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Passion for theater unites community, Fort Riley at JCLT

By Julie Fiedler | 1st Infantry Division | December 18, 2013

The cast and crew of "A Wonderful Life," a Junction City Little Theater production, seem as varied as the characters in the play. But many have one thing in common: A tie to Fort Riley.

"Just about everybody feels connected to Fort Riley in some way," said the play's director, Pamela Kulokas.

For some – like Capt. Karl Kelson, physician's assistant, 701st Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, who played Sam Wainwright in the holiday musical – that connection is as an active-duty Soldier.

The time commitment was demanding, Kelson said. Sometimes he didn't get home from rehearsals until 11 p.m. and had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to get to post for physical fitness training. Kelson also said he had been preparing for a permanent change of station, which added to his demanding schedule, but, he said, it was worth it.

"I think (performing is) an outlet for a creative side that I had lost for many, many years," he said. "It also, I think, helps us to integrate as Soldiers in the community a bit more. It helps us to feel a little more normalized, and it helps other people to see us as a little more normal as well. I just feel like it's a great blessing and opportunity for me."

The play's female lead – Tiffany Stone – also said being in the production was worth having to juggle three small children and her husband's deployment.

"For me, this is so important, and I think it's why it's worth sacrificing time to come here," she said. "It's been really good for me … It helps me through the deployment."

Stone, also a veteran, attended a performing arts high school in New York, but stopped performing when she joined the Army. When she saw a local production of "Annie," she wanted to get back into theater.

"I was just inspired all over again," she said. "Whenever I see a production, it just comes right back to me. I crave it all over again."

Although Stone said she remembered shaking throughout her audition, she landed the lead role of Mary Hatch. But, more importantly, she said it reconnected with her own sense of identity.

"Having this, it's like I have myself," Stone said. "I still have a piece of me."

Rudi Metzler, who played Clarence, also expressed a passion for the theater.

"I love being backstage and being with people, and performing and being yourself," he said. "This is a place to let loose and let your hair down."

Metzler, who works as a sporting goods supervisor for Army and Air Force Exchange Service at Fort Riley, often does costume design for the theater company.

During the holiday, which is a busy season at AAFES, he said it's easier for him to fit performing in with his work schedule.

"I can still give, but I can't give my full time like I would with costumes," he said.

About half of the cast and crew have a connection to Fort Riley, Kulokas said, including a member of the 1st Infantry Division Band and an employee at the Fort Riley Post Library.

"It definitely takes a village to put on a show like this," she said. "It's a labor of love, and people are here because they want to be here … and they'd rather be doing this than anything else in their free time."

Kulokas herself is a military spouse.

"We've got all these Army stories, and these families that we're all going through the same things together while we're working on this play," she said. "We're all very much aware of our connection with Fort Riley and how important it is to stay involved in the community and keep ourselves busy."

When Kulokas first came to Fort Riley, she wasn't sure what she'd find, she said, but she knew she'd seek out a theater.

"Anywhere the Army sends us, I'll find a theater," she said. "I've done theater in a lot of different places, but this is by far the most dedicated, hardworking group of volunteers that I've ever worked with."

The production of "A Wonderful Life" closed Dec. 8 at the C.L. Hoover Opera House in Junction City.

To find out more about the JCLT or to get involved with the theater, visit www.jclt.info.

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