Teenagers, Theater and the Great Outdoors

Teenagers, Theater and the Great Outdoors

Local theater company Traveling Players Ensemble named “Summer School in the Arts” by National Endowment for the Arts.

The mention of “classical theater” elicits visions of dramatically delivered Shakespearean monologues or perhaps a perfectly timed comedic moment from a Moliere play. It does not bring to mind the image of rain-soaked teenagers backpacking through the woods, pitching tents and cooking dinner over a freshly made campfire — unless that is, the mind belongs to Jeanne Harrison.

“What we do in the arts is, we ask performers to make choices that aren’t always black and white, but are more in the gray,” said Harrison, founder and artistic director of professional theater company Traveling Players Ensemble. “Outdoor training is very black and white — if your tent falls apart that means you didn’t put it together the right way, if you have to cook a meal on a campfire, you have to follow specific steps. I find that if I combine the outdoor training with the arts training — the hard core black and white with the gray — the kids get a lot of confidence out of it … they get the confidence to make bold choices artistically.”

Harrison’s strategy is a sound one, and she has a check for $20,000 to prove it. Last month, her summer theater camp Traveling Players Ensemble was named a “Summer School in the Arts” by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The program, which operates on the campus of the Madeira School in McLean, was one of just 25 arts institutions in the nation to receive the designation, and also holds the distinction of being the youngest organization of the group. The honor was accompanied by a $20,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to support the Traveling Players Ensemble program.

The Summer School in the Arts award winners were selected through a competitive grant process. In order to qualify, students must receive at least 90 hours of instruction that culminates in a performance or exhibition of their work.

HARRISON, 38, has lived in Great Falls since she and her parents moved there from Bethesda, Md. when Harrison was 16. She earned her M.A. in theater from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her M.F.A. in Directing from Catholic University in Washington D.C. She has 19 years of experience as an educator and has taught theater at The Folger Shakespeare Library, Catholic University, the University of Maryland – Baltimore County, Loyola University in Maryland, The Chapin School in New York City and at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. It was at Interlochen that she first began to conceptualize the idea for Traveling Players Ensemble.

“As brilliant as the program at Interlochen was, I really felt like there was a lack of outdoor training for the actors,” said Harrison.

Harrison established Traveling Players Ensemble in 2003. Her mission was to create a professional theater company dedicated to teaching middle school students and high school students problem-solving skills, self-reliance and self-expression by bringing classical theater into nature.

For the first three years of its operation, Harrison ran Traveling Players Ensemble at a site in Poolsville, Md., however, she was intent on finding a location in Fairfax County. Not only did she live there, but a number of her students did as well. In addition, Traveling Players Ensemble was incorporated in Fairfax County and last year received a $10,000 grant from the county’s Arts Council. In the summer of 2006, the theater camp moved to Meadowlark Gardens, but Harrison said the site “wasn’t ideal for the hardcore backpacking skills” so integral to her program. Harrison had been writing to the Madeira School for several years, and this year, she finally got her most coveted wish — permission to use the private school’s grounds for her summer program.

“It really is a win-win situation because Madeira is dedicated to educating teenagers, it has an environmental bias and it has a really good arts program,” said Harrison. “So it falls right in line with our mission.”

THE TRAVELING PLAYERS program has four different groups — two “Middle School Ensembles,” a “High School Ensemble” and the “Traveling Troupe,” the latter of which is by audition only, and is restricted to rising high school sophomores, juniors and seniors. The Middle School and High School Ensembles run for four weeks, while the Traveling Troupe program lasts for six weeks.

The 14 members of this summer’s Traveling Troupe will engage in four weeks of serious theatrical training followed by a two-week bus tour and backpacking expedition. They will perform William Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” at Skyline Drive, Colonial Williamsburg and the Madeira amphitheater.

“It’s based on the premise that what most high school theater programs do is train kids to rehearse, but they don’t teach them how to perform,” said Harrison. “These guys in the Troupe will perform seven or eight times in five different venues this summer, which is comparable to a professional theater troupe — and they are going to go to the coolest places.”

The Traveling Players Middle School Ensembles will study Commedia dell’Arte and will perform Moliere’s “Sganerelle” and Gozzi’s “The Love of Three Oranges” for local Girl Scout and Boy Scout Troops, and local camps, libraries and the Washington Children’s Hospital. The High School Ensemble will perform Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at Skyline Drive and at several public performances in the Madeira amphitheater.

Great Falls resident and Madeira student Cat Gardiner, 17, has been participating in the Traveling Players Ensemble summer program since its inception five years ago. She is a member of this summer’s High School Ensemble and will be playing the role of Sir Toby in “Twelfth Night.”

“It’s like a gi-normous family,” said Gardiner of the program. “It sounds so cliché but it’s just true … we all know each other and we all like each other.”