Neighborhood Go-getter Sets Her Sights on Keeping Beloved Children's Theatre Group on Stage

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"I hadn't been in a show since third grade," confides Nancy Morton, the recently elected board president of the long-running East Bay Children's Theatre (EBCT).

But last year, she came full circle, making her adult debut as a townsperson in EBCT's production of "Jack and the Beanstalk and the Giant, and the Goose, and the Really-Truly-Uly Rotten Day" in front of third graders plus other pre-K to 5th-grade students. "I only had a few lines," Morton is quick to tell me.

For more than 80 years, the non-profit group has presented musical theater take-offs of traditional folk and fairy tales without charge, mainly to elementary schools in Oakland. Its funding comes from grants, donations and public performances, which this coming year will be held March 15 at Berkeley's East Bay Jewish Community Center and March 22 at the Lafayette Town Hall.

The EBCT, begun in 1933, bills itself as "the oldest continuously performing theatre company in the San Francisco Bay Area." Although its productions are written, directed and staged by professionals, it is volunteers such as Morton who perform, help with costumes and sets and handle lighting and sound. (The EBCT shouldn't be confused with the Bay Area Children's Theatre, begun in 2004.)

Morton was brave enough to let me attend the first general membership meeting she chaired as 15 members gathered on a September morning in her sunny Rockridge bungalow, very close to where I live.

I had been to her home twice before. Once, she spontaneously invited my husband and me to her annual Christmas party as I walked by her house during our first holiday season after we moved from the Detroit area. Some months later, we got an invite to an impromptu summer Solstice celebration. "Any excuse for a party," says this free spirit who attended Burning Man two years ago for the first time.

Morton grew up in Pasadena and majored in English at UCLA, but then became a banker. She moved first to Berkeley, then to San Francisco. At a time when she was between jobs, she bought her house in Rockridge.

That was 1995: "Lucky me. I ended up living in Rockridge at a time when you could afford it." She answered "a little ad in The Rockridge News" about selling advertising for the paper. "I did it for a couple of years to get connected with the neighborhood." In those days, she said, "I had to scour around for those ads."

Then, "I reinvented myself as a bookkeeper for nonprofits," until her retirement several years ago. Meanwhile, she still helps bundle the newsletter for its monthly distribution in Rockridge and delivers a batch to a street near her home.

As for a lot of organizations that started way back when, the challenge for EBCT is to bring in newcomers. What a perfect entrance for - drum roll please - the recently retired Morton.

The backstory is that Morton, always an avid theatergoer, rediscovered her love to be part of show biz when she celebrated her 65th birthday in January 2013. "I threw myself a big birthday party, rented a hall and created a slide show of my life," she says.

Then she lured six people she knew from the Montclair Presbyterian Church Choir to perform as a sort of Greek chorus, singing lyrics she wrote set to well-known melodies. "I realized I was sort of the executive producer of this show." That prompted her to confide to her friend Sari Kulberg that, "I really want to do something with theater." It was Kulberg, a member for about 10 years, who told her about the EBCT.

"Anybody that I find who's interested in theater, I direct to the East Bay Children's Theatre," says Kulberg, who has lived 47 years in the same Rockridge house. "Their productions bring kids to life. Everybody - adults and kids - has something to love about the plays." This year's production - "There's No Business Like Shoe Business" - based on "The Elves and the Shoemaker" fairy tale, will be given at 11 schools, including Peralta Elementary which many Rockridge students attend.

"They're wonderful," says longtime Peralta principal Rosette Costello, of the troupe. "They're responsive. They truly love what they're doing. They would never be invited back if they weren't wonderful."

The EBCT also delivers an educational guide to teachers ahead of each performance. "A lot of our members come from teaching," Morton says. "This year they are working hard to incorporate it with the new CORE curriculum."

One of those charged with developing the guide is Barbara Sloane, a 20-year member, who first met Morton at last year's auditions. "Nancy immediately began asking people we hadn't thought of to join. She's a go-getter. She won't let people say no."

"Nancy is a real "pick up the ball and run with it' kind of person," Kulberg seconds. "She's very generous, open, thorough - and a lot of fun."

But don't look for her on stage this February and March, which EBCT members refer to as "the trouping season." "I think I will forgo performing in order to focus on rebuilding the organization," Morton told me. "There's so much to do, including growing our membership."

Still, she makes time to volunteer for North Oakland Village, which works to keep area seniors living in their own homes. "I set up their books and I drive for them," she says. "I just feel we need to help while we can when we can. It's the right thing to do."

The EBCT welcomes new members and donations, and holds open auditions for roles in their annual productions. Go to ebctonline.org for further information. As always, your comments and story ideas are welcome by emailing judyberne@att.net.