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May 29, 2003

Theater Group Finally Gets Its New Home

From: Washington Post, DC - May 29, 2003

Imagination Stage Has All Programs Under One Roof

By Michael Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 29, 2003; Page GZ17

The new building was bustling even before the switch was flipped to illuminate the sparkling new marquee outside, announcing 4908 Auburn Ave. in Bethesda as the new home of Imagination Stage, the largest facility on the East Coast dedicated to theater education and professional performances for young people.

"We feel a little bit like the Ugly Duckling in Hans Christian Andersen's story that always had a beautiful soul and finally comes into its swan stage," said executive director Bonnie Fogel, surveying the new complex, which has put all of the 24-year-old group's programs under one roof for the first time. "While it's true to say that great art can be done anywhere, the experience of those who are doing it is so very much nicer if it's in a supportive space. Our professional theater people can now dream dreams they simply couldn't before."

Those dreams are becoming reality as Imagination Stage (formerly called Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts, or BAPA) settles into its new arts center, which opened two weeks ago. The facility features a 450-seat theater, a small multipurpose 200-seat theater, six education studios and a digital media studio, all considered state-of-the-art, plus offices, a café and a gift shop.

The center is now home for Imagination Stage's shows and a variety of year-round, educational programs, including theater arts classes and summer camps for children, outreach programs in area schools, and two specialized programs: AccessAbility Theatre and Deaf Access. AccessAbility Theatre allows young people with developmental or physical challenges to participate in classes and performance ensembles, while the Deaf Access program is designed to bridge the gap between hearing and deaf cultures with integrated classes and performances.

With six major professional theater productions annually geared toward young audiences and a series of student performances in theater and dance, Imagination Stage is growing a national reputation, winning prizes in recognition of its innovative programs to make the performing arts accessible to all children regardless of their physical or cognitive challenges or their financial limitations.

The group's mission, said Fogel, "is to encourage self-expression in a noncompetitive, multicultural environment."

The theater produces an eclectic mix of shows. This past season's offerings included the world premiere of the musical "Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans: A Salsa Fairytale," in which the familiar story of Cinderella was given a Latin American flavor and told from the viewpoint of Cinderella's stepsister. There was also a musical version of the familiar tale of "Rapunzel" and a play called "Tomato Plant Girl," in which a young girl learns about friendship. "Amelia Bedelia" focused on the so-called "queen of housekeeping's" misadventures and her adventures with a lemon meringue pie.

One of the past season's shows, "Pinochio Commedia," will return Sunday and another world premiere musical, "Junie B. Jones & A Little Monkey Business" is set to open July 1.

"Our long-range plans are basically to expand what we're doing currently in our new facility and in the Maryland, Virginia and District schools, where we are dealing with at-risk students and helping teachers to be more effective," Fogel said. "We're going to use this new building as a laboratory for teacher effectiveness programs and we hope to begin holding conferences here for the first time."

Helen Chaset, principal of Burning Tree Elementary School in Bethesda, noted that the programs offered by Imagination Stage do more than just provide a fun experience for the young people who participate, most of whom are not seeking a professional career in the performing arts.

"Any time a youngster has an opportunity to speak or sing in front of an audience, use their body to express something, it is an opportunity for a child to learn discipline, self-control and communication skills," Chaset said. "These are lifelong skills that don't have anything to do with the arts. I've seen very shy, reluctant children emerge with enhanced self-confidence after an experience with this group or similar organizations, learning how to use the arts as a medium."

The center is uniquely built into a 700-space parking garage constructed by the county to relieve the parking problems in Bethesda's crowded urban center. The late Betty Ann Krahnke, then a member of the County Council, wanted to make the structure more than just the typical ugly box. At the same time, Imagination Stage was looking for space for its new theater arts complex, so the unlikely arrangement was struck.

While much of the building still looks like a parking garage, the theater area features striking architectural detail, with an unusual copper, limestone and glass façade. The interior is also unusual, seemingly without right angles and surfaces set off by cherry wood finishes over "artist-designed" terrazzo floors.

"The innovation in urban planning and the 'street sense,' if you will, of this whole concept is extraordinary," Fogel said. "The building itself, inside with the artwork and sculpture, and the architecture from Wood and Zapata, with all the special finishes, are all extraordinary and it feels as though we're in a very modern art museum."

The new center was financed with $4.5 million in private funds, a little less than $1 million from the federal government, $2.4 million from the state and $1.6 million from Montgomery County. The theater group currently has about $4 million in tax-exempt revenue bonds, a debt Fogel said the organization is eager to erase.

Already, the new spaces in the 40,000 square-foot center are filled with activity. On a recent morning students were taking their classes in the education studios. In one room, deaf children and their parents were dancing to music, which the youngsters experienced as the vibrations in a specially constructed "spring" floor.

Equipment was being installed in the digital studio, where students will explore filmmaking, animation, video production and Web site construction. In the 450-seat professional Lerner Family Theatre, technicians were putting finishing touches on the digitally equipped control room and sets were already being assembled on the stage.

"We're so happy to be out of all our compromised spaces and have everything under one wonderful roof," Fogel said.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company