As a child, Chloe Torrence said she was sometimes hard pressed for fun things to do.
There was no movie theater, no roller-skating rink, and no park in Berlin, Ohio, a small town of just over 3,800 people. The only place to go after 5 p.m. was a pizza shop or fast food place, and nothing was open on Sunday.
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Fast forward 20 years, and children in this town in the heart of Ohio Amish country can now enjoy an annual full-scale musical production at a place called The Actor’s Playground. And princess parties abound, where little girls attend glittery gatherings and are sprinkled with fairy dust.
It’s all thanks to Torrence, who is graduating this month with a University of Pittsburgh Bachelor of Arts degree in theatre arts.
She founded The Actor’s Playground and a side business called Fairytale Entertainment, all while she was a Pitt drama student.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do was theater,” said Torrence, who, as a teenager, would beg her mother to drive her an hour out of town for a chance to audition for acting roles. Though Torrence grew up in a non-denominational Christian church, her grandfather was Amish. She looked forward to Mother’s Day weekend and the Princess Tea that took place at grandpa’s Amish restaurant. By the time she was 12, she was helping to produce the event, adding more staff and special features.
She performed in her high school plays and successfully petitioned the local school board for permission to start a theater program in the middle school. Torrence directed a production of “Seussical” at the school, which sold out to the point where more shows had to be added.
It was a significant victory for her, because the focus and funding in the Berlin schools up until then had always been on athletics, not theater.
“Those 40 or 50 kids from that cast still reach out to me and ask me for job references now,” said Torrence.
Torrence threw herself into her craft her first year at Pitt. She learned how to build sets and sew costumes, though she had been doing that since she was a pre-teen.
“I’m a strong believer in a BA in theater,” she said. “Even the tech people take acting classes. Everyone takes a wide range. So if I walk into any theater, I am marketable in a million ways.”
After a lot of planning, research and trips back and forth to Berlin, where she waitressed by day and spent late nights at the sewing machine, The Actor’s Playground opened its doors in summer 2016 with a production of “The Little Mermaid.” Despite its success, it raised a few eyebrows in the conservative community, Torrence said, because of concerns that the girls’ midriffs would be exposed. Torrence solved the problem by using stretchy fabric that matched the girls’ skin tones for that part of the costume.
“With any theater, there will be pushback on the choice of shows,” said Torrence, who sports wavy pink hair and wears a backpack covered with small princess images.
At Pitt, Torrence’s director’s credits include Pitt Stages shows “Roustabout: The Great Circus Trainwreck!” and “The Last 5 Years” and “Mamma Mia!” and “Legally Blonde the Musical” by the Pitt Musical Theatre Club — of which she is president this year. She served as assistant director in five other productions, including “Hair.”
Said "Hair" director and head of performance Cynthia Croot: “I encouraged Chloe to take a more active role on ‘Hair,’ and she staged some of the scenes. She was also a great force of positive energy, something essential in the process that is often overlooked.”
That energy was evident on a recent weekday afternoon as Torrence directed two actors in a rehearsal for her Directing II class final. She bounded around the stage in her bright pink leggings, shouting out and asking them to follow behind her and repeat:
Later, during blocking, she advised, “Get over there quickly, even if you have to sprint!” And afterwards, “That was brilliant! Give me your thoughts.”
Croot says Torrence has a way of bringing a play to life. She says she has courage, excellent organizational skills and the ability to inspire collaboration with her vision.
In addition to The Actor’s Playground, Torrence remains in charge of Fairytale Entertainment, which has a cast of more than 30 diverse actors who play various princes and princesses at big and small events throughout central Ohio. And she has just accepted a position as an assistant director for the mainstage season at the Pacific Conservatory Theatre in Santa Maria, California, beginning in August.
Croot says she’s thrilled with Torrence’s next chapter, but is sorry to see her go.
“I will sorely miss her love of pink, passionate enthusiasm and her scrappy, brave, art-making joy,” she said.
Torrence is more than ready. She says she couldn’t have traveled the journey without the support of her community, church, close friends and family. And she will always relish her time with Berlin’s youngest cast members.
“Many parents would come up to me and tell me about the new confidence in their kids,” she said. “It means the world to me because I didn’t get to have that.”
She added: “Theater changes lives.”