Children may occasionally ask them for their autographs, but being a member of the county's Teen Performance Ensemble really isn't glamorous at all.
The teenage actors, singers and dancers spend their summer days riding around the county in a beige government van that also tows their sound equipment and wooden set pieces. Two or sometimes three times a day, they lug everything in and out of the van as they transport their makeshift stages to small all-purpose rooms, where they continue to develop their performance skills.
Luckily, young audiences are too caught up in the play to notice that the eight actors who perform "Power Ants and Hoppers" are merely teenagers just getting their feet wet in show business. Local teens also make up the cast of the Prince George's Children's Theatre, which has been touring "Chicha the Fox" and "The Hens Who Were Not Chicken." Both groups will give their final performances of the 52-show summer lineup Saturday at the Publick Playhouse.
Ten years ago, the Arts and Cultural Heritage Division of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission began regularly commissioning theater productions to entertain children at county camps and other summer programs.
As the popularity of the shows grew, the division added a second teen touring troupe, the Prince George's Children's Theatre, in 2000.
"We needed more shows, plus you have a county of 130,000 children. You're not going to reach all of them with one show," said Cecil Thompson, the division's theater specialist. "The market was so much deeper than that. I hated to think that we only had one children's theater because it was too hard to organize, or something like that," he said.
Thompson said that the key to making good, professional-level shows is hiring high-level artistic directors and choreographers and paying the teenagers for their work. Generally, shows are adapted from renowned children's literature and existing plays.
A Fort Washington couple, Pat and Pete Stokes, helped adapt the two-tale production, "Chicha the Fox" and "The Hens Who Were Not Chicken," using a mime act featuring a not-so-clever fox who is outsmarted by other animals. The original show was presented on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage by Arlington's Synetic Theatre in 2002.
"Power Ants and Hoppers" is Michael Stepowany's humorous take on one of Aesop's fables, about ants that survive a cold winter because of their year-round hard work and grasshoppers who have a difficult time surviving because they spent the summer playing. The Howard University theater department technical director and set designer, who lives in Glen Dale, thought it would be perfect. "It stuck in the back of my head that this could happen. If you don't do what you're supposed to do when you're supposed to do it, you could be in big trouble," Stepowany said. It's a lesson he relates to the deadline-driven nature of theater, and one that the actors are learning every day.
The cast of the "Power Ants and Hoppers" said they're learning quite a lot about live theater. They are figuring out how to work with different audiences, how to improvise when sound systems are off-kilter and how to bring their energy to the interactive show performance after performance, day after day.
"You'd think we'd get tired of it, but it gets funnier to us," said narrator Jamal Douglas, 16, a rising junior at Suitland High School.
Whether they're suppressing their own laughter on stage or figuring out where to erect the set of an oversized anthill and giant blades of grass , the teens have realized that audiences always expect a good performance.
"We roll with the punches," said Joanna Fortuna, a 16-year-old rising senior at Oxon Hill High School. Like an old-time performer, the novice said, "The show must go on."
The Teen Performance Ensemble performs "Power Ants and Hoppers" and Prince George's Children's Theater performs "Chicha the Fox" and "The Hens Who Weren't Chicken" at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Publick Playhouse, 5445 Landover Rd., Cheverly. Admission is $5. 301-277-1710.