Even before the switch was flipped to illuminate the sparkling new marquee outside, the new home of Imagination Stage was busling. The theater, the largest facility on the East Coast dedicated to theater education and professional performances for young people, opened in mid-2003.
"We feel a little bit like the Ugly Duckling in Hans Christian Andersen's story that always had a beautiful soul and finally comes into its swan stage," said executive director Bonnie Fogel. "While it's true to say that great art can be done anywhere, the experience of those who are doing it is so very much nicer if it's in a supportive space. Our professional theater people can now dream dreams they simply couldn't before."
he facility features a 450-seat theater, a small multipurpose 200-seat theater, six education studios and a digital media studio, all considered state-of-the-art, plus offices, a cafe and a gift shop.
The center is home to Imagination Stage's shows and a variety of year-round, educational programs, including theater arts classes and summer camps for children, outreach programs in area schools, and two specialized programs: AccessAbility Theatre and Deaf Access. AccessAbility Theatre allows young people with developmental or physical challenges to participate in classes and performance ensembles, while the Deaf Access program is designed to bridge the gap between hearing and deaf cultures with integrated classes and performances.
With six major professional theater productions annually geared toward young audiences and a series of student performances in theater and dance, Imagination Stage is growing a national reputation, winning prizes in recognition of its innovative programs to make the performing arts accessible to all children regardless of their physical or cognitive challenges or their financial limitations.
The group's mission, said Fogel, "is to encourage self-expression in a noncompetitive, multicultural environment."
The theater produces an eclectic mix of shows. "Our long-range plans are basically to expand what we're doing currently in our new facility and in the Maryland, Virginia and District schools, where we are dealing with at-risk students and helping teachers to be more effective," Fogel said. "We're going to use this new building as a laboratory for teacher effectiveness programs and we hope to begin holding conferences here for the first time."
"Any time a youngster has an opportunity to speak or sing in front of an audience, use their body to express something, it is an opportunity for a child to learn discipline, self-control and communication skills," said Helen Chaset, principal of Burning Tree Elementary School in Bethesda. "These are lifelong skills that don't have anything to do with the arts. I've seen very shy, reluctant children emerge with enhanced self-confidence after an experience with this group or similar organizations, learning how to use the arts as a medium."
--Michael Toscano (May 29, 2003)