Dana Semmes, a Potomac resident and former theater critic for the Potomac Almanac, points to an old Roman saying when discussing dinner theater: "Give the people bread and circuses." This reflected her opinion of the standard of dinner theater in the area until two years ago when she attended Montgomery College’s Summer Dinner Theatre (SDT) production of "Annie Get Your Gun."
"It was just an amazingly high level of quality in the performances, in acting, in directing. I was really surprised by the high level of everything." Semmes said.
This summer the SDT will present two more shows, as they have almost every summer for the past 30 years. The first show will be "Dames At Sea," which begins on June 22 and ends July 1; the second will be "Ragtime" on beginning July 13 and ending July 29. The show comes with a buffet-style dinner, and drinks for an extra charge, all served by the cast, in full costume before the show begins.
"We open the house around 6:15. The performers are all in costume and greet and serve the audience. Then the show begins and after the first act the performers come back out and are able to talk to everyone again," said Ashley Pearson who has been with the SDT program for four years and is the company manager and part of the ensemble cast of "Dames at Sea."
ENTERTAINMENT ISN’T the only reason for the SDT program at Montgomery College, its main goal is to give students, high school and college level, and area residents a chance to work in a professional setting and teach them the aspects of working in theater.
"Our first reason to do this is to be there for the students," said Steven Wolf, the Managing Director of the SDT program. "One of the things we stress is that all theater is fun but there is more to it than going out on stage; there is a business part to it and you need to be prepared for it."
To this end the entire company works together in order to get the shows done right and professionally. Wolf points out that sometimes people who are leads in the first show might be a stage hand in the second, or if an actor has some down time they may go help to put together costumes.
"I think it’s just great for all the different areas of the theater. We see all the different parts of theater, and in the real world of theater you need to know all these parts," said Pearson, "There is just a well-rounded focus on everything."
The program also offers scholarships to students who want to work in set design or stage management, and Pearson and Wolf both agree that this expansive approach to learning about theater leads to the more professional and entertaining theater experience that Semmes described.
WHEN THE SDT program started 30 years ago, dinner theater was far more in vogue says Semmes. At that time there were 11 dinner theaters performing in the D.C. area; now there are only two.
"The dinner theater program started because dinner theater was a novel idea and there were quite a few successful dinner theaters in the area. It was a viable career that students could go into and the idea of having a class that taught that kind of scenario came up," said Wolf, who has been with the program for the past 20 years.
Even though dinner theater was more popular when the program started, Wolf still believes it is one of the best forms of theater for an actor because they can get direct responses from the audience.
"I think from an actor’s standpoint that dinner theater is more welcome. It’s the only form of theater where you get to meet the audience before the show. You can warm them up, interact with them and then later find out how they are enjoying it," he said.
Pearson agrees with him citing her first-hand experience with the program, "I like it a lot because you get that personal connection. You sort of get a fan section and you can talk to them during intermission and hear how they are enjoying it."
Even Semmes points to the interaction between audience and actor as a benefit to dinner theater.
"In the sense that it is nice to be able to tell [the performers] how great a job they are doing and learning about them and what their hopes and plans are, it’s a great experience," she said.
THIS SUMMER the program’s two shows were selected for both their ability to entertain and to educate. Shows are usually selected so that as many people as possible can be involved in them, and students can take on different parts. The program’s directors also choose shows that stress different themes and require different strengths, not only to challenge the students, but to keep the audience interested in returning to see a different style of show.
"We look at what’s working, what people can get involved in, and we try to keep it fresh. We’ve been looking at ‘Ragtime’ for a while; it’s perfect because of the large cast," said Wolf.
"I love that the two shows are very different from each other," notes Pearson, "‘Ragtime’ is deeper and more sentimental while ‘Dames at Sea’ is more cheesy and funny. It’s great to see the difference in the two productions."
STRIKINGLY different or not, what matters most according to Semmes is the acting and the quality of the performance, and that is something she says is strong at the SDT program.
"The professional experience is what’s important. Theater is such a great teacher. There is so much to learn and it’s not just goofing around. That’s why [the performances] are so good, they’re polished and well done and not just thrown together," Semmes said.