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 is the state of Imagination Stage’s financial health?
Our annual budget is about $5.5 million. We’ve received significant funds each year, and we’ve been able to retire our construction debt. We’re secure in the sense that we are 15 years into a 50-year lease on our building. I would say that no nonprofit is ever secure. We’re completely at the mercy of our funders, whether private or public, and we’re at the mercy of the public, in terms of tickets sold and who’s coming to classes. Ticket sales have declined for the past five years at a loss of about $250,000 annually. But our classes are growing, and we anticipate a zero-based budget—no deficit—for 2020. Our new strategic plan will deal with this reality. We, as a society, are getting busier and busier, and it is harder for people to commit to specific times and days. So we are very focused now on finding new ways to deliver theater.
Which is what led you to consult your former student David Sabel at England’s National Theatre…
He has since left that position, but when I spoke with him, he had performances being broadcast on 20 screens in 13 countries. I met with him in London and we discussed how to pursue this. But in this country, the unions will not give an inch. You would have to pay a lot to the unions and to the actors to capture them digitally. But the big problem is distribution. We’ve talked with people about it but haven’t been able to make it work.
What other possibilities are you pursuing?
We’ve had conversations with commercial adult theaters, and they are ongoing, but I wonder if they’ve actually seen us. There’s a sense that theater for young audiences is ladies in gingham aprons and fuzzy bunnies running around the stage—and no understanding of how sophisticated it really is. Our expansion into D.C. began five years ago and has been very good for us. We have run theater programs at the National Theatre, the Atlas theater and THEARC [Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus] in Anacostia. Our search for a permanent District base is ongoing. And we now have a partnership with the Whittle charter schools to work with them in China. They want to set up some programs at their Shenzhen campus. And I think that will be extremely popular because they love American musical theater in China.
How has your life experience informed your view of the theater?
My mother and I moved around, and I never stayed long enough in any one place to get a comprehensive education. The places I felt most comfortable were on the field hockey pitch and in the theater or in my choral group. But I was a girl who only could shine on a stage or a hockey field.
Your life story reads like something penned by Charles Dickens.
Yes, mine and my mother’s, as well. I didn’t know I had a living father until I was 36 years old, and when I finally met him, it was four years later. When I was a child, it was hard to have a mother—my single parent—who was insecure, lacking in confidence, and poor. I felt out of place, like a cuckoo in a sparrow’s nest, as the English say. When I met my father, I understood. I had his character. My father turned out to be a world-traveling, educated Czechoslovak, very social, charming—and it made me immediately feel whole. It boosted my confidence and sense of self in a way that nothing else could have done.
What was the impact of him being Jewish?
It made a huge difference. I knew nothing about Jews. When I went to work for Marks & Spencer, a Jewish-owned department store chain in England, many of my friends were Jewish and I felt comfortable there. I actually didn’t find out that my father was Jewish until eight years ago. I found this out from my sister, Vicky, who I met after my father. She told me she confronted him just before he died in 2012, and he took her to the attic and opened a chest with the family history. My father, Tom Unwin, was actually Tomas Ungar, son of a famous Czech writer named Hermann Ungar, who was friends with [writers] Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann. I was raised in the Church of England, but now I go to the synagogue on the High Holy Days.
How much were you able to learn about your family?
It’s been the most extraordinary thing to learn all this, to travel with Vicky to Prague and go to the [Jewish] cemetery there and to his former town of Boskovice. My ex-husband belongs to Bethesda Jewish Congregation, and it turned out that their Torah actually comes from Boskovice!
If you hadn’t ended up with Imagination Stage, what might you be doing instead?
I consider myself a writer, first and foremost. At Marks & Spencer, I wrote their newsletter. When I first came to America, I wrote for several newspapers. But I really think I would have been a shopkeeper. I love retail, and one of my saddest days was when we had to close our little shop downstairs [at Imagination Stage]. I’m someone who has benefited extraordinarily from theater in her life. I understand the value of theater and arts education, but I’m a facilitator, while Founding Artistic Director Janet Stanford and [Director of Education] Joanne Seelig are real theater people. My strength is asking for money, building coalitions—I have chutzpah, and now I find out it’s in my DNA!
When your daughter, Sarah, was 7, you succeeded in removing a Judy Blume book from the school library because a character referred to a teacher as a ‘bitch.’ Has your view changed?
I still think I made the right decision. I come from a background where a teacher is a revered person. Growing up in the theater you’re not prudish, but this was disrespectful. I lost a lot of friends over that—at least temporarily. Some of them were surprised because they thought I was censoring literature.
What does a dedicated workaholic like yourself do in whatever free time is available?
Well, the theater, of course. I particularly liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Round House, and our own production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And I go see movies almost every week. The Two Popes and The Irishman are quite good. I love gardening. People think I have a beautiful garden at my Bethesda home, but my English mother would come, and by her standards she’d be horrified.
Steve Goldstein is a freelance writer and editor and the former bureau chief in Moscow and in Washington, D.C., for The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Bethesda Interview is edited for length and clarity.