"CCT is not just about theater; it's about having a place where you belong," Ryan Karstensen says.
Karstensen has been involved with the nonprofit, all-volunteer Cobb Children's Theatre for most of his life. He started as a member in 1978, the year his parents, Leslie and Norm, took over the organization.
"It wouldn't be what it is today without their influence," Karstensen says. "The theater was my mother's life. She put everything into it, and she did a great job of connecting with the community and really making an impact on people's lives."
Karstensen has been the leading force behind CCT since 1999, after his mother's death in 1998.
"It may be really hard to see the impact if you're not in the group," he says. "But it has easily touched over 3,000 people in the community."
CCT does three shows a year, each with around 40 kids. The fall and spring shows are with middle school and high school students ages 10 to 19. The summer show is with high school and college students ages 13 to 25.
"I don't really know for sure what the impact is that I have," Karstensen says. "I have seen a lot of influence reach out to the community, or I at least hope I have."
Karstensen remembers the day the board of trustees for CCT disclosed plans to close the theater and come back to it later. "I remember just saying, 'No, you can't do that. This group has to be out there. To touch a life you have to be there, and you have to have a production.' "
Like his mother, Karstensen is making an impact and touching lives. "I've had old-timers walk up to me and tell me that their confidence and ability to speak publicly is directly related to their time with CCT," he says. "The kids get teamwork, the value of responsibility and education on the total theater experience ... from the first day of auditions to opening day."
It is not just children who benefit from the CCT family. Karstensen recalls a mother who was out of work for a year. She and her special-needs child were involved in CCT. After getting a job, she told Karstensen she attributed it to CCT and the connections she made through the group.
"CCT is a family; it gives adults and children a place to belong," Karstensen says. "And once you're a part of CCT, you always will be."
Referring to the mother's special-needs child, Karstensen says: "He doesn't perform with CCT, but he is loved and admired, and I think his development has been greatly furthered by the project. That's why we're here."
Karstensen acknowledges that his commitment to CCT can be difficult.
"Balancing everything, getting all the people who volunteer at various commitment levels to work together and get things done, that is the most creative part of all this," he says.
"I have to remember that they all have lives and things to do. It's hard sometimes, especially when a lot of the volunteers change. They usually only stay as long as they have a child in the group."
CCT has 40 volunteers, whom Karstensen manages.
"I understood it was a selfless sacrifice to commit to, but what I'm doing is a positive addition to the community," Karstensen says. "It's a thankless job at times," he adds with a laugh, "but it's worth the sacrifices."
In addition to a full-time job selling medical supplies, Karstensen spends at least two hours a day working for CCT and says it is usually closer to five hours.
"The key is to have an understanding family," he says.
"Why do I keep doing this every day? The only answer I can say is you just have to watch the kids and watch their eyes and face and expression when they are onstage for the first time. Their excitement—they are just starstruck, and their parents are ecstatic. It's for them. I come back for them. It would be easier not to, but if I didn't, this project probably wouldn't be here, and the community needs this organization—the kids need it."
Karstensen has worked to get the theater and the kids more involved in the community. CCT helped West Side Elementary with its production's city design, works with and donated a pit cover to the Strand, and lent its Beauty and the Beast set and costumes to the parks for a production. It was the third time Karstensen loaned out that particular set.
"The CCT Princesses are all about community outreach," Karstensen adds. That group of around 10 girls participated in a Cystic Fibrosis walk. "We are really trying to spread out and make the community aware of who we are. ...
"The spotlight has to be on the organization, the volunteers and the kids, because it doesn't go anywhere without them."
CCT was nominated for 11 of 16 of the 2011 Metropolitan Atlanta Theater Awards for its Into the Woods production. CCT won best wardrobe (Theresa Peeples and Katryn Taylor) and best set design (Karstensen, Bryan Taylor and Levi Kaplan).
Each show costs $14,000 to $18,000 to produce. Around 98 percent of CCT's funds come from "butts in the seat," Karstensen says. Including donations from sponsors, the theater breaks even after a show or has maybe $2,000 left to start the next show.
Still, the progress is remarkable, from $1,000 and one volunteer, Karstensen, in 1999 to 40 volunteers today.
If CCT has had an impact on you, Karstensen wants to know.
"We have at least 700 alumni in the area at any one time, and we want to reach out to them," he says.
"I remember the pastor at my mother's memorial service said, 'If CCT has impacted your life in any way, then give back.' Give back—always remember to give time, money, anything you can, even if it's just coming out and seeing a show."