother and telling her that one day she, too, would appear on the stage.
Growing up in a small town in Indiana, Notter said there weren’t any opportunities to become involved in theater, so she had to wait until college to embark on her journey.
PENELOPE (PENNY) NOTTER
“I started out as an actress because I wanted to be on the stage,” she said. “I had some great opportunities in college with some theater companies — semi-professional theater companies — and I got some good training.”
Notter majored in theater at Indiana University and later received her master’s degree in theater from Indiana State University. She also spent six years in New York and traveled around the country for a period doing dinner theater.
“Eventually, by accident, I ended up teaching theater at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana,” she said.
It was during this time that Notter said her big break occurred: directing a production of “Winnie the Pooh.”
“That is when, all of a sudden, they said, ‘OK, you have to direct a show,’” she explained.
“I immediately knew — this is it, this is where I fit.
“I love doing crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and that is what directing is. It is putting all the pieces of the puzzle together so that they look just right. It was so much fun, plus the collaboration, working with the actors and designers. It’s a team sport.”
Notter’s husband landed a job in Grand Rapids, and the couple set out for West Michigan with high hopes, thanks to a packet of information she received from the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, which was chock full of information on the city’s diverse theater scene.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be wonderful,’ and it was,” she recalled. “I was here for less than a week. I came down to Civic and auditioned to be in a play, got a part and that was it.
“I did some more acting and then started teaching in our Grand Rapids Civic Theatre School of Theatre Arts. I became the education director and then the associate director (of GRCT), and that is what I still am.”
Notter has directed more than 150 plays to date and taught countless children. As education director, she manages a year-round, full curriculum for students age 4 and up.
GRCT has one of the largest community theater education programs in the nation.
She notes that education is one of the best parts of her job.
“For me, being at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, what is so special is our commitment to educating young performers and adults. I think that separates us from other community theaters without strong education. It makes us even more special.
“The reason I am so passionate about it is because of our commitment to education — that is the number one thing. I can go direct a play anywhere and I can have a good time, but I can’t have this anywhere.”
Notter points out that GRCT alumni have gone on to careers on and off Broadway, as well as acting in television and in film. Former students are performing in Las Vegas and as part of cruise ship entertainment casts.
“Our kids are out there really mattering in the professional theater world. That is a big deal,” she said.
Those students who don’t go on to acting careers still gain useful skills and experiences that help them grow into adulthood and succeed in their chosen professions.
“The biggest, number one thing is self-esteem, because they are encouraged to think for themselves and be creative for themselves,” Notter said.
“There is a freedom there that allows them to understand themselves better. And, we hear this over and over and over again from parents — that it can be truly a life-changing experience.
“The other thing: It creates a safe environment for a child. They aren’t going to be made fun of and they are able to experiment.”
Notter noted that community theater is vital to the fabric of our communities. Repeating the words of one of her theater friends, Notter said that community theater is our national theater.
“There are community theaters in tiny little towns of 5,000 people and then community theaters like this, which is one of the largest in the country. … It does tie the nation together.”
She believes the Grand Rapids community really understands that and shows it in its support of the several theater companies vying for an audience here.
“There is no question that there is a commitment in this community for not just theater but for the arts. Otherwise, none of these places could sustain the ballet, the opera, the symphony. How many communities this size have that kind of stature? So there is a wonderful support system here.
“What is so interesting to me, having been here for so long, (is how) the theater community continues to grow. New people move into the community all the time. We are seeing new talent and it just continues to grow — it’s never stopped.”
She pointed out that the recent casting call for “Sherlock Holmes” brought out several new faces.
Notter notes the most exciting time in her career was when the historic Grand Rapids Civic Theatre building, built in 1903, was being renovated. The newly named Meijer Majestic Theatre was completed in 2006.
“Watching them restore the theater house was one of the most exciting things. … I would go out and stand on the stage and cry, I would be so excited. … For my whole tenure here, that was probably the most exciting thing.”
As for her favorite productions, Notter won’t even try to choose.
“It's like the last thing you did was the most fun thing you did,” she explained.
During the 2013-2014 season, Notter is slated to direct four productions, including “Sound of Music,” “Junie B. Jones” and “9-to-5.”