Bethesda interview: Bonnie Fogel
The founder of Bethesda’s Imagination Stage—who will be stepping down as executive director in January—talks about overeager stage parents, why kids need arts education, and finding out her biological father was alive
What’s your earliest memory of going to the theater?
I was probably 13 or 14 when I was taken to see some dreadful musical with [rock star] Cliff Richard called Expresso Bongo. But my aunt was an amateur opera singer, and my mother and I would go see her in light opera productions. Members of my mother’s family were always in these London-style revues. This was always an important part of understanding who I was and who my family was. When I worked at [U.K. department store] Marks & Spencer, they always had free tickets, so I saw all the great [British] actors. That was very special.
Your English schooling gave you the impetus for Imagination Stage, correct?
We had a great opportunity in our schools for theater and the performing arts in general. When I moved here, I understood my children were going to have a fabulous education at Burning Tree [Elementary School]. But I couldn’t see a cultural piece—no art, music or drama. I was running a club for international parents at the time. So with a professional actor friend, Marcia Smith, we started a performing arts program at Whittier Woods, beginning with a talent show.
Why is it important for children to have arts education?
We say all children do better if they have the arts in their lives because it empowers them to be all they can be. It gives them their own voice, and it gives them creativity and confidence. Of course, it’s different for each child.
You have sought to include children with disabilities. Tell me about that.
Some of the children who we are most happy to be part of their lives are those who have disabilities. They often are not able to be included in things that most children do. When you see these children suddenly be able to express themselves through theater, to be onstage, to be listened to, and applauded…the success for that person is entirely different from the success of a person who’s already doing pretty well. One of my favorites was a young man with Down syndrome who acted the role of Lyle the Crocodile, a nonverbal part that required very physical acting. He was outstanding, and this opened my eyes to how we are all gifted in different ways.
What percentage of your student performers have a disability?
It’s been consistently about the same—16%—which is roughly equivalent to the incidence of disability in the general population. Of course, the definition has changed, so what counts as a disability is not now seen as such, and some things not thought to be disabilities are now counted that way—the silent ones, such as hearing and processing issues, and those on the autism spectrum.
You don’t seek to be a professional training ground?
We’re not in the business of turning out legitimate actors or commercial actors. The mission of the organization is empowering children, giving all children a voice. We are here to build a child, not make him or her a star. There’s a handful of our alumni working professionally that I know of, but actual numbers are hard to determine since we estimate over 1 million kids in our 40 years. Mo Rocca is the actor most of your readers would know; he’s a Bethesda boy.
Do you nevertheless get overeager stage parents?
I remember getting a call at home and being berated because someone’s child didn’t get the part they wanted. Or someone complains about the number of spoken lines. One parent said, ‘I’m paying the same amount, and my daughter doesn’t have the same number of lines as so-and-so.’ I’m sure my response was extremely polite [laughs loudly]. That came in our early days, and perhaps I didn’t make it clear as to what their expectations should be. As for the uber-parents, there’s a culture here that doesn’t fit them.
How has Bethesda treated you?
It’s phenomenal in so many ways. I’m out a lot, and people tell me that Imagination Stage is a great resource for the community, and thank me. And this goes way beyond the parents who’ve come to see shows or fetch their children. It’s the political leadership, the philanthropic community and the social leadership. I can’t imagine having built something like this in England. Perhaps the need wouldn’t have been there, nor the spirit of entrepreneurship.
And yet Americans don’t necessarily value theater as the English do.
It’s not been a part of the average American’s upbringing, perhaps. Certainly the people who come here value it. But one thing that has distressed us is that The Washington Post stopped reviewing children’s theater six years ago. We’ve had meetings at the highest levels at the Post; they’ve said that people don’t care whether the shows were reviewed or not. We’ve told them we’re losing a lot of money by not being reviewed: $250,000 the first year they stopped reviewing us. And our directors are not getting the valuable feedback from a review. And if an actor is offered the same role at another theater as well as ours, the actor will say, who is being reviewed?
What role do you play as executive director?
I am a facilitator and I build connections with the political, philanthropic and civic leadership. The best person I ever hired is Janet Stanford, our founding artistic director, who initiated our professional theater program 26 years ago. It’s because of her we have visibility and credibility in our community.