Theater for Children Opens Doors to the Imagination

A student performing at Imagination Stage. Photo credit: Erica B. Tappis Photography

When Joanne Seelig Lamparter was a 16-year-old at Churchill High School in Potomac, she sought an educational and community experience that her public high school didn’t offer.

“I had seen a story on the local news about the deaf access program at [Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts (BAPA)] and, as a younger kid, I had taken a class there,” she recalls. “I was really interested in the program. Half the group is deaf, half is hearing. I was drawn to it because it was different from what I would get from my high school theater experience.”

It was a cultural exchange,” she notes, “and I was looking to a different way to use theater. I auditioned and was immediately drawn to it. I loved learning something totally new, getting to learn a new language, being with teens like me and teens not like me.”

BAPA, the arts academy, rebranded as Imagination Stage in 2001. And after receiving a master’s degree in arts in education from Harvard University, Lamparter is back. Returning in 2014, she is now director of education and theater for change, helming the organization’s school and community theater arts training programs and community partnerships, while continuing to build programs that reach youths, their teachers and families across cultural and economic divides throughout Montgomery County and beyond.

Forty-four years ago, a small performing arts academy for county youths began offering classes in Whittier Woods, a decommissioned elementary school in Bethesda. Since then, Imagination Stage has grown exponentially.

Today, with a $6 million budget, a fully built-out space, including a well-appointed theater, rehearsal studios, classrooms and offices, located in the central business district of downtown Bethesda, the theater and education center are thriving. Since its inception, Imagination Stage has reached 1.5 million children.

In FY2022 25,000 children, teens and young adults throughout the region have experienced programs ranging from theater for very young children ages zero to four, to classes in acting, musical theater, dance, improv for children across a spectrum of interests and abilities, professional theater productions and in-school curriculum-based workshops.

Filling an Unmet Need for Performing Arts in Education

The organization was founded in response to what some parents and community observed as a lack of arts programming in Montgomery County Public Schools, founding artistic director Janet Stanford says.

“[MCPS] provided a great academic education,” she notes, “but then and now the extent of arts programming is limited.”

Founder Bonnie Fogel’s BAPA began with just 17 students whose parents signed them up for theater classes in that old elementary school. Stanford joined Fogel as the growing organization shifted its focus to addressing not only the desire for young people to take classes and have on-stage performing opportunities, but the pair also wanted to create a professional theater that would bring high-quality productions with stories appropriate for young audiences.

“We wanted them to have both an image of what the theater can be and an opportunity to study it,” Stanford said. “Our mission has always been to use the arts to give voice to young people to allow them to find their own identity through the arts.”

And as enrollment has grown — just at the Auburn Avenue facility in Bethesda, between 5,000 and 6,000 students take afterschool and summer classes each year from professional teaching artists — and the needs of children and teens in the county have shifted over the decades, Imagination Stage has evolved to meet the changing needs beyond classes in musical theater or entertaining shows for kids.

“Increasingly we see our mission as youth development,” she said. “We’re looking for ways to include more young people in our group whose families are not able to pay for their participation.”

‘Learning Through Theater’ Closes Gaps for Lower-Income Students

The theater has a contract with MCPS to bring every Title 1 third-grade class to the theater for a live show.

“The goal of Learning Through Theater is to provide a young person with a live theater experience making sure that their experience is not just seeing the show, but also that they have our support so that can be meaningful to what they’re learning in the classroom, as well as to what their experiences are at home.”

The program is totally accessible: transportation is provided by the school system and Imagination Stage covers the ticket costs for the schools. Additionally, the program offers continuing arts education coursework for the Title 1 classroom teachers to enable them to integrate the material into their core curriculum.

For many if not most of these third graders, it’s their first time in a professional theater. They also have an opportunity to participate in a workshop on the stage, which allows them “to unpack the themes of the show and make additional connections between the themes and their personal lives, so that they have a full experience at the theater,” according to Stanford.

What’s On Stage in 2024

The main stage in season is busy, nearly every day of the week. Beyond daytime school shows, weekends are filled with performance opportunities for kids and families.

One family-focused experience to close out 2023 and open 2024 is a new collaboration with Baltimore’s Port Discovery Museum. Monikered “Jungle Discovery,” the museum has designed an immersive educational space in one of Imagination Stage’s studios.

Aimed at 3- to 6-year-olds, with their families, they will explore this jungle environment, identify animals, craft umbrellas from leaves, meet animal puppets, and observe the jungle come to life in a monsoon.

In February, a favorite, “Cinderella: A Salsa Fairy Tale,” returns to the main stage.
“Everything we do is cast diversely at Imagination Stage,” Stanford said. “The plays we pick are culturally diverse, so it’s not just about a mix of actors on stage.”

This Cinderella is not only spicier, it’s bilingual. Written by Karen Zacarias, a top-10-produced playwright around the country this year, she got her start writing children’s theater at Imagination Stage and writes critically acclaimed adult works.

In Imagination Stage’s smaller space, two shows — “Mouse on the Move” and “Inside Out” — are part of the recent audience-development programming for very young children.

As summer arrives, Stanford is happy to welcome back one of the most-produced plays in the country, which got its start at Imagination Stage almost 30 years ago. D.C. theater doyenne, character actor and playwright Joan Cushing’s “Miss Nelson Is Missing,” which is based on the beloved children’s book by Harry Allard, has caused generations of third graders to giggle and snort at surprise substitute teacher Viola Swamp.

For middle and high schoolers, “10 Seconds” will tour the region and New Jersey. It deals with a teen boy in Washington, D.C., who has a police encounter, touching on sensitive issues of bias, racism and community policing.

Farewell and the Future

Finally, in May, Imagination will honor Stanford for her nearly 40 years at the forefront of children’s theater and arts education as she steps down from her leadership role.

Reflecting on how children’s lives have changed over the decades, she said, “I think the biggest change has been for our teenagers with the challenges of social media, which particularly hit teenage girls hard.” She also noted the stark inequities the pandemic revealed, among them that many, many children and families — up to one in six — are food insecure in this wealthy county.

“How do we give all our kids a start in life … obviously with shelter and food, but [we must] also share the inspiration of the arts.”

For information on Imagination Stage, its classes and productions, visit

Lisa Traiger is an award-winning arts journalist who writes on theater, dance, music, film and visual arts from her home in Montgomery County.


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