After leaving the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in the late 1970s, some students decided they wanted to do something other than be actors or painters or musicians. They formed their own company to work behind the scenes as stage technicians.
Many of their former teachers will probably be surprised to learn that these students, one of whom had been expelled from the school, have succeeded. Their operation, though still struggling, is called Stagedoor Associates and recently signed a contract to rent equipment to one of the hottest video producers in the country, Reel-To-Reel in Hoboken, N.J.
Before that, the group had provided lights or sound for the Miss D.C. Pageant, Julia and Company, local choreographer Adrian Bolton and several concerts.
"We didn't always go to class like we were supposed to, but we were always interested in the theater," said Erich Berg, 23, who is vice president of Stagedoor Associates. "I've always wanted to be associated with theater production and when I heard that you could make more money backstage than on stage, I dropped my plans for becoming an actor."
This is not to advocate that students skip classes or fail to apply themselves diligently while in school. But it does show that just because school doesn't work out, there is no need to hit the streets for a life of crime.
In a day and age when young people are not taken as seriously as they should be, the members of the Stagedoor have pressed relentlessly since 1979 to prove that they had the right stuff.
"Getting started was the most difficult part," said Shari Thomas, 26, who graduated from the Ellington School in 1978. "We used to be disc jockeys and people liked the way we did it so they told others about it. Every time we got a new client, we'd add a little extra -- some lights, some special effects -- and they'd tell someone how good we were."
They became so good, in fact, that the Ellington School has hired them to provide music for the prom for the past four years. As the group's business expanded, it became a referral service for other young people seeking work as set builders, laborers and technicians.
Other members of Stagedoor Associates are Veon Paige, 21, who is an audio visual specialist; Vincent Thomas, 27, the group's accountant; Tony Byrd, 28, a master electrician and lighting designer, and Anthony Adams, 23, a student at Howard University who group members say "does it all."
Concerned about attracting more business, the group sees to it that most of the money it now earns goes back into the company. To stretch dollars as far as possible, three of the group members live together in a house on 11th Street NW. The company office is located in a corner of the living room.
"We just keep on pushing," said Thomas. "We don't let anything stand in our way. The fact that we are black is not an impediment. The fact that we are good at what we do outweighs everything."
"We're on a roll right now," said Berg. "We have a track record so every potential client can see how successfully we performed our previous job. That makes all the difference in the world."
"It also helps to have Shari as our president," he adds.
For his encouragement, members of the group remember and thank Reginald Fitzgerald, a former teacher of technical theater at the Ellington School. "He let us experiment a lot, try out things on our own," said Berg. "This gave us the confidence we needed to go it alone."
It is a truly unique group that is able to find success without extensive formal training or financial assistance. In some ways, its members are like entrepreneurs in the early American tradition, and it is refreshing to find them channeling their talent and energies into a productive means of making a living as well as helping others.