This year, Adventure Theatre at Glen Echo Park is celebrating its 65th anniversary of offering professional shows for the young and young at heart. Since merging in 2012 with the Musical Theater Center—and changing its name to Adventure Theatre MTC (ATMTC)— the nonprofit expanded its mission to include training children aspiring to a life on the stage at its Rockville-based Academy.
“We’re a theater with a school, or a school with a theater—however you look at it, it’s all about bringing kids quality opportunities,” said Kathryn Vicere, ATMTC’s education director.
“We’re the Washington area’s oldest children’s theater with a 175-seat theater at Glen Echo Park, and we’re continuing to build on that strong legacy,” she said. “We’ve produced Helen Hayes Award-winning productions at Adventure Theatre, and some of our Academy kids have gone on to careers in the theater, whether performing, writing or directing.”
And later this month, students in the Academy’s pre-professional program will be heard loud and clear where it may matter most. At the behest of the Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), some 40 Academy artists performed at a March 31 leadership meeting of the National Council on the Arts, the federal agency tasked with promoting the arts.
“NEA Chair Jane Chu toured our theater last October and our kids sang—we sprang on it on her, really, but she clearly remembered us. Her invitation to perform at the NEA’s D.C. headquarters is incredibly special to us,” Vicere said.
For ATMTC Artistic Director Michael Bobbitt, the opportunity to shine before the increasingly beleaguered NEA is particularly poignant.
“This is the Adventure Theatre’s 65th year of creating life-long theater-goers,” he said. “I’m excited about having an opportunity to perform for the NEA and talk about the importance of arts education and having the arts in our lives.”
Bobbitt directs five to six professionally-acted shows a year at Adventure Theatre, usually based on books found in the Montgomery County School curriculum. Occasionally, an Academy student might be enlisted for a child’s role in a play, some of which are new works developed by ATMTC.
For many young people, live performance can open up a new world, Bobbitt said.
“We show the kids how much fun the theater is, and how moving a show can be,” he said. “Whether they are on the stage or in the audience, we need to make the show memorable to drive a love of theater.”
That includes children with special needs, he added. Since 2009, after learning from a mother that her autistic son could not attend Adventure Theatre as his behavior might be too disruptive, Bobbitt began offering performances adjusted for children with sensitivity issues. His model has since been adopted by other theaters nationally and by Disney’s “The Lion King.”
“It’s a matter of muting the show a bit, bringing down the brightness of the lights and making the environment feel more relaxed,” he said. “The kids feel safe and can enjoy the show with their families.”
Academy students have plenty of room to trod the stage at the Academy’s 7,400 square-foot studio space at Wintergreen Plaza. It offers musical theater training for students aged 6 to 18 at workshops, camps, after-school and summer programs. Last year, over 1,400 children signed on for classes, while an estimated 30,000 educators and students were reached via drama workshops, residencies, touring productions and off-site classes.
While the programs may be expansive, many of the students share a common goal, Vicere said.
“The kids have a love for Broadway, and many are serious about pursing it as a career,” she said. “But musical theater is a demanding field, where you have to be a singer, dancer, actor and even a bit of an acrobat.”
She proudly noted that Academy has given $100,000 in class and camp scholarships, both merit and needs-based, to help make the Academy “affordable for everyone.”
For the pre-professional students, who audition for a rigorous program that runs during the school year, the training includes a dose of reality about a life in show business. As a former child actress who once did a national tour as the lead in the musical “Annie”, Vicere said such insights can be invaluable.
“I loved musical theater and couldn’t get enough of it. But growing up, I didn’t get the kind of training that could help me navigate an audition,” she said. “In a supportive and friendly atmosphere, we help the kids understand that they’ll be their own product, and train them how to navigate a tough business.”
Carlos Castillo, now 19 and a theater major at New Jersey’s Rider University, credits the Academy with providing him the technical skills—and chutzpah—needed to make a career in show business. The Kensington native spoke by phone shortly after his college troupe performed at a theater festival in Croatia.
“I was 15 years old and had some talent, but had no idea of what I was doing until I joined the Academy’s pre-professional class,” Castillo said. “It was a very serious and rigorous environment, and introduced me to things I hadn’t done before–like dance.”
With a couple of paid theater “gigs” now under his belt, he’s building the credits needed to earn his Actors’ Equity card, he said.
“I think the most important things I learned at the Academy was how to be a professional, how to be confident and conduct myself. I went from being a kid with decent talent to knowing I could make it in the field,” he said.
For information on Adventure Theatre-MTC, visit adventuretheatre-mtc.org. View this organization and its events on CultureSpotMC here.