Photo courtesy of Imagination Stage
The founder of a young people's theater organization discusses the critical need children have for theater and arts education. [29:40]
Bonnie Fogel—Podcast Transcript
Jo Reed: That's a scene from P.Nokio: A Hip-Hop Musical, written by Psalmayene 24 and commissioned by Imagination Stage.
Welcome to Art works the program that goes behind the scenes to with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works.
I'm your host Josephine Reed
Located in Bethesda, Maryland, Imagination Stage is a multi-disciplinary theatre arts organization for young people and their families. With its motto promising "Serious fun," Imagination Stage offers both a celebrated theater productions with professional actors performing plays such as P. Nokio for young audiences and a nationally acclaimed performing arts education program for kids ranging from age 1 to 18 which seamlessly integrates children who have disabilities. Between its theater and its education component, Imagination Stage opens its doors to about 100,000 children and family members a year. Imagination Stage is the brainchild of its executive director Bonnie Fogel who remembered her own engagement with the arts as a schoolchild in England. When she moved to the US with her own children, she was thrilled about the excellent academic education they were receiving, but was dismayed at the lack of emphasis on the arts. And when the school's talent was cancelled, Bonnie Fogel took action.
Bonnie Fogel: And so a friend and I decided we would put on this talent show. And I think there were 360 children in that elementary school and 300 of them wanted to be in the talent show and so they were. <laughs> And that was really how it started. And then I looked at my copartner in the talent show crime and said, you know, it's not just me that wants this for my children. Everybody wants it for their children and every child wants it. And so what do you think? Shall we start offering some classes in the local school in the after school hours. And she said, sure. And she had a formal background as an actress. She was an actress with all of her union cards and everything. Whereas, I was just someone who had enjoyed community arts activities. And so, you know, she became the teacher. I became the administrator and made all of the costumes and, you know, did all of those kinds of things. And- and that was the way it started. And just kept growing.
Jo Reed: Now, you started in a storefront?
Bonnie Fogel: No. We started our classes in '79 in an elementary school in the afternoons. When we determined in the 1990s, early 1990s, that we would try our hand at professional theater we thought that that should be a different venue. First of all, we didn't have enough space in our own little space. And secondly, we felt that to be fully professional it needed to be separated from what was happening with the classes because people would get confused. Was it a student performance? Or was it professional? So we went to a local mall that had a lot of space. It was during one of our recessions and asked them if we might use their storefront and that's where we started our professional theater in a storefront.
Jo Reed: Now, what made you decide you wanted to go that route and start a professional theater?
Bonnie Fogel: Well, you know it's like the way a lot of things have developed a Imagination Stage over the years, someone on staff has had an idea. In the case of the storefront it was a combination of ideas. I had been visiting Kansas City, Missouri where I saw a small theater run by professionals in a mall and I thought well that's very clever and very creative. And at the same time, one of our staff members said, you know, we do so well with our student performances but wouldn't it be wonderful just once to see what it felt like to work with professional actors? And I would love the opportunity to do that. So those two thoughts came together. And at the same time, you know, we had a local mall that was having problems with the recession and had a lot of storefront availability. So we tried it. And that has been very much the story of Imagination Stage. We have tried things that other people might not try. We have risked things that other people might not risk. And for the most part we've been successful. Who would think of putting a children's theater art center in a garage? We're currently housed in a 700-car garage. Which has turned out to be absolutely brilliant because we're in an urban space that we couldn't normally have afforded to be in. It's a wonderful public/private partnership with our local county government who run the garage and it's just been brilliant. But it took a leap of faith.
Jo Reed: You moved into this building in 2003 and it's underneath the garage…
Bonnie Fogel: Right. <laughs>
Jo Reed: ..which sounds dismal but it is not because you have big windows and plenty of natural light.
Bonnie Fogel: Right. Right.
Jo Reed: But it was designed with you in mind. What went into the thinking of the design of this building?
Bonnie Fogel: Well, we knew that it would be a challenge. We didn't want this to be a sort of dingy, subterranean, smoky, smelly place that you might think would be the result of building something in a garage. And so we were very fortunate to have a board member who was a developer, property developer. And who had connections to an architect and by that I mean this architect liked challenges. And given the challenge of how do you build a first class theater in a garage was really excited by that challenge. And so that's what happened.
Jo Reed: You also I would assume tasked him with making sure
Bonnie Fogel: Right.
Jo Reed: that the educational component of Imagination Stage it would not be the poor stepchild.
Bonnie Fogel: Absolutely. Yes. We were very blessed in this architect. Uhm.. He really understood that everything about this building came from the viewpoint of the child. The child who needed to be educated in the performing arts, not because we are trying to grow professional performers although some of our students become professional performers. We are all about the importance of building creativity in children and not only for the joy it brings to the child but because that develops lifelong skills in creativity and entrepreneurialism, in innovation, all of the things that the world needs in adults these days. So our mission has always been to unleash the innate imagination that every child is born with, to nurture that imagination through creative practices.
Jo Reed: Well, the other thing you've done in the design of this building is create a community space with your café. Talk about the thinking that went behind that, because to me that's part of what happens in the theater experience: you become part of a community.
Bonnie Fogel: Right, and lots of our artists who come here, playwrights and directors, outside directors, say they love to come here because this is a constantly alive space. It's not like an adult theater, which is dark 90% of the time, you know, and then at night it becomes alive. We have things happening here all the time, but when we designed the space, it was very much in my mind that I wanted it to be the British village green, the place in the center of the community where people came to sit, chat, be in a community, and in this case it was to be a cultural community. In some ways see what we've created here as similar to a church. You know, you go to a church or a religious institution to be with people whose beliefs you share in community. Well, people who come here all have the same shared belief, too, and so we offer them a place where they can come on a regular basis, knowing that everybody in this community believes in the same things that they believe in, that the arts are essential for the growth and development of children. And so on a Saturday morning, for instance, you come in here, there'll be children running into classes; there'll be parents with their laptops getting a bagel and coffee and hanging out, reading the newspapers; there'll be people beginning to line up to go to the professional show; there may be actors between the show running in and getting something to eat to take back stage; there will be teachers coming in. And then we also have a wonderful little gift shop in this lobby area. So there may be people just to buy their birthday presents there. So there'll be a swirl of community in that area and it just feels so good to know that everybody gathered there has a singular purpose, which is to include the child that they care about in this gorgeous cultural environment.
Jo Reed: You have two stages.
Bonnie Fogel: Yes.
Jo Reed: One seats what is it 360?
Jo Reed: And the other about 120?
Jo Reed: So they're pretty big size theaters.
Jo Reed: Can you talk about some of the differences or challenges with putting on theater for young audiences, that theater for adults might not have to think about?
Bonnie Fogel: There are many challenges. The first is that they grow up so quickly. <laughs> So on our main stage which is the 360 seat house the shows there are generally speaking for ages 4 to 10. So in terms of the difficulties and the differences uhm.. I think the marketing has to be much more robust because we're continually losing our <laughs> our audiences. They age out very quickly. So that's probably the biggest hurdle that we have to face. The other thing is that our pricing has to be very we have to really consider that when you go to the theater as an adult you will probably be going in groups of two. When you come as a child you're probably going in groups of three or four. So there's a huge cost involved for a typical family who comes here, or there could be if we didn't keep the prices really low. Our highest ticket price is $25, but you can get a ticket for $7 if you're coming on the weekend. If you're coming with a school group it's $5. So that requires and awful lot of subsidy. So, again, our fundraising has to be extremely comprehensive.
Jo Reed: I would also imagine kids are not very good at putting on a game face. And if you lose them in the performance it's very clear.
Bonnie Fogel: Right. Yes, I think they give much more back to the actors than the average adult might. You know, we don't have a lot of issues with that. We've been in the business for a long time. And our artistic director and associate artistic director have been in the business even longer than since they've been here. So we have a lot of experience with how to keep children engaged. And we do have a crying room, however in the professional theater. That is because many parents bring children who are really too young be in the theater. You know, if you have a family of four and your youngest one is two you're probably going to bring that two-year-old with you. So that two-year-old might not be as engaged as your five-year-old. So that's why the crying room is there so that mom and/or dad and the two-year-old can go in the crying room. They can hear everything, sound is piped in there. But the people outside can't hear the crying. And so that seems to work pretty well for those few children who we can't engage simply because they're very young.
Jo Reed: And with the very young children that you work with in the studio theater you have a great emphasis on interactivity at that age.
Bonnie Fogel: We do. Mm-hm. Yes. In our smaller theater we've started a new program for children age 1 through 4 which is theater for very young audiences. And there the children sit in a circle around the performance as opposed to looking at a stage. Those shows are about 40 minutes long. There's not a lot of language in the show. It's a lot of action, mime and engagement. When the child comes in, the child is given a little box or a little pouch and inside that box or pouch are some props. And the actors will ask the children to use those props during the show. And they'll also invite the children into the action so the children will get out of their little seats and well, they're sitting on the ground and toddle into the center and help the actors with some project. It might be pinning leaves on a tree, or lying on their back and turning on their little flashlights and making glowworms. All kinds of things so that their experience is highly engaging whereas that same two-year-old, as I've said in the main stage, might end up being in the crying room.
Jo Reed: Yeah, being a little fussy.
Bonnie Fogel: But in- but in the- but- but- but sitting in a circle with props and costumes and wandering around they're- they're going to be very engaged.
Jo Reed: How many professional performances does Imagination Stage put on per year?
Bonnie Fogel: There are five or six shows a year. We don't have a dark time other than when the show is being taken down or built up. So, you know, some adult theaters may take the summer off but we're not, that's one of our busiest times.
Jo Reed: I would think, yeah.
Bonnie Fogel: Yeah. So we're 24/7 here.
Jo Reed: And a lot of the work, the professional work you show are original works that you commission.
Bonnie Fogel: They are. And we're very, very proud of that. We have commissioned since we've been doing professional theater about 39 commissions. And about 36 of those have traveled on from here and they have been picked up by other theaters for young audiences around the country and actually around the world. Some of our shows have gone international.
Jo Reed: How do you go about commissioning a work? Do you offer guidance at all?
Bonnie Fogel: Mm-hm.
Jo Reed: Yes.
Bonnie Fogel: Absolutely. I mean our artistic director and associate artistic director work very, very closely. And it might be that they meet someone who they think could do something and they'll work very, very closely with that person. I'm thinking of the new hip hop series that we've put on working with Psalmayene 24 who's a very, very gifted young man who started life as a hip hop artist but has morphed into being a playwright.
And have worked very, very closely with him to the point where we now have two commissioned hip hop pieces and he's working on his third. But so starting with someone like that who's really inventing a new genre but then we also work with very, very seasoned playwrights. But still there's an enormous amount of talk that goes backwards and forwards in terms of how you make a play work for a young audience as opposed to an adult audience. And we're the experts in that. So it is very much a collaborative process but one that we have done very, very well with. It's really one of the things we're best known for is the number of commissions we've done. And the reason that we did it was because when we first started doing this theater frankly there were not enough shows that were we felt of a quality that we want to put on. I think our plays have a level of sophistication that respects a child's intelligence and doesn't speak down to a child. But also makes the occasion extremely enjoyable for an adult. So I say, you don't have to have a child to enjoy theater at Imagination Stage.
Jo Reed: You offer many education programs. For example, you have a theater education program for children aged 1 to 18. That's quite a span.
Bonnie Fogel: And actually, it's even more than that, because our children with disabilities we include them here until age 21. We have a philosophy for inclusion. We started welcoming children with disabilities in 1988, and children who were deaf, also. In those days it was a program of Imagination Stage; we wanted to make sure there was a place for children with physical and cognitive disabilities and those who were deaf to have access to the arts. Today it's not a program; it's a philosophy. And It underpins everything we do. It's not only that we are open and inclusive to children and young people with disabilties, but also that our theater is disability blind casting. And we have some creative team members who have disabilities also. It's really the way we think. The arts are for everyone and everyone plays. But yes it's a very comprehensive theater education. About the only thing we don't teach is ballet for older children, and we also don't teach instrumental music. And that's because those are very well covered by other, you know, organizations. We have a digital media department where we're teaching filmmaking and that's very popular. And we really enjoy that, especially in the summer months when the students are here for the full summer and they're rushing around with their cameras and sound equipment and, you know, it feels like a little production studio all over the campus here.
Jo Reed: And the digital media studio actually also teaches many levels of children.
Bonnie Fogel: It does. Yes, there's everything from, you know, children coming in at ten years old, maybe be coming in with a parent to do a parent and child product. Maybe they're gonna do a 60th anniversary video for, you know, Grandma and Grandpa together and that's gonna be a family project. All the way up to conservatory kids who are really producing films, and they're the kids that are gonna go on to university and study filmmaking at university.
Jo Reed: You've recently taken on a new program you call Creativity Initiative. Explain what that is.
Bonnie Fogel: Basically, we've been in the creativity business for 33 years. But we haven't said that that was the business that we were in. We've said we have children's theater and we teach theater arts education here. But there has been a great deal of talk in the thought leaders community, and everybody is talking about the fact that creativity is incredibly important for business. At the same time we've heard that the Torrance Tests, which are the only known measure of creativity, are showing that since 1990 the creativity of children has been declining. So in this country, which has always been the most entrepreneurial, innovative business community in the world, we have on the one hand CEOs saying, "I've got to have creative associates" and then we're seeing that the Torrance Tests are saying, "The children are losing their creativity." You know, we as one of the major uhm.. theater arts communities in the country sort of thought, well, we need to step up and we need to really start talking about the importance of creativity. We need to advocate to our own parents. We need to advocate to our school system. We need to advocate to politicians, anybody who will listen, that creativity needs to be grown in- in children. Innate imagination needs to be grown, needs to be nurtured. We need to make sure that children don't lose it. And so our Creativity Initiative basically talks about this any opportunity we have. I think one of the differences about Imagination Stage is that we talk about things, but we also do it. So we are now starting several new products that have to do with creativity. We are teaching parents how to be creative with their children, how to nurture the innate creativity in every child. And at the same time we are offering teachers professional development in how to build creative capacity at the same time that they are teaching curriculum, how to include building creativity into that work that they are doing.
Jo Reed: Imagination Stage, this building, it is a product, as you say, of a public-private uh.. public-private partnerships. And part of that public partnership has been with the National Endowment for the Arts. You've gotten grants from the NEA.
Bonnie Fogel: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: How important were those NEA grants in the vision that you were able to actualize with Imagination Stage?
Bonnie Fogel: Right. Well, when we came in here, we were very lowly creatures. I mean <laughs> spaces we'd come from before were very compromised. in some ways I sort of feel that we were the ugly duckling that became the swan. Our personality was exactly the same. The work we were doing was the same. It was creative. It was brilliant. It was done by wonderful people who- who had great intelligence and vision. But we got in here and suddenly we had a real theater and real classrooms and everything was beautiful and we could do our best work. We could become the swan that we were always intended to be. So when we started putting our best work on the professional stage we really became eligible for funding and support and recognition and credibility and validation that we had never had before. And so funding from NEA was hugely significant, because of the validation, credibility that it brought. More so than the money. 'Course we wouldn't want to overlook the money, ever. We understand that, how important that is, but the credibility and validation-- and you have to remember also that we are a theater for young audiences. And the importance of that genre has not always been fully understood by others in the theater field, and it has often been seen as the bald-headed stepchild: people doing good work, but, you know, not really as important as what we in the adult theater world do. So having the support and the validation of NEA has been huge. And at this point, you know, we no longer feel that we have to justify ourselves because of this kind of funding, support and credibility. And I think that is true not just for us, but for the entire field of theater for young audiences. We're doing extraordinary work here, and it is being recognized by NEA and by others.
Jo Reed: And finally how do if you were thinking about, as I'm sure you must think about Imagination Stage ten years down the road, where do you see you? What's the vision going forward?
Bonnie Fogel: The vision is actually quite clear. We are really going full tilt into building the Creativity Initiative. We call it "Creativity through Theater". We will be offering many more classes that teach people how to teach creatively, whether it's to their children at home or whether they're teachers. We'll be doing more data collection, which is something that NEA is very interested in our doing, collecting data that proves that children on theater do better than children without theater, because there's an economic argument to be made there. Theater isn't just about enjoyment, not that there's anything wrong with that, but there are real reasons why children on theater are going to do better than children without theater. And we aim to prove that. So we're going to keep that conversation going. We're going to develop more products there. And the other thing that we're very, very eager to do is find a way to disseminate what goes on in this building. There're 100,000 people a year coming to this building for world-class entertainment, world-class education, but there are billions of people out in the world who can't get here. So I see this building increasingly as a laboratory where we're doing some extraordinary work, but then we have to find a way to get that out. So in terms of the theater product we want to be able to stream the theater product out in the same way that the National Theater of London is doing and in the same way that the Metropolitan Opera is doing and there are obviously others. We want to be able to do that with our professional theater product. We also want to be able to get the classroom content out there. Why not? In my early, early days I remember listening to radio programs that taught me how to sing. Why shouldn't we do that today? Why shouldn't children and teachers around the country who don't have access to a place like this be able to sign up and come to classes here? It's all entirely possible with technology. So this is what we want to do. We've taken a long time to get to where we are, building up these walls. Now we want to take them down. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Well, I wish you all the luck and thank you for all the work you do in this, which is my community. So, thank you.
Bonnie Fogel: Thank you so much, Jo.
Jo Reed: That was founder and executive director of Imagination Stage, Bonnie Fogel. Bonnie has received many awards during her long career --and just last month, she was honored with a Helen's Star from TheatreWashington. Named for actress Helen Hayes, the star celebrates achievement and excellence in theater.You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from P.Nokio: A Hip-Hop Musical
By Psalmayene 24; Music by Nick Hernandez;
Featuring Katy Carkuff, Paige Hernandez, James J. Johnson, Psalmayene 24, and Jacob Yeh
Used courtesy of Imagination Stage
Excerpt of "Tilly's Punctured Romancer" by Ergo Phizmiz from his album, Strange Things, used courtesy of Creative Commons and found on WFMU's Free Music Archive.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, musician Dennis Yerry
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.