For those for whom Shakespeare is not enough, there is always Lumina.
The Silver Spring-based not-just-for-kids troupe just finished celebrating its one hundredth production in fifteen years – a version of Midsummer Night’s Dream which manages to tie in Fritz Lang’s classic movie “Metropolis” and also the story of Dr. Faustus, all in slightly less than three hours. (There were, as is traditional with Lumina, two complete casts of over fifty characters apiece).
This sort of blended literariness is consistent with the company’s other work I’ve seen them perform at Round House Silver Spring – an astounding mixture of Henry VI Parts I, II and III, done in costumes from three different periods with no actor older than a high school senior, and a professional production of Tom Jones, supplemented with a musical score from The Beggar’s Opera. (Original adaptation; original score.) I’m pretty sure the remaining ninety-seven productions were also outlandishly ambitious.
One hundred productions! By way of comparison, the two most recent DC-area Regional Tony award winners – Shakespeare and Signature – have done 89 and 87 productions over the last complete fifteen seasons. There are, of course, many good theater training programs for young people. But I know of none so demanding as Lumina’s.
What could have provoked someone to think that Washington needed a dramatic troupe of young people who did wildly imaginative versions of classical theater? “When Jillian started Lumina, she wanted to provide a meaningful, deep and performance-based alternative to after-school acting classes which burgeoned in the eighties and nineties,” David Minton reminisces. “Often such classes were simply ‘creative play’ programs to generate additional income and reach new audiences. Lumina was always about actually performing entire Shakespeare productions with passion and integrity.”
He is talking about the late Jillian Raye, the ballerina who came to Washington from Australia by way of Dallas and Brooklyn. She was his wife. Raye was a serious actor as well as a dancer, a student of the Steiner technique, a passionate enthusiast of Shakespeare, disciplined and creative. “Jillian wanted to mix age groups, perform Shakespeare and other classics (such as Greek Theatre and adapted Dickens), and strive for the highest standards,” Minton said. With their daughter Imogen (note the reference to Cymbeline) and a coterie of her young friends, they formed the first incarnation of Lumina.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the one hundredth production – was also the first production. It was “a DC political version of Midsummer,” Minton reports, “with the Mechanicals as bumbling secret service agents.” Next was Love’s Labor Lost “set in a health club in the very early 20th century.”
Raye recruited collaborators: musicians Karen Ashbrook and Paul Oorts; composer Mark Haag; artist Suzanne Hubbard, who created sets and tapestries; director and actor Kelly O’Connor and later her husband, the Shakespearean scholar John O’Connor.
Like most companies, Lumina built its reputation old school – through word of mouth. Sandra Moore found out about it when she sought a summer activity for her son.
“Sam was four and a half and I needed a summer camp that his grandmother could walk him to. My neighbor Jillian Raye was doing a fairy tale camp in her basement.”
Sam liked it. And he liked Lumina. “My children’s first play was The Taming of the Killer Shrew,” Moore says. It was “a kind of B-monster movie meets Shakespeare. I confess I didn’t follow the plot but I loved the Perry Como music and my kids had a blast trying to learn the dance numbers.”
Well, really, who could resist a Perry Como monster movie musical? So Moore got more involved.
“Like many parents, I started to volunteer backstage when the troupe performed at Montgomery College. It was total chaos, with all the actors and costumes crammed into one classroom,” she explains. “Jillian was a costume designer at heart, and she created a work of art on stage using costumes as her palette. One play some of the kids had five costume changes.”
Moore is a member of the Lumina Board now.
Busy Graham had a similar experience – join for the kids; stay for the good times. “Our daughter Molly [Hickman] was 7 when she first joined Lumina – and her first role was as Cleopatra’s feather holder in The Tangled Web which took place in the round at the Takoma Park Community Center’s lobby back in 2001.”
Molly loved her time with Lumina. Graham did too. “Largely because Molly was so enamored of Jillian, and continues to adore David – and with her having gained so much from her Lumina experience. That on top of our own appreciation and amazement at the dedication and devotion of Jillian and David to working with these young actors, inspired both my husband Stew and me to get deeply involved in supporting Lumina’s work: Stew as a member of the BlackJacks band (comprised of current and former Lumina parents) – which has performed for numerous Lumina Productions.”
Graham, like Moore, became a member of the Lumina Board. The Board’s focus now is on organizing the company’s spring fundraiser “A Midsummer Masquerade” June 16 at the Silver Spring Civic Center. Like most Lumina enterprises, it leans toward over-the-top – food and drink, dancing, raffles, and visits from choreographers, tap dancers and a State Senator (Jamie Raskin). The BlackJacks will be playing. There will be, of course, theatrical performances.
And what of Molly? Now eighteen, she writes,
“The plays, whether Shakespeare or Dickens or David Minton…have taught me an extraordinary lot about people and how they relate to each other. They’ve taught me about myself, how I operate in the world and how I can do better. Human beings in Shakespeare’s time aren’t all that different from folks nowadays. David and Jillian helped me and my fellow actors take apart verse, decipher characters, explore relationships…not to mention learning ancient Japanese swordsmanship, 50’s dance moves, Texan, French and Cockney accents (to name a few), and lots of great song lyrics. I can’t say where I’d be without all that I’ve gotten from Lumina.”
This summer, Molly will be co-directing a Fringe production written by David Minton, “Some Girls Think They’re Hot” at Redrum–Fort Fringe, July 14-28.
Or consider what Ellie d’Eustachio, now acting professionally in New York, had to say about her Lumina experience:
“Lumina prepared me for ‘real life’ just as well if not more successfully than New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. David and Jillian taught me to fall in love with and raise up the tiniest roles. They also taught me how to create a character strong enough to carry an entire play. When it came time to apply for college, I knew I wanted to act. David and Jillian took time out of their insanely busy schedules to coach me on my audition. Upon arriving at Tisch I already had the focus and discipline to really benefit from the rigorous classes. I’ve been involved with Lumina for just over a decade and its founders and teachers have become a family to me, one that I’ve looked to for support through middle school, high school, college and now as a professional.”
“Lumina taught me about history—music and fashion from many decades—and about comedy and about discipline. David and Jillian gave me the skills, the confidence, and the practical (and once, financial) support to produce and direct as a high-schooler,” chimes in Lizzi Albert, another Tisch graduate. “They hired me for summer jobs, wrote my college recommendations, and supplied tireless artistic cheerleading.” Albert played the lead role in Nick Mann’s Indy Short “Reckless Abandon,” but now she says, she’s helping to teach at Lumina.
The Lumina experience changed not only the lives of those who joined. It also changed the lives of those who brought it into being. When his wife started Lumina, Minton was the managing director of the Liz Lehrman Dance Exchange. In 2000, he quit to devote full time to Lumina.
“It was a very nervous time,” he admits now. “Without Jillian’s confidence and support I never would have done something like Lumina on my own. Jillian inspired me and set the standard for Lumina’s, and my artistic growth.”
Minton’s full-time involvement became more crucial when Raye fell ill with cancer. Had Raye’s story arc been crafted by Shakespeare, she might have been saved by some forest god, gifted with magical powers, or perhaps by a young woman, disguised as a young man, who learned the secrets of medicine at her father’s knee. Sadly, though, it was not, and she passed away in 2008.
“I feel like I have years more of Jillian still in my head,” Minton told the Washington Post at the time. “In a sense, we’re still going to be collaborating.”
This collaboration has gone on for four more years. It is a curious mixture of intensity and expansiveness. Moore talks about the expansiveness:
“As a parent, I of course loved hearing about the sessions with John O’Connor, a Shakespeare scholar who comes to early rehearsals to talk to the kids about the play. He helps them understand the big picture, the characters, and if it’s a history play he gives them some background. They often understood the plays better than I did. Soon we began inviting O’Connor and his wife Kelly to do an informal lecture on the play for the parents and kids, organized around a potluck dinner. Those are always a big hit.”
Molly Hickman – who experienced it – talks about the intensity:
“Lumina holds the bar high for all their actors, no matter how small they are or how miniscule their part may appear…. Perhaps the best thing about the Lumina experience for me has been the respect each and every member of the cast gets; David’s expectations are tremendous, and with his rock-star team of assistant-directors and back-stage folk, the casts turn out show after amazing show. If one of the 8-year-old actors (never referred to as ‘children’ or ‘kids’) isn’t doing their part, they hear about it. No ‘ah, but they’re just kids’ in Lumina! Everyone’s held up to a serious standard, and we all have fun getting to where David envisions us getting, but Lumina has capital-R Rehearsals. Not ‘classes’; not ‘camps’; Rehearsals. We get down to real business.”
The standards are high, but not unforgiving; Minton understands that being a kid, while not a pass, is nonetheless a condition. Ian Tiexiera, now a Lumina mainstay, remembers his introduction to theater as a child in a Lumina stage combat class:
“In my first Lumina class I ran out of the room crying in the first ten minutes, overwhelmed by even the intensity of the warm-ups. In my defense, I didn’t know anyone and suddenly they all got up and began to rapidly move their bodies in tandem while shouting out counts. To give you an idea of the character of the movements, they were collectively known as ‘Chairman Mao’ because the famous Chinese dictator and mass murderer himself supposedly designed them as the official warm-up of the Chinese people. Anyway, David Minton, who was teaching the class, came and found me and convinced me to come back to the room.”
Though things got easier, it took a while for him to catch on. “The next week, stage combat went much better, since I survived through warm-ups…I eventually got the hang of it and even began to make friends with some of the boys my age. That tenuous peace almost fell apart when, a few weeks later, I was handed the script of the stage combat demo (West Side Story theme, Sharks v. Jets) and realized that I would have to memorize lines. Not just any lines either, but real tongue twisters like, ‘You’re a Jet!’ and ‘Scram!’ I have a very distinct memory of pacing around the coffee table in my living room with my parents looking on from nearby couches with concern while I complained that I would never be able to memorize the lines.”
Now: “Acting shaped me. It made me more confident. It took away my fear of embarrassment. It improved my empathy for others. It made me better at working in groups and at speaking in public. It gave me an appreciation for poetry…and it taught me commitment and discipline. In short, it totally absorbed me and led me to understand how I could fully invest myself in my life. Because of it, I live with intention; I live by priorities.”
Tiexiera’s testimony repeats itself in the voices of many of the program’s participants and graduates. “I love Lumina because it gives me an opportunity to be a professional actor and express my love for theater. The [teen] Assistant Directors were very friendly to me when I was a newcomer and welcomed me greatly,” says Zev Shofar, a veteran at age 9.
“One of the things I love about Lumina is that immediately once I joined I was accepted, and treated the same by David and my peers as anyone who had been there for a long time.” Ezra Grimes, 13, points out.
“Although Lumina’s students are largely kids and teenagers, it approaches each individual with the goal of developing an all-around stronger person, regardless of their age. And on top of all that, we make great art,” says Peter McNally, one of the senior (i.e., high-school-age) ensemble members.
Or how about this: “I never liked school, it just never worked for me, too constricting, it always felt like there was no point to the learning….I’ve just never enjoyed the institution,” one young person wrote. “Lumina, on the other hand, just clicked. I was no longer learning from some failed writer who settled for teaching sixth grade English, I was learning from masters. David and Jillian weren’t directors, they were gods.”
Notwithstanding that Lumina produces plays with tons of characters and dual casts, the preparation is compact and individualized. “It takes about fifteen rehearsals and many individual coaching sessions,” Minton says. Like Synetic, another company with a unique approach to the classics, Lumina takes its time in developing its production. “Anywhere from six months (from concept) to a year,” Minton said, remembering the massive preparation Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 took.
So what will the 200th production be like? Minton is cryptic – or perhaps uncertain. “My hope would be, to paraphrase the Bard, ‘Age will not wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.’”