Three years ago, when Vienna resident and human rights lobbyist Leila Milani had her third child, she decided it was time to put her career on hiatus and focus on raising her children.
But for a professional woman in her mid-30s who has devoted her life towards the betterment of society since the start of her career, she wasn’t able to leave her mission so easily.
"I still wanted to do something creative with my time," Milani said. "I knew that there was something I could be doing to be both with my children and help to inspire other children."
Working with two of her close friends, Nigen Mostaghim a McLean resident and attorney, and Vienna resident and professional singer-songwriter Melissa Christopher Green, who were also beginning to raise their own children, the three conceived the idea for the Blue Planet Theatre.
BLENDING A DESIRE to teach children of universal virtues through the use of the arts, the Blue Planet Theatre seeks to offer area students the after-school opportunity to exercise their creative ambitions while extolling the values of kindness, compassion and tolerance.
The mixture of arts and humanitarianism was perfect for Milani, a former dancer, Mostaghim, a concert pianist, and Green, a professional singer-songwriter.
"We wanted to use these talents but at the same time, we wanted to do something original that would be valuable to the children in the program," Milani said.
The Blue Planet Theatre is built around the professional training offered by Virtues Project International, a non-profit organization that works globally with community groups, businesses and teachers to instill universal value development that cuts across cultural and religious boundaries.
"In Northern Virginia there are so many tremendous programs with sports and the arts, but they were so focused on achievements and contests," Milani said. "There was not so much out there with programs that focus on virtues and tolerance … learning how to deal with difficult situations.
"Children come across these issues everyday in their classrooms and on the playgrounds, and they need to learn how to deal with them in some way."
Utilizing the programming offered by the Virtues Project, the students of the Blue Planet Theatre, which just finished up its second year, present classic and original stage plays that personify these values. They are exemplified in the performance of works such as Dr. Seuss’s classic environmentalist story "The Lorax" and a collection of tales and writings from civil rights heroes such as Mohandas Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.
PRESENTED MOST RECENTLY at a stage at the Green Hedges School in Vienna, the plays include the performances of all of the 55 students, ranging in age from five to 17, enrolled in the Blue Planet Theatre.
While students are typically asked to pay a tuition fee of $300 to cover the basic operating and materials costs of the non-profit organization’s performance, scholarships are also available for students who might not be able to afford the original fees, according to Tina Ejtemai, publicist for Blue Planet Theatre.
The program was the perfect after-school activity for Nathalie Duffy’s seven-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son, students at Kent Gardens Elementary School in McLean. Duffy’s children have been enrolled in Blue Planet Theatre since the program began at the start of the 2005 school year.
"The draw for us was the incorporation of the teaching of ethics and virtues," said Duffy, a teacher. "This is not something that is normally taught in the classroom, but it is important. The backbone of education is learning virtues and ethics and know how to deal with difficult issues in life."
AS THE BLUE PLANET Theatre group continues to grow, Milani said that she hopes to see more students enrolled and more scholarship money for students interested in the program. The ultimate goal is to extend to create a "summer camp" program built around the same values, she added.
"This program doesn’t just teach children the universal values of love and kindness, but they do it while learning to sing or to dance … or speak in public," Milani said.
And because of its focus on the arts, the Blue Planet Theatre doesn’t stop at affecting the children performing in the productions, Ejtemai noted.
"The arts are very powerful, and they’re 10 times more powerful when children perform them," Ejtemai said. "If you see a five-year-old who takes something and shows that they can understand the negative effects of racism or intolerance, it can have a big impact on adults."
With the program about ready to enter its third year this fall, Milani, who now has all three of her children participating in the theatre group, is starting to see impacts that overshadow some of her experiences lobbying for human rights on Capitol Hill for eight years.
"When you do advocacy, you’re always going back and trying to fix these issues that are messed up or not working in some way," Milani said, "but when it’s children it’s like you’re starting from scratch, and that is a beautiful thing."
"If we can get to children at a young age and instill these values, we can help them to see the world in new and different ways throughout their whole lives."