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Community Spotlight: The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts

The Theatre Lab has been enhancing the District’s arts community for more than 25 years. Each year, over 2,200 drama students receive instruction from the school’s top-notch faculty, all of whom are actors, directors, or playwrights working in professional theatre. Students range from kids in beginner summer camp to adults preparing for a professional theatre career, and the school reflects this diverse set of needs by offering a wide range of classes meant to work into an already busy schedule.

The Theatre Lab is DC’s largest nonprofit school for the dramatic arts. It brings theatre to underserved kids, teens, and adults through tuition assistance and work-study programs. The free Life Stories program teaches self-expression and drama to vulnerable populations, such as incarcerated and at-risk youth, homeless women, recovering addicts, wounded veterans, and seniors.

This month, we talked to Deb Gottesman to find out more about why The Theatre Lab has been recognized as one of the top 50 arts and humanities programs in the country serving youth beyond school hours.

You give over $120,000 in scholarships each year. How do you pick who gets these scholarships?

Our goal is to make high-quality theatre arts training accessible to as many DC area youth as possible. We know that structured dramatic arts training is increasingly scarce in public schools, so our summer camp scholarship programs are particularly geared toward students who lack opportunity to experience the artistic and real-life benefits of theatre training because they have little exposure in school and do not have the means to afford extracurricular programs. Our scholarships are entirely need-based and the application process (which includes a statement about why the scholarship is necessary) begins in January. We notify teachers and administrators at DCPS Public and Charter Schools – asking them to share the scholarship opportunities with students and their families – and have a large number of applicants who come by word of mouth because their friends and neighbors have been in our camps in previous years.

We’ve operated our scholarship programs for more than 20 years; several generations of students from Naylor Gardens, Anacostia, LeDroit Park, Shaw, Columbia Heights and many other areas across the metro region. This past year we received over 180 applications for financial aid, and we managed to give either a full or substantial scholarship to every applicant with demonstrable need (over 160 children).

We are also committed to serving students over multiple years, so that The Theatre Lab – and the joys of creative exploration – can become a regular and stable part of their lives. These students often become the strongest performers in our programs and leaders in our groups. We had one student who began studying at The Theatre Lab on scholarship at age 9 who has just completed her junior year at Juilliard, one of the most prestigious acting schools in the country. We are very lucky to have funders – both individuals and foundations – who make all of this possible.

Do your classes follow a specific curriculum?

Our programs for children include summer and school holiday camps. For children entering 1st - 5th grades, our camps are typically two weeks long and focus on building improvisational skills, developing storytelling and text analysis skills, and learning to create character through body and voice, in addition to doing a deep dive into the session’s “theme.” This summer’s sessions include Shakespeare, Folktales from India, and other world theatre traditions. Many of our students participate in multiple sessions. For children entering grades 6-8 we have four-week teen acting and musical theatre camps, which result in two full productions: one of a musical (Peter Pan this year) and the other a world premiere of a devised theatre work created by the students themselves. Our teen programs offer extremely rigorous training in acting and musical theatre and culminate in professionally produced productions of two major musicals (this year’s shows are the DC premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Curtains) and one straight play in partnership with Theater J (this year we are taking on Naomi Iizuka’s Polaroid Stories, a provocative blend of classical mythology and real-life stories told by young people living on the streets). We try to introduce teens to plays and musicals with socially relevant themes and ones they might not encounter in their school programs. Admission to the teen programs is by audition, but we are very open to anyone who wants to learn and develop new skills regardless of previous experience.

Our adult classes, which are offered year-round, are typically six weeks long, meet one evening or weekend day each week, and include classes in acting, playwriting, directing, musical theatre, comedy, public speaking, and more. We have classes for people at all levels of experience – from never having set foot in a drama class to already performing on the professional stage. We have a faculty of over 40 distinguished theatre artists teaching these classes, all of whom work professionally on DC theatre stages and who have a combined total of 56 Helen Hayes Award nominations (Washington’s highest theatre honor).

What do children do in your summer camps?

Theatre Lab’s camps include improvisational games, script development, rehearsal, and a final public “sharing” for friends and family at the end of each session. We also incorporate hands-on art activities – like mask-making and prop design – into each day, along with some recreation and gym time to bond with other campers off the stage.

How many classes does the typical student take?

Most of the children in our program take an average of two sessions of camp each summer. With adults, it runs the gamut—we have people who are just looking to do something completely different from their daily lives—to break out of their cubicles, so to speak. They might just take one, six-week, fun improvisation-based. But some people get hooked by the creative, collaborative nature of theatre classes and take four or five sessions (30-36 weeks of classes!) in a single year. Because we offer beginning- through advanced-level classes, you could study here for a long time and never run out of ways to continue to develop your craft.

Tell us more about your Honors Acting Conservatory.

The Honors Conservatory is our adult professional theatre training program. We accept 10 students a year (by audition and application) who train vigorously over the course of 12 months to develop the skills necessary to work in the DC professional theatre world. Most students in our Honors Conservatory have full-time day jobs, so classes meet weeknights and weekend days. Students take courses in scene study, movement, voice and speech, Stanislavski, theatre history, and auditioning skills. They perform in one major production each year (this year, those productions included the recent Broadway musical If/Then and Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth). They also have the opportunity to study with and receive mentorship from some of the area’s best directors, which helps them get a foot in the door to the professional theatre community. We are proud that our Honors Conservatory students have worked at just about every major area theatre – including Arena Stage, Ford’s Theater, Olney Theater, The Shakespeare Theatre, Constellation Theater Company, Studio Theater, and many others. We also have several Honors graduates who have used the Conservatory as a launching pad to admission to some of the best MFA programs in the world. We have one grad who is currently pursuing his MFA at the Yale School of Drama, and another who received a Fulbright Scholarship to LAMDA (the famed London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art).

Your Life Stories program brings drama to vulnerable populations. How do they typically find out about you?

Through our Life Stories outreach programs, where participants learn to create original dramatic arts works from their real-life experiences, we serve more than 900 people each year from many of the area’s most vulnerable populations. We meet participants where they are: in shelters, recovery centers, prisons, assisted living facilities, schools serving low income and at-risk youth, and through many of our area’s most impactful social service organizations, including N Street Village, the Wounded Warriors Project, and Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop for formerly incarcerated youth. We rely on our school and social service partners to recruit participants for our Life Stories programs. We’ve learned that the agencies we work with have the best sense of who may benefit from creative self-expression and the opportunity to take control of their own narrative through a dramatic arts process. Our Life Stories participants have created beautiful dramatic works for the stage and screen--from a monologue performance of veterans with PTSD performing at Studio Theatre, to teens in a juvenile detention facility who created a film about the challenges of community re-entry, to a group of fifteen homeless women in addiction recovery who developed and performed an original play at The Kennedy Center. The latter project, which was our biggest Life Stories undertaking ever, was the subject of a full-length documentary by award-winning filmmaker Nicole Boxer, entitled “How I Got Over” which premiered at AFI Docs and is now available on Amazon.

The Theatre Lab won several notable awards. Which one are you most proud of?

We are very honored to have recently been selected for the fourth time by the Catalogue for Philanthropy as one of “best non-profits in DC” and, of course, to be chosen by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities as one of the top 50 out-of-school-time arts and humanities programs in the country was very meaningful. The one we are most proud of is having received the Linowes Leadership Award which recognizes “the efforts of unsung heroes working to improve communities throughout the Washington region and to encourage others to follow their example of community leadership and service.” What was most special about this award was that the recipients came from many fields – from those providing emergency services to people in dire need, to those helping recently arrived immigrants receive basic services, and those working with disadvantaged youth to help prepare them for college, to name just a few. It showed us that the arts are not just a fun “add-on” in our society. They can and do play a very meaningful role in helping to strengthen our community. That’s why we need to make sure that they are accessible to all.

How can the DC community support your organization?

The Theatre Lab is very fortunate to have a wonderful community of volunteers and supporters behind us. Right now, we are in the midst of our Send a Kid to Theatre Camp Campaign, where we are hoping to raise at least $115,000 to support scholarships for youth in need. To help send a kid to theatre camp, you can donate here – every dollar goes straight to a child. To donate to our Life Stories programs or generally support our programs, click this link. And if you’d like to get involved in our program as a volunteer or want to recommend a social service partner for our Life Stories programs, please email contact@theatrelab.org.