There was big news coming out of Imagination Stage’s 2014 Annual Gala last month as the nonprofit arts organization announced it would expand its programmatic offerings at its Bethesda location, and also announced a new alliance with The National Theatre, which will bring children’s theater to DC.
“Like a lot of important conversations, it’s been in the works for a while. We started talking to the National about bringing theater to young audiences in Washington about three years ago,” says Bonnie Fogel, Imagination Stage’s executive director. “They were working with the Shuberts at the time, so it precluded that happening, so they changed the contract and it became something we could discuss again.”
Since both theaters are 501(c)3, Fogel says the relationship will have more of an affect than if Imagination Stage were working singularly. “It was a good partner for us because of our similar 501 status and they weren’t fully booked all the time,” she says. “There are other theaters obviously, but most are going gangbusters the whole time and that’s not true of National at the time. It seemed like they would have space in their season to consider having a children’s theater component.”
The partnership will expand Imagination Stage’s reach to the District to welcome DC school children, families and tourists to see professional theatre productions at family-friendly prices—or in the case of DC school children, for free.
“We’re hoping to do two things: Be a summer season for area families and tourists and then making the show available for the DC public school system for free,” she says. “We would give free tickets and cover the cost of transportation, provide teachers with study guides and have a video of what the backstage work is all about.”
The partnership will begin summer, 2015 when Imagination Stage will bring The BFG to the National. The BFG is a beloved story by Roald Dahl about little orphan Sophie and the Big Friendly Giant who venture together to Buckingham Palace to save the children of England. It was a huge hit at the Bethesda stage last summer thanks in part to Eric Van Wyk, who created the giant puppet.
“The show was very successful for us this past summer and we kept all the big set pieces so we’re looking forward to expanding its reach at the National,” Fogel says. “We think it will continue to work this way: We will inaugurate something here and then take it to the National a few months or even a year later.”
The DC Public School System is obviously very exited about the opportunity.
“I am thrilled and excited by the new collaboration with our schools and what it will mean for our children,” says Kaya Henderson, DC Public Schools Chancellor. “To have this kind of access to this kind of quality and professionalism is an amazing opportunity.”
Of course, some significant support is still needed to make this a reality, but everyone involves believes the community will step up to help. “We have a similar initiative with the Montgomery Public Schools and have found local businesses and corporations have been eager to be associated with that initiative,” Fogel says. “It’s a win win for everyone. It’s supporting the arts and education.”
Fogel says exposing children to theater at a young age is important for a number of reasons.
“First off, it’s wonderful fun. It’s the kind of fun you never forget and it can change a child’s life,” she says. “The other reason is that it can become a teachable moment. A good teacher can make all kinds of connections for his or her students after attending a show. It’s also a real opportunity for a child to think about a career in theater—there’s a world of opportunity on stage, backstage and within a theater organization.”
While the Kennedy Center offers some children’s theater—mostly touring shows—and some theaters on the outskirts of DC exist, Fogel says there’s really no children’s theater in DC itself.
“There’s nothing actually in DC for the children and families that is a quality professional theater for young audiences,” she says. “That’s extraordinary to me when it’s the nation’s capital and you have all these tourists streaming in to DC looking for entertainment. We plan to change that for the better.”