Whether in a school production or as part of a professional company, many teenagers with a passion for theater do not have an opportunity to direct plays, come up with choreography or lead vocal sessions. Yet many yearn to get a chance to stretch their skills and take on more of a leadership role.
In June, a group of 11 area high school seniors formed The Free Theatre — a nonprofit theater company run by students. Devin Lucas, one of the founders, said the group wanted to create an opportunity to work together, use some of the techniques they have learned from other companies and schools, and add their own elements to “create something of our own that really had our values in it.”
The Silver Spring-based nonprofit auditioned and accepted about 60 members in August, each who could bring multiple talents to their productions both on and off stage. “We are learning so much about performing and being on stage, but we get to have autonomy which, I think, is something unique to The Free Theatre,” Lucas said. “Getting to learn about theater from the perspective of not just being on stage but of what it takes to get everything on stage and how much goes into a show besides just the performers. Getting to be a part of creating the whole of theater and not just the on-stage aspect of it.”
An artists-in-residence program provides students with professional mentors. Marci Shegogue, a veteran musical theater director currently based at Free Range Humans in Frederick, attends every Sunday company meeting to teach for a few hours, then observe and guide for the remaining time. “These kids are so vibrant,” she said. “They are just so dynamic and interesting and dedicated. …They are all working together and teaching each other. It’s an awesome thing to watch. I’m loving it.”
Shegogue believes this theater group is different because the kids take ownership. “Every bit of choreography is student-written,” she said. “Every bit of staging is student-written. The creative process is driven by the students versus having an expert or professional in the field say, ‘Here is how we do things.’”
The experience teaches the students how to work and communicate effectively with a diverse group of people — not just the same group of kids they have been in school with their whole lives. Directors are learning how to analyze a script, the art of script writing and understanding how to get people to do what they want them to do to bring their vision to life. “It is a skill that is very different than just saying, ‘Let’s go put on a show.’” Shegogue observed. “It is a lot more in depth. It’s a lot more thinking.”
Those in music are learning how to command a room and assign harmonies. “There are a lot more pieces to it than the obvious,” Shegogue said. “They are learning how to ask questions and how to synthesize those answers so that things get done.”
Washington Lee High School senior Anna Nowalk, 17, of Arlington, Va., heard about the company through one of the founders at school. She and her brother decided to try out and join. Company members have been extremely welcoming and friendly. “It’s a really supportive vibe that you get,” she said.
Shegogue noted that about half the students didn’t know anyone when they came to their first session. “One of my favorite things is when I come in in the morning on Sundays to see the different kids talking, just catching up with each other,” she said. “This person lives in Alexandria and this one lives in Frederick and they have become fast friends. They would never have met” if not for the group.
When production groups were forming, Nowalk asked Shegogue to assist with music in addition to acting. Nowalk, one of the student conductors for her school choir, became Shegogue’s apprentice and has been taking notes, leading vocal warmups and fine-tuning music rehearsals. “The fact that I have been given this opportunity is fantastic and really helpful,” she said. “I am learning a lot. …It’s been a cool leadership opportunity that I don’t know if I would get other places.”
While leading sessions can be stressful, Nowalk noted, “It’s cool to have people look to you for some direction. It gives you an extra drive to know your own music so that you can help other people.”
For the inaugural season, the company will put on “Mamma Mia!” from Dec. 14 to16 and “In the Heights” from May 24 to 26 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre on Colesville Road in Downtown Silver Spring. Nowalk is in the ensemble, while Lucas plays the role of Donna.
When forming the nonprofit, the founders wanted to offer a tuition-free experience. Lucas, a senior at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, pointed out that the founders understood how fortunate they had been to afford taking part in groups that charged fees, but were concerned about others who could not. “We came to consensus that the expense of theater ends up shutting out a lot of really talented students who want and need theater,” she said. “I know, personally, theater is something that really helps me in high school — having this space outside of school that is a safe space to learn and create and do something completely separate from school has really been such a wonderful experience. …We wanted to make that opportunity accessible to more people who equally want and need that opportunity but haven’t had the access to it because of the expense.”
While the founders are seniors, the nonprofit will go on after they graduate. Underclassmen have been appointed as their apprentices. They also plan to put together an alumni board to pass down their knowledge.
Lucas, who serves as general manager, finds a lot of fun in working at the nonprofit and being part of a community that creates together. “I think that is something that really draws me to (theater) and draws a lot of people to it and the learning that you get from it, too,” she said. “I feel like I have learned so much about independence and responsibility from being able to do theater and that is something that has kept me coming back to it. I feel like it has helped me grow not just as a performer but as a person.”
She said seeing an idea for a new company come to fruition has been surreal. “It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been such a wonderful experience and I am really grateful.”
For information, visit www.thefreetheatre.org.