When Whitten and Jaclyn Montgomery were six and nine respectively, their mother, Sandy, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. What followed was more than a year of the Montgomery girls’ parents being largely away from home as Sandy sought experimental treatments at Stamford Hospital. To help limit the time their friends and family members had to be responsible for the children, the Montgomerys enrolled the girls in theater classes. It was merely somewhere for the kids to go to take up time. But at an age when most kids’ time-wasters involve a television or a video game, the Montgomery girls were on their way to creating a movement.
Three years after her diagnosis, Sandy chaired a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. When Whitten and Jaclyn decided they wanted to help, it was right out of a Garland and Rooney movie from the 1930s: “Hey, let’s put on a show!”
That show turned out to be “Annie,” staged in the Montgomerys’ basement for 20 people.
“We just wanted to do ‘Annie,’ I guess,” said Whitten. “‘Tomorrow’ is the perfect song for [Kids Acting Against Cancer].”
Kids Acting Against Cancer, or KAAC, is the nonprofit organization that Witten and Jaclyn started after that first performance of “Annie” in their basement.
There ended up being six performances of “Annie” over the course of six years and two performances of “Grease.” KAAC has also performed “The Little Princess,” “Cinderella,” “High School Musical,” “Into the Woods,” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
To keep up with demand, KAAC had to move “Annie” to the Big Spring Country Club for the second year’s production. The venue offered them the use of their space for free. Even though the kids had to use pool lounge chairs for orphanage beds, the low-budget production still raised $1,600.
In its third year, KAAC added a silent auction before the show and their fundraising skyrocketed to more than $10,000.
“We were so young and cute,” said Whitten. “Everyone we asked for donations gave us stuff – great stuff.”
“That doesn’t happen much anymore,” said Remy Sisk, who joined KAAC once the company moved on to producing “Grease” and is now one of the core officers.
Full disclosure: I taught both Whitten and Sisk when they were juniors at Louisville Collegiate School, so they’ll always be young and cute to me. But I understand what Sisk is getting at. He’s around 6 feet tall with a chin full of scruff.
It doesn’t seem to matter that the “kids” who head up KAAC are really no longer “kids.” Last year for “Cinderella,” they filled the Moritz von Bomhard Theater in The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. To date, KAAC has raised more than $300,000.
Initially, KAAC focused on helping out kids with cancer. One of their first big donations paid for an $8,000 complete blood count machine for a Kosair clinic. They’ve also created around 170 KAAC packs for Kosair kids – backpacks stuffed with hats, pillows, food, handmade lip balm, and dammit dolls.
“But we call them darn it dolls because they’re kids,” said Whitten. “They know what we mean.”
Some of those Kosair kids have gone on to act in KAAC plays.
The most recent initiative was a commitment to fully fund the game room at Gilda’s Club Louisville, an organization that provides support for individuals and their families who are facing cancer. This was a financial campaign that took three years and raised $100,000.
This year will likely be the last year that the core “kids” of KAAC will be as involved. Jaclyn, who is now 25, is an actress in New York City. Sisk, who recently graduated from Indiana University, will be going into the Peace Corps in March for over two years. Whitten, who recently graduated from Kenyon College, is considering pursuing an advanced degree in education administration. And Taylor Buchanan, who was Annie in the very first production of the eponymous musical and has had the female lead in every production since, is now at Bellarmine University working on a nursing degree.
As a result of these changes, KAAC is shaking things up this year. During the intermission of a performance of Actors Theatre of Louisville’s “Dracula,” Sisk and Whitten realized that neither of them wanted to do another musical. They simply preferred regular plays. In addition, straight plays are easier, with shorter rehearsal time – no dancing, no music – and are cheaper to license. While in the early years of KAAC the Montgomery girls hand-wrote their scripts and sang over CDs, they now get licenses for their productions.
“Musicals were always just what we did,” said Whitten.
This year they’ll be producing an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” And, for the first time, maybe Whitten and Sisk will be cast as leads.
Another change is coming in the form of a different schedule for their productions. Instead of one big blowout show, KAAC will have four shows in the more intimate Boyd Martin Experimental Theater [MEX] of The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. As usual, KAAC’s “Hey, let’s put on a show!” schedule is pretty tight. Even though Sisk, Buchanan, and Whitten are all living in Louisville for the first time since they graduated from high school, they still have to work the rehearsal schedules around KAAC members who are in college. They will have their first read-through during Thanksgiving break and rehearsals will begin in earnest during the winter break.
“We’re so lucky to have people who care so much – enough to devote so much of their time to this,” said Sisk. “These people care beyond the play.”
Even though KAAC may be looking at some changes, these individuals who have poured their lives into the organization will continue to “care beyond the play.”
“Don’t worry, we won’t let KAAC die,” said Whitten.
-Melissa Chipman, @Loueyville
KAAC will present four performances of “And Then There Were None” in January. 100% of the proceeds will be donated.
January 10 at 8 p.m.
January 11 at 8 p.m.
January 12 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Tickets are available through The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts box office.
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