Over her 23 years of directing award-winning children’s theater at Imagination Stage, artistic director Janet Stanford never shied away from the mundane tasks that kept the company afloat. From selling tickets to cleaning restroom sinks during the early years at White Flint Mall, she simply rolled up her sleeves and got on with it.
“A lot of people in the theater world tend to make a lot of noise about their efforts,” said Suzan Zender, playwright and long-time Imagination Stage collaborator. “Janet is quiet, but gets things done. She delivers on every project she undertakes.”
Her contributions have not gone unnoticed by her peers. The Theatre for Young Audiences/USA (TYA/USA), a national service organization promoting the power of professional theatre for young audiences, recognized Stanford with the 2017 Harold Oaks Award on May 4 at the One Theatre World gathering in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The prestigious award celebrates Stanford’s innovation, professionalism and contributions to children’s theater.
Zender nominated Stanford for the award, citing her efforts in building the Imagination Stage into the area’s premier children’s theater. Housed since 2003 in in downtown Bethesda, the company now boasts a $6 million annual budget, commissions new plays annually that speak to a diverse audience, and hosts an array of theater classes and summer camps.
“Imagination Stage has been known for ages as the gold standard,” Zender said, noting such innovations as sensory-friendly programming for autistic children and outreach to refugee children living in the Washington area. Recently, Stanford began working on building a cultural exchange program with youth groups in South Korea.
“If there’s ever been a time we’ve needed Janet’s style of quiet diplomacy, this is it,” Zender said.
Stanford, a native of England, said theater is in her blood. “As a child, I saw first-class productions in London. In that culture, being good at theater is as important as being good at sports,” she said.
She spent time in the United States as a teen, and returned in 1978 with a master’s degree in theater arts to pursue an acting career. While living in Norfolk, Va., Stanford discovered the joy of working with young audiences.
“Unlike adult audiences, who sometimes fall asleep during performances, kids are totally invested and have a vocal and visceral response,” she said. “That got me interested in writing and directing for children.”
Stanford’s family moved to Brookeville more than 30 years ago, and she was hired as a part-time teacher at company that was then known as Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts. Working with the company’s founder and executive director Bonnie Fogel, she helped grow it in both size and scope.
“When we moved to our own space in Bethesda, overnight we grew the audiences from 40,000 annually to over 80,000. People saw the new space and said ‘yes, our kids deserve this’,” she said.
Four years ago, she partnered with the Washington Ballet to bring world-class dancers into the musical productions such as “The Little Mermaid.” Since the 1990s, a special arrangement with the Actors Equity Association raised the level performances with not only professional actors but also stage managers and other support staff.
Stanford has also commissioned playwrights to tackle difficult subject matter for young people. A recent production, “Pirates! A Boy at Sea.” examined the resiliency of children coping with divorce.
“We undervalue our children if we only offer them escapist entertainment,” she said. “In a kid-friendly way, the play explored a little boy’s trauma over a mother who abandoned him. I want kids and families to walk away with something to talk and think about.”
Now a resident of Washington, Stanford enjoys a shorter commute and more free time to think about the future of Imagination Stage.
“I’m excited about the possibility of bringing our programs to the children in the District,” she said. “The thing that drives me most is wanting to offer first-rate theater for children.”
For information about Imagination Stage, visit imaginationstage.org or view their profile on CultureSpotMC here.