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Upper Room Theatre Ministry puts faith in the spotlight

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Robert Tessier sits surrounded by more than 30 teens and young adults in the lobby of All Saints' old church, now called the Parish Activity Center (PAC). He's going through his notes from the previous night's rehearsal and giving critiques - cues, blocking, timing - the countless small, but vitally important details that go into making a theater performance great.

Other than his black polo that reads "Upper Room Theatre Ministry" and the small cross hanging around his neck, there is little that differentiates this scene from the rehearsal of any secular theater group - until Tessier finishes giving his notes, and asks everyone to join him in prayer. The room grows quiet, heads bow and hands clasp together as he gives thanks for all of the people working to make this performance happen. In closing, he reminds the cast, "we are building something that is bigger than ourselves."

Upper Room Theatre Ministry is celebrating its 15th anniversary at All Saints with "Into the Woods," July 19-24. The Broadway musical is a re-imagining of several Brothers Grimm fairy tale characters, including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood.

Tessier ran a theater ministry at St. Mark Church in Vienna before coming to All Saints Church in Manassas in 2001. The very first show he directed at All Saints was "Godspell," performed in July 2002. He said this was a "very bare bones production" - less than 20 actors auditioned for the show, and it ultimately featured 14 performers in a un-airconditioned gymnasium. However, humble beginnings soon turned into a rapidly growing theater group.

"I had friends who were professionals in lighting and design and sound, so I invited them to come and help me," Tessier said. "Once we got to the production and once everyone saw the big lights, they were all sold. So then the following year, we had like 70 people audition. "

Eleven more musicals were performed in the gymnasium, until All Saints renovated its old church and turned it into an activity center in 2013. This has served as what Tessier calls the "performing arts center" - where the summer musicals have been performed ever since.

This change in location has boosted the quality of the performances, Tessier said, and has continued to draw in larger crowds each year. "It's not just people from All Saints community; we've got people driving in from Maryland. In the past, we were happy if we got 1,000 or 1,500 people to come out. Last year when we did 'Peter Pan,' we hit almost 4,000."

Growing audiences mean more than just excited cast members performing for full houses - the money from ticket sales and concessions goes toward supporting other youth ministries in the parish. This includes fully funding the youth program, as well as subsidizing the costs of attending mission trips, retreats and WorkCamp.

Tessier said Upper Room Theatre Ministry's mission is to reach out to a broader community, "beyond just those who are Catholic," to bring God to others through "live, uplifting performances." More specifically, the program draws in teens from inside and outside of the parish to become more involved with the church.

"Maybe they were the type of teen that was like, 'I don't want to go to youth group, it's not my thing, but I love drama.' So they come and do this, they make friends, they experience a community that's intentional and prayerful, and there's purpose behind it all," he said. "And then they're like, 'I want to do more stuff with the church other than just shows.'"

Ashley Nguyen, 17, was not a parishioner of All Saints when she got involved with Upper Room two years ago. She was referred to the program by her voice teacher, and that year the group was performing "Les Misérables" - one of her favorite shows. She was cast in the show, and since then she has been attending All Saints' youth group, despite living in Loudoun County.

Elizabeth Davis, All Saints parishioner and recent graduate of Osbourn High School in Manassas, said performing with a theater group that is based in the faith establishes a common ground with her and her cast members. "When I did shows at my high school it was nice, but here I feel like because there's like a faith bond, it's easier to connect," she said.

Sean Bartnick, 26, has been performing with Upper Room since he was 15. He said a decade later, it is the intention behind the performances - and the fun - that brings him back each year.

"I love coming back here," Bartnick said. "What's great about Upper Room is that you have a driving force. You're doing it for the people around you, but you also have the center of God. And you can always look to that - we have a prayer before every rehearsal and before every run."

There is a connection between theater and faith, Tessier said. A good show can inspire and convince audiences, and he focuses on emphasizing these meaningful messages to spread the word of God. "I have a love for theater, I also have a love for the faith," he said. "So the way that it comes together is that we try to identify shows that you can find in it some sort of powerful message."

Upper Room is not the only ministry of its kind in the diocese; St. Bernadette Church in Springfield and Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria co-sponsor their own theater program that is celebrating its 20th year this summer. Their group will be performing Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" at Bishop Ireton High School July 28-30 at 7:30 p.m., with an additional 1 p.m. show July 30.

Husar can be reached at mhusar@catholicherald.com

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016