Terry Dvorak doesn’t like working on Verona Area Community Theater shows without her daughter Alyssa.
When Alyssa went on a three-week sabbatical earlier this year, “it broke my heart,” Terry, who is a board member, director and producer, said.
Luckily for Terry, Alyssa loves working with the woman she considers her best friend.
“She is the one that gave me my start and she is the one that has supported me non-stop,” Alyssa said. “Working with her is just fun.”
The mother-daughter pair have been taking on volunteer leadership roles with VACT for 15 years, serving on the nonprofit’s board of directors, directing and producing shows or in Alyssa’s case, choreographing at the age of 11.
Dee Baldock, who founded VACT in 1992, said the Dvoraks have played a “pivotal role” in VACT’s growth over the years.
“If they were to disappear, I think we’d have a hard time figuring out how to take their place,” she said.
Terry got involved in VACT when her children became old enough to start participating, and as a stay-at-home mom, she stuck around because she’d loved theater throughout her life.
“It was an easy sell, let’s put it that way,” she said. “There is just something magical about being around people that share a passion for something so deeply, and it was a welcoming, friendly group.”
Terry, who began her involvement in theater as a high schooler at Madison East and has a degree in theater, founded the children’s program at VACT in 2004 and the teen program five years later. She brought Alyssa, who was 11 at the time, on board to assist the adult choreographer for the show.
“It was really exciting, and I was so young that I didn’t have any of the insecurities about my age,” Alyssa said.
Alyssa continued to choreograph throughout high school, and when she left for New York University after graduating, she continued to “long-distance choreograph.”
At the end of her senior year, her classes were limited to one day and her father had racked up enough frequent flyer miles that she would fly home to assist with productions.
“Even at 11, she was learning about leadership and creativity and volunteerism, and she never stopped,” Terry said. “She never looked back.”
Lynn Vilker, who has been volunteering alongside the Dvoraks since 2012 doing costume design and producing, said they have set an incredible example for volunteers.
“VACT is full of incredible volunteers, and they just top the list of being willing to do anything that anyone needs, at any time,” she said. “They really lead by example, and it makes you want to do more, and makes all of our volunteers want to do more.”
The Dvoraks don’t limit their volunteering to the productions – they’ve spent hours fundraising for the new building and chipping in to do things as seemingly minor as taking out the trash, just because they’re around.
Terry said their love for VACT matches that of many of the other volunteers, but she’s thankful they’ve been able to give to the organization through their time and talent as extensively as they have.
“We’re committed to the families and the kids, and that’s the biggest passion,” she said. “I absolutely know what theater does for kids, because I’ve seen it firsthand.
“I’ve seen a kid bawl and not be able to get through an audition at an early age go on to be a lead in their high school show, or go on to major in some leadership skill in college. You would never even remember that was the same kid that was crying in the corner.”
From the ground up
Terry and Alyssa have done quite a bit of building with VACT – both figuratively and literally.
Not only was Terry the one leading the charge in starting the children’s and teen programs, she was also instrumental in getting VACT’s current building built.
That $2 million building opened in 2017.
Terry knew that the interest in the children’s program was growing, and they would need a different facility to better accommodate that need, Alyssa said.
“My mom, if she sees something in the future that she wants, she will not stop until it’s done,” she said. “She was one of the frontrunners in getting the new building started because through the children’s theater and the camps, she said, ‘This building is too flippin’ small.’”
There’s a lot of people who are new enough to VACT who don’t remember the former facility on Bruce Street – a pole shed now used by the city for truck storage – that was never designed for theater needs and lacked sufficient heating on cold days.
“If you had to rehearse in winter, you better double up your socks,” Alyssa said.
Baldock said Terry put an enormous amount of effort into the new building, located just south of the fire department on Lincoln Street, working with multiple architects and builders and doing much of the fundraising necessary for the facility.
“She led that wonderfully,” she said. “It was a long, long process, but boy, it came out wonderfully, and she was a strong leader in that.”
‘Lifeblood of this theater’
When Vilker’s daughter Madelyn first decided she wanted to try out for a VACT children’s show, her parents were shocked.
At that age, she suffered from anxiety, and Vilker had a hard time getting her out the door to go to school, so the idea of her being on stage didn’t quite line up.
But once Madelyn was cast in Terry’s production of “Seussical Jr.,” and got more involved with VACT, it made all the difference in her life, Vilker said.
“I look at the life my daughter has, and it’s impacted her,” she said. “So I see personally the impact it had on one child, but as a volunteer, I see the impact that it’s had on thousands of children all around Dane County.”
Vilker said the Dvoraks’ leadership goes beyond teaching performers acting and choreography.
“The face of those youth and teen programs really is Terry and Alyssa,” she said. “They also learn family and community, and how to treat each other and give of yourself. They’re always setting that example.”
It’s rare, Vilker said, that people give back their talents through volunteer work like the Dvoraks do.
“Frankly, they are the lifeblood of this theater,” she said. “There would need to be 10 people to fill the role of Terry and Alyssa … without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Working together for the past decade-and-a-half on VACT shows with her daughter, Terry said, has been a “beautiful experience.”
“We bounce ideas off each other, we have this common thought process that often we don’t have to speak about, we just know what each other’s thinking,” she said. “It’s a chance as an adult to spend really wonderful time with your adult daughter.”
Terry said performers at VACT are all the better thanks to Alyssa’s talents as a choreographer, and she added that she sometimes pinches herself because she can’t believe she’s lucky enough to have her daughter working alongside her.
“I think she elevated us,” Terry said.
Alyssa came back to Wisconsin after college after her father suggested to her college boyfriend-turned-fiance that he consider working at Epic, and she made the decision to come home to create valuable work rather than struggle for years to get noticed in New York City.
“I could stay in New York, be dirt poor, be far away from my boyfriend, have to get help from my parents and not really have a clear direction of where my life was going, or I could move home where I can actually afford to live by myself and do what I love to do,” she said.
That decision has allowed her to work side by side with her mother and has provided her the opportunity to contribute to an organization she is “grateful” for because it’s given her so much, Alyssa said.
“It’s a lot of volunteering, but I’ve never considered it to be volunteering because I enjoy it so much,” she said. “I’ve gotten so much out of VACT over the years for myself in terms of my choreographing and in terms of getting to work on projects.
“And how great is it to have a job where you literally get to work with your mom?”