Kids take grown-up approach to save KISS Theatre

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First Posted: 3/10/2014

The KISS Theatre Company prepared for its biggest production ever as it fights for its survival and the loss of its Wilkes-Barre home for the past five years.

Children who are part of Kids Innovating Stage and Sound, their parents, and supporters filled the seats of the theater where they perform inside the Wyoming Valley Mall on Sunday and brainstormed on how to respond to the 90-day eviction notice from the landlord.

This time there was no script, no acting, and no curtain calls – just ideas and energy directed toward keeping the group intact.

An online petition on already has over 3,000 signatures, and efforts were underway to reach out to the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, the owner of the mall, that plans to fill the space with a restaurant.

Fliers have been printed. Social media was abuzz with word of the eviction. A song was written. An anthem was in the works. And somebody in the audience offered the use of a brother-in-law’s flatbed trailer for a float to rally support this weekend in the St. Patrick’s Day parades.

Beyond the Wyoming Valley, theater groups from across the country have taken notice of what’s happening, said Christa Manning, the producing artistic director of KISS.

The nonprofit group that puts on more than a dozen performances a year with kids of all ages, including those with special needs, wants to stay where it’s at. “We would like to,” Manning said.

It benefits PREIT to keep KISS, she added, saying the kids, parents, and audiences who attend the shows spend money at the stores and restaurants at the mall.

Manning estimated that KISS drew 150,000 people to the area shopping mecca four years ago. Since then, she said, “my numbers have doubled and tripled.”

Larry Lebenson, a real estate broker from Kingston who helped KISS locate to the mall, said he has heard from other people who have space available. Still, the group is trying to have a dialogue with PREIT about staying, he said.

Lebenson said his granddaughter has performed with KISS. Families feel comfortable having their children involved in the shows.

“It’s a safe environment for parents,” he noted.

Should the group be forced to leave on June 5, the Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre would help out, said its general manager, Walter Mitchell.

“I guarantee you that your summer programs will have a place this summer at the Little Theatre,” Mitchell said.

As a former KISS board member, Mitchell offered encouragement and urged volunteers and professionals to commit their time and skills to ensure that the children’s theater group continues to perform.

There is nothing else around like it, and it’s proven it works, he said. “It’s not about the people of KISS. It’s about the concept,” he continued.

Paul Materniak of Kingston said his son Tyler was in a number of productions and the kids did a phenomenal job.

“You don’t really get to appreciate it until you see them,” Materniak said.