Children's theater group marks 25 years with performance of Lion King Jr

Founder Bernadette Walsh (seated) is flanked by her daughters and fellow UpStage Players staff members (l to r) Stephanie DeNardo, Kris Walsh, and Carrie Walsh-Hilf.

Those who work in the world of live theater live by the saying, “The show must go on.”  For UpStage Players, a children's performing arts group, the show continues as they approach their 25th annual performance.

From the first performance of Camelot in 1994 to this year’s production of The Lion King Jr., UpStage Players has always featured child actors ages 7-15 from all over the Cleveland area.  With a no-cut policy, every child that wants to participate gets a part in the production.  While this year’s show will be staged at the Memorial-Nottingham Branch of the Cleveland Public Library March 21-24, the group has played at many different venues over the years. 

Although the shows change every year, the children age as new actors take their place, one thing remains constant with UpStage Players, a dedicated volunteer staff inspired by the Walsh family.  Family matriarch Bernadette Walsh of Euclid founded UpStage Players with the dream of providing children with an opportunity to be involved in a community-centered theater program where every child had the opportunity to participate.  With the support of her late husband Joe and other family members, the endeavor grew in popularity as her children became performers and ultimately staff, directors and production managers.

“We saw a need to give kids a safe, supportive environment where they could participate in a kids-only theater group to help them build confidence, character, and leadership skills in an inclusive environment,” said Walsh, Executive Director. 

Today the all-volunteer staff of UpStage Players is a community endeavor as the Walsh extended-family now includes people whose children grew up performing with the group, or former performers who want to give back to UpStage Players. 

With a cast and crew of 60 children, directing the performance falls on the shoulders of Carrie Walsh-Hilf whose children grew up watching practices as babies, performing as children and now offer support as crew members when needed.  “It’s kind of like The Lion King, the circle of life as kids are coming back and reinvest in the community,” said Walsh-Hilf whose husband is a technical director while her sister Kris choreographs the dance moves and another sister Stephanie is also active.  All were former performers.

Several years ago, UpStage Players got an infusion of support from a local Kiwanis Club when Jerry Seppelt, an active Kiwanis member with contacts in the Downtown Cleveland Club #2 including current president Robin Stone, saw the impact of UpStage Players and threw his support behind the group.   As a non-profit, community organization that supports children throughout the world, the Kiwanis saw UpStage Players as another opportunity to impact the lives of children.  Working in partnership with Kiwanis, UpStage Players launched its Builders Club to provide additional community support and leadership opportunities for its child actors.

Since then, UpStage Players performers have visited nursing homes, VA Hosptials, worked with special needs children through Playhouse Square, participated in food drives and many more activities.  “The Kiwanis partnered with UpStage Players because we saw how they were impacting kids’ lives. With our resources and support, we’re able to connect with more kids and their families to help build stronger communities,” said Seppelt.

“The Kiwanis and Jerry’s involvement have been such a blessing for us,” said Walsh-Hilf.  “Of course Kiwanis and the Cuyahoga Arts & Culture help us financially, taking some of the pressure off our constant need to fundraise.  But even more important is the leadership, business and community contacts they provide that have really helped us offer kids even more opportunities to get and stay involved.”

A special focus of this year’s performance will include featuring Alumni who will come back to celebrate 25 years of UpStage Players performances.  “We’ve seen a lot of children grow up and move on to varied careers and lives.  It’s great to see them come back and share memories and hear how they benefited from their experience,” added Bernadette Walsh.  “We’re looking forward to a celebration of life, the performing arts, and of children learning how to face challenges because the show does have to go on.”

Lion King Jr. tickets are available at  Performances are March 21-24.

Kurt Steigerwald

Someone who lives in Euclid, enjoys writing and wants to stay informed. My wife and I have two children and live in the northeast part of the City. We are active in many Euclid activities.

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Volume 10, Issue 3, Posted 2:41 PM, 03.10.2019