It’s that time of year again: sleek, chic, sophisticated Bethesda undergoes a bit of a personality break, casting itself as a small town with face painting, live music and dancing in the streets.
The annual festival known as Imagination Bethesda celebrates children and the arts by featuring fun, food and entertainment that is provided by some of the businesses and arts organizations that give the community its gloss–from Strathmore to Imagination Stage to Montgomery Parks to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase YMCA.
Bradley said trading the idyllic patch of Glen Echo Park, where Adventure Theatre is located, for the streets of downtown Bethesda for a day gives Adventure Theatre staffers and teaching artists an opportunity to catch up with their counterparts in the arts.
“We get to say hello to Tea with Mrs. B and Imagination Stage—to interact with people who are in this same field of entertainment for kids and families,” she explained. “And I love talking to parents, especially the ones you know and love who come every year and have wonderful things to say.”
She enjoys meeting the people who have not yet had a chance to get to know Adventure Theatre, too, because those folks are open to learning more about the organization’s 65-year history of making theater come alive for little ones. Indeed, it’s helping little kids get comfortable with the Adventure Theatre experience is what it’s all about for Bradley.
“We have an upcoming show, ‘Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook,’” she said, referring to the play based on the popular children’s book series by Barbara Park. “In celebration of that, we’re doing an activity: paper bag backpacks. Kids can color Junie B., wear the handmade backpack around and put their other crafts and activities inside.”
With teaching artists on hand to handle staplers and scissors, Bradley is hoping that the activity drums up interest in the show, gets the word out about programs available at the theater, and fosters a sense of fun, learning and creativity.
“It’s multipurpose, from my perspective,” she said. “Kids can see what the show is about, get in the right mindset for coming to see a show about a kindergartener, get to know the character if they’re not familiar with Junie B., and learn a bit about us at Adventure Theatre if they haven’t heard of us.”
Hearing about organizations and activities for kids is a huge component of the festival. Those Junie B. Jones backpacks had better be sturdy, because some of the arts and crafts projects scheduled are serious business: door knocker decorating with Kidville, blow paint monsters with Huntington Learning Center, even a tinsmith activity and clay marble making at the Montgomery Parks tent. The Iran Cultural and Educational Center will offer arts and crafts from Iran, CityDance is planning a graffiti art project, The Washington Conservatory of Music has instrument-themed crafts and musical demonstrations planned—it’s a banner day for anyone interested in the arts.
And the sciences, too, said Emma Starr, director of communications at the KID Museum, which provides interactive STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) experiences for children and families.
“It’s all about letting kids see where their imagination takes them,” Starr observed. “It’s all about giving them the tools.” Tools include drills and electrical circuit materials, which experienced educators help kids tackle during weekend, after-school and summer workshops. KID Museum kids can learn just about anything from coding to creating textiles: This weekend, visitors can design and make their own fidget spinner using Tinkercad and a 3-D printer at the KID Museum’s Davis Library location. Or, they can visit the KID Museum booth at Imagination Bethesda, where there will be PVC pipes and pachinko for a variety of hands-on activities.
“We let them go at their own pace,” said Starr, “gathering these life skills. It’s real-world problem solving on a smaller scale.”
It’s the “smaller scale” nature of Imagination Bethesda itself that appeals to Danisha Crosby, a parent who is also an arts professional. “Full confession,” said the associate producer and head of Round House Theatre’s education department. “I have worked Imagination Bethesda, from the Round House point of view, and I have also taken my daughter, who’s 8.”
Crosby described Imagination Bethesda as “a scaled-down street fair for kids. It is smaller in size, so it’s not overwhelming; every tent is required to have an activity—front and center, and the focus is to have an activity for young kids.” Sure, places like Round House hand out materials on summer camps and shows, but from a parent’s point of view “it’s the perfect little afternoon activity,” Crosby said of the event (which starts at 10 a.m. if you’re a morning person) “It’s definitely skewed towards younger kids–no doubt about that.
“A couple of hours, which is the right amount of time, and plenty of activities,” she said. “We’ve brought home potted flowers, arts and crafts—and there are all different kinds of foods to try, from kid-friendly pizza to more adventurous ethnic choices. It is downtown Bethesda, after all!”
Well, yes. And participating restaurants include Gusto Farm to Street, Mamma Lucia, Mussel Bar & Grille and Silver, as well as Haagen-Dazs and Smoothie King for snackers. “It varies from year to year, but everything is kid-friendly and interactive, relaxing and fun,” Crosby said. “The bands get the kids up on their feet to dance and if the weather is good, it’s a great couple of hours with just enough to do.
“We’ve gone with our neighbors before, you can hang or split up and get back together again.” She laughed, adding that “Parking is easier if you get there on the earlier side, like anything in Bethesda.”
As much as Imagination Bethesda is a great day out for a parent like Crosby, it’s also a boon for the arts organizations and kid-centric businesses that participate. “From our point of view, any time you get to talk live and in person about what you do—as opposed to having them read a poster or a brochure or a website or anything like that—it’s always great,” she said. “Let’s face it, things come from person to person recommendations, and even when people know they’re talking to someone from Round House, there’s something different about being able to chat with me about what your 7-year-old might be doing in a day at summer camp versus trying to puzzle it out from a website.”
Crosby also noted that being part of the community it serves is a big part of the Round House mission, and in addition to talking about children’s activities at Imagination Bethesda, she and her fellow staffers can engage older would-be theatergoers about what is offered on the mainstage.
“We have things for mom and dad to do when they’re ready to leave the 6-year-old at home,” she pointed out. “So, we go prepared with staff from both sides of the organization: I often end up in conversations with people who say, ‘Mmm there’s no way we could subscribe; we can’t possibly do five or six shows a season.’ And I can go, ‘Great! Let’s talk about which one play you might like best.’
“That’s something you can’t get out of a website.”
Imagination Bethesda takes place Saturday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Woodmont Avenue and Elm Street in downtown Bethesda. Admission is free. Visit www.bethesda.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.