GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- Staff Sgt. Bernie Escarcega, U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr, lives for theater.

As Grafenwoehr Performing Arts Center's volunteer technical director, Escarcega, who also designs sets, acts and directs, spent 1,000 volunteer hours last year at GPAC.

"I'll probably die onstage," he said, half-joking.

The feeling is endemic among GPAC volunteers. Master Sgt. Scott Madden, who won the Toppers Award for Best Military Performer in a Play this year, has made GPAC his second home. Because his wife, Rebekah, works at the theater, life on stage is a family affair.

"As a family we have raised our kids within the theater," said Master Sgt. Madden. "When they were small we would bring them to rehearsals and have them do their homework there."

Devoted volunteers like Escarcega and Madden are a significant reason why GPAC has seen a surge in recognition, popularity and success both on Grafenwoehr and the military community at large.

2012 was a banner year for GPAC at the Toppers Awards. Garnering 25 nominations, the theater's volunteers, personnel and productions took home five golden trophies.

The Army's take on the Tony Awards, the Toppers honors not only the best performances each year by garrison theaters, but the best costume and set design, technical direction, makeup and musical accompaniment, among other categories. The success of Grafenwoehr at the awards is a recent development. The five-year-old performing arts center, a baby by theater standards, was the clear underdog among the other U.S. Army Europe play houses,
according to Escarcega.

The theater's watershed moment occurred two years ago when Grafenwoehr won the coveted Toppers Award for Best Ensemble. Escarcega said the audience was so shocked at Grafenwoehr's triumph that the auditorium fell completely silent. But, the recognition marked a turning point in Grafenwoehr's artistic reputation.

"It put us on the map," Escarcega said.

The Toppers nods reflect a growing cohesion and professionalism within GPAC. The climbing number of audience members, particularly for the dinner theater shows, attests to the community's swelling discovery of the improved productions.

Currently, GPAC is looking for volunteers to act, apply makeup, construct sets, set up sound equipment and even tend bar during the shows.

"A lot of people tell me that they don't have any talent," said Master Sgt. Madden. "It's not about talent, it's about a willingness to give something a try and learn new horizons."

GPAC's next scheduled show, the One Act plays, will stage this fall after a summer hiatus. To see the full schedule of performances, visit For a complete list of Toppers' winners, visit