Imagination Stage Offers More Than Just Theater

A new season is beginning, not just in terms of weather and academics, but in the theater community too. One of the area's only professional children’s theaters, Imagination Stage, will kick off its season with a brand new musical adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s "The Jungle Book," Sept. 22-Nov. 4 at Imagination Stages’ theater facility in Bethesda. But just because the new season starts in September doesn’t mean that Imagination Stage has been dead the rest of the year — far from it. The children’s theater organization offers a wide variety of theater, dancing and film education programs, classes and productions throughout the year for students ages 1-18.

"Imagination Stage is a mixture of everything. A large part of what we do is education and we have classes for kids 18 months through high school. As an extension of that we have a professional theater company and we produce five shows a year that have professional actors performing for children," said Kate Bryer, the artistic director for Imagination Stage and the director of the "Jungle Book."

WHEN IMAGINATION STAGE was founded in 1979 as Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts (BAPA) – it became Imagination Stage when it moved to its current facility in 2003 — the goal was to bring arts education to area children with a specific focus on theater and acting. As it grew, so did the scope of the program, as it began branching out to older ages, larger classes, and new offerings.

"There a couple of goals in the theater classes since we cover so many age groups," said Madeleine Burke, the director of faculty at Imagination Stage. "The early childhood goal is to help them achieve developmental skills and have fun, the elementary age programs are sort of a precursor to acting that introduce the basic concepts of theater. We create our younger classes while not just looking at theater goals but also life goals. For the high school and middle school advanced classes we deal with more sophisticated ways of approaching theater and acting."

The theater classes have fall, spring and summer programs with each session offering different classes and running for different lengths, and while the courses are designed to help children become better actors, that is not the only focus.

"We treat our students as though they are going to be professional actors," said Burke, "but our goal is not necessarily to create actors. I think our classes prepare students for a lot of different roles in the world. Acting teaches so many different life lessons."

Of course becoming a professional actor isn’t out of the question. Imagination Stage offers a two-year theater conservatory programs for advanced students. The program allows students to work with professional directors, writers and stage crews to put together a show. Burke says that a program of this length and depth for students is not easily found on much of the East Coast.

"The program is great because it allows the kids to be artists. They get to see how professional theater works and get to work with professionals," Burke added.

THE MOVE INTO the new facility in downtown Bethesda also brought about an expansion in the focus of what is offered by the program, the most notable addition being film production classes for students.

"The film program started when we moved into the new building and had the space and technology to do it. It was just Imagination Stage continuing to branch out and expand and seemed like a perfect fit," said David Stern, the director of digital media at Imagination Stage.

The film program offers classes for ages 10-18 on a variety of subjects including narrative film, documentary and digital animation. Much like the theater classes for older participants, the film program focuses on giving students a look at what professional film making is like. This includes dealing with actors, directing, editing and working with digital film. The Imagination Stage facility offers in-house production equipment and a variety of other tools to allow students to make the best films they can.

"Our programs are progressive. Kids find out in our introductory course that they either love filmmaking or they hate it and if they love it then most of them move on to our advanced classes," said Stern.

Many students who participate in the program will stay for multiple years, progressively making more and more professional films. Stern points to a 14-year-old student who he says is doing more elaborate and sophisticated films than he would be doing in college.

The classes mostly focus on the process of filmmaking and the fundamentals like storytelling, character, screen composition, and dealing with actors, but they will also deal with other aspects of the film industry.

"I look at the film business as a three-ring circus. You have the craft, the art and the business and they all merge together and are dependent on each other," said Stern, "Here we try to not focus on the business so that the students can express themselves and take chances with their films. Here they get to use their own creative energy."

At the end of every session – film is also offered in fall, spring and summer – the students get to screen their films for family, friends and the public, allowing everyone to see what they have made.

"They are doing it; these kids are making real films. It is amazing," Stern said.

THE REAL DRAW to Imagination Stage at the moment though is "Jungle Book," which continues Imagination Stage’s tradition of bringing children’s literature to the stage with professional actors and brand-new music and lyrics.

"The shows are very often literature-based. Bringing classics to children kind of reconceived," said Bryer.

Don’t expect a Disney redux from this production either. The lyrics and book are both original and Burke’s focus is to truly bring out the language and feeling of the book.

"I love the Disney movie, but it doesn’t feel like the book," she said. "I love the way the author really went back to the source material and used a lot of the language and stayed very true to the story. The music is Indian and it is orchestrated like real Indian music; it’s a really nice touch."

The show primarily features professional actors from around the area (once in a while a student may star in a production, but not often) and will have multiple performances both Saturdays and Sundays through its run.

"We perform for our community and we are very aware of what our audience is interested in seeing and we are interested in challenging our audience a bit, so we try to choose scripts that might deal with serious or challenging ideas. We want parents and children to talk to each other and we think that theater has the ability to help children examine their own lives and help them deal with their issues. So instead of straight entertainment, we try to do shows that help them think, and if they see it with their parents than they can discuss these things," said Bryer.

WITH THIS COMMITMENT to quality shows and subjects comes a commitment to professional production, but ultimately, the programs at Imagination Stage are not developed around the lives of the students.

"It is tough to work around school so we offer our classes after school and weekends. Kids need to be serious but we want to work with school and other commitments, not against," said Stern.

All the hard work usually pays off, though, in a final production, a great performance or simply landing a new part.

"A lot of students go on to play significant parts in their high school plays," said Bryer, "They see theater much differently and perform really well."

"We always say we are doing arena stage for kids, we have professional designers, professional actors, and professional directors. We say children should never have anything less than you would see at an adult theater," said Burke.