When local actors talk about their involvement in the Market House Theatre, the conversation always comes back to one theme: family.
Over the last half-century, multiple generations of real-life families have found their second home at the Market House, while its more than 540 productions have made "stage families" out of perfect strangers.
"It's like a brotherhood," said Roy Hensel, a Lone Oak Intermediate School teacher who's been involved in the theater for more than 30 consecutive years.
The amateur actor has watched his two children, Travis and Emily, grow up on the Market House stage, and recently saw his 4-year-old grandson, Jack, make his debut in a children's production. He's seen his students flourish, too, both in productions and the theater's youth program, Footlights.
"There's so many talented children, and sometimes acting is an option they never thought of before," he said. "It gives them confidence."
Many Market House veterans have similar stories.
Janey Collins, clinical director at Childwatch, is a Footlights alumna who says her daughters Lily, 13, and Laurel, 10, have learned about commitment and kindness through the theater.
It worked the other way for Sherry Shadle, who first found herself onstage in 1987 as a result of her son John's involvement in Footlights. She spent the next 19 years "thoroughly involved" with the theater, both onstage and as a two-time president of the board.
"I just think it's a jewel in Paducah," Shadle said.
The theater's official celebration of its 50th anniversary last week gave its supporters a chance to pause and reflect on just how many lives the nonprofit has touched, said Kristin Williams, president of the board.
"It is amazing to me how it has endured," Williams said. "Fifty years is a long time for an arts organization, and the Market House has not only lasted 50 years - it has thrived."
Only eight people founded the theater that now serves about 40,000 adults and children each year. Katherine and Robert Hassman, Dr. Ben Bradford, J.C. Dudley, Wilhemina Dudley, Greta Woodall, Charles Katterjohn and Charles Wahl banded together in October 1963 to create a "Little Theatre Group." Their first play, "The Male Animal," debuted in April 1964, despite the fact that the theater's current home on Market House Square wasn't ready to house the production. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers provided a temporary space for the performance.
"This may not sound like the most important move in the world to a lot of people but, actually, it is one of those sidelights which are vital to a community that wants to be progressive," Bill Powell, then the news editor of the Paducah Sun-Democrat, wrote in an editorial on the eve of the first performance.
The theater survived its first decade entirely on volunteer labor, and the dedication of the theater's family of supporters has only continued as the theater has grown.
With a $1.25 million capital campaign, the theater expanded to three other historic buildings on the square in the late 1990s. It reached its 500th production in 2012 and broke box office records in 2013, selling 3,900 tickets to its production of "Les Miserables." The board has yet to announce the next step for the Market House, but Williams said the members have been evaluating the theater's growth potential.
Supporters say the theater owes much of its success to Michael Cochran, the theater's creative and executive director, and wife April, who is the education director. The two have worked at the Market House for a little more than 30 years.
"They are our teachers. They expect things to run like a professional theater," Shadle said. "We have been so fortunate to have them in Paducah to lead the way and set an example."
No matter how big the Market House family grows, the veteran actors say they always welcome new members.
"Just go audition," Shadle said. "You won't ever regret it."
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.