Students searching for the spotlight have a new place to aim for the stars, thanks to an arrangement between a private school in Rockville and a nonprofit organization dedicated to student-produced theater.
The two organizations offered their first production — Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida,” a remake of the Giuseppe Verdi opera — performed with modern music and lyrics at the Rockville school last month.
Kearney, 21, started the Highwood Theatre while he was in high school at Sidwell Friends School in the District and looking for theater experience.
The organization gets its name from the street where Kearney lived because, until School for Tomorrow offered its space to Highwood, all of the group’s performances were in his parents’ basement.
“We became a nonprofit last spring and were looking for a space, and we share a lot of the same philosophy [with School for Tomorrow] in terms of encouraging students to take risks and step out of their comfort zone, giving students the opportunity to do something they didn’t know they could do in a supportive, friendly environment,” Kearney said. “It made sense having the two organizations under the same roof, even though we are not officially aligned.”
School for Tomorrow, in its third year, is a nonprofit secondary school with 35 students in middle and high school.
“I started it because there is a desperate need for a new type of school that makes sense for the 21st century,” said Alan Shusterman, founder and head of the school.
School for Tomorrow is research-based, intent on developing independent, lifelong learners who learn at a pace that makes sense for them, he said.
Having the Highwood Theatre at School for Tomorrow ties into the school’s philosophy of allowing students to tap into interests they didn’t know they had, Shusterman said.
The two groups built a black-box theater — which Kearney describes as “a rectangle with a stage” — in 1,900 square feet by opening up two classrooms. The space accommodates a stage, room for musicians, dressing rooms and seating for 60 patrons.
“Students built everything you see in there. Mostly School for Tomorrow students built the actual theater infrastructure, then the tech crew for ‘Aida’ built the set for the show,” Kearney said.
The area is a simple performance space that gets its name because usually the walls and floor are painted black.
“The black-box theater concept allows us to change everything around. For instance, if someone were to come back to our next production, the whole stage and all will be completely different,” Kearney said.
With an agreement in place — the Highwood Theatre rents space from School for Tomorrow — and a theater built, it was time for the production.
Thirty-three students were involved in “Aida” who represent four schools: School for Tomorrow, Sidwell Friends, School Without Walls in the District and Langley High School in Virginia, plus a home-schooled student from Chevy Chase.
Everyone who applied to be part of the performance was accepted, Kearney said.
“Our biggest guiding philosophy is that any student can do theater in some way,” Kearney said. “There is definitely the coaching component, also. Right now I do that, and some of the older more experienced students help also.”
Kearney said the Highwood Theatre has an operating budget of $80,000 for 2011-12. Most of the money comes from individual contributions and a participation fee from cast members, which is $275 per production, he said.
“That covers [all expenses], including props and costumes and meals at certain rehearsals,” he said.
The group has three plays scheduled for this year.
Right now they are in rehearsal for “Bye Bye Birdie,” which will be performed March 2 to 4. In June they will perform “Crazy Runs in the Family,” written by Julia Starr, a senior at Sidwell Friends School, and in July, they will put on “A Grand Night for Singing,” a musical revue.
As for the students, many of them said they like being part of the group and enjoy being part of the production.
Carl Halbreiner, 15, a sophomore at Sidwell who lives in Bethesda, said he has been with Highwood for two years. He worked on the tech crew for “Aida.”
“I love everything about [theater]. I prefer doing tech, it’s more interesting for me,” he said.
Madison Middleton, 11, from School for Tomorrow, who played two parts and helped with costumes in “Aida,” said she “loves” it.
“Highwood Theatre is amazing. You can express your ideas, and they won’t be judged.”