December 18, 2002, Wednesday Lake
Gretchen Marquardt Daily Herald Staff Writer
Chicago Daily Herald
As children act out scenes in a recent production of an original comedic play, "Survivor: Holiday Island," perhaps the real story stands behind the scenes, in the form of Payge Whipple.
Whipple, the play's director and founder of the children's theater group CmJ Productions, traveled quite a road to be able to put on these performances.
For years Whipple, 34, wanted to start her own theater production company. In college her minor was theater. With encouragement from her family and friends, she also performed and directed with the Waukegan Community Players for six years. But something always held her back. "I never wanted to commit to anything because I didn't want to get sick and let a bunch of kids down," she remembered.
Diagnosed with chronic multiple sclerosis when she was 23, the Wadsworth resident's condition had worsened so much around Easter of 2001 that she was paralyzed on her left side and eventually confined to a wheelchair. With regular treatments of Novantrone, a form of chemotherapy just approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000 for treatment of multiple sclerosis, things slowly got better. She was walking again by Easter of this year.
As she still celebrated her regained ability to walk, hardship struck Whipple's family again when her husband lost his job this past summer.
Having to make a decision about family income, the couple decided it was the perfect opportunity to go after her dream.
"I couldn't think of anything I was interested in other than this," she said. "I wanted to do something that I could do with my disease."
Whipple's disease presents her with good and bad days, those when she needs a lot of rest, and those when she is up and active. She also suffers from double vision, which is correctable, but prevents her from driving after dark. Therefore, she works from home. Her husband made that possible. He finished their basement, transforming it into the area that is now the center of CmJ Productions. The theater is named for their three children, stepson Cory, daughter Mallory and son Jackson.
While her husband handled the remodeling, Payge Whipple had her own work to do.
"I studied to be an appropriate teacher," she said.
She borrowed from her sister, who is studying acting at the Chicago Academy of Arts, and she spent a lot of time at the library.
"Being in a play is more than just acting. I wanted the kids to be on every side of a production - directing, costuming, makeup, publicity, sets, props, etc.," she said.
She got the word out to schools, newspapers and even handed out fliers at parades. She also made calls to kids whom she had worked with before in the Waukegan Community Players. By August, she had a group of 10 children from Waukegan and Gurnee, ready to learn the ins and outs of theater.
"Four new children joined, and six have been in my past productions," she noted. "But they're all wonderful. They're all natural actors."
With her small group, she was able to carry out her wish of teaching all aspects of theater to the group. The children got together and read scripts, picked the play they wanted to perform, tried out for each other and voted on who should get which part, and even got to name their group. They became the First Place Players.
After months of practice and planning, performances of "Survivor: Holiday Island" went off without a hitch. They performed three separate shows at Washington Elementary School in Waukegan Dec. 6 and two shows for the public at Waukegan Bible Baptist Church Dec. 8. Class groups from Little Fort, Oakdale, Cooke-Magnet and Hyde Park elementary schools in Waukegan came see their performances Dec. 9.
"It was a good play. It was a great day. (The kids) had fun, and the parents had fun. That's all I care about," Payge Whipple commented.
She has plans for a spring production. She is holding tryouts for children ages 7 to 18, at her home, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Jan. 10 and from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 11. She hopes to have a large cast for this spring production. In the fall, she hopes to again offer the smaller group instruction on all aspects of theater.
Whipple doesn't know what the future holds because, due to toxic effects it can have to the body, Novantrone treatments are limited to eight in a lifetime. She has already had five. But Whipple plans to continue to fight her disease and continue doing what she loves.
"I have always wanted to be famous. I'd love to be on Letterman, or Regis and Kelly would be fine, too," Whipple said, smiling at the thought. "But I'll just stick with small town plays and get (these kids) famous."
For information about CmJ Productions, call Payge Whipple at (847) 360-1336
© Copyright 2002 Paddock Publications, Inc.