by Karin Tanabe
“Everything they say about London during the swinging ‘60’s is true,” says the UK-born Bonnie Fogel. “I used to attend the theater once or twice a week, sitting in the cheapest seats and paying only 10 shillings. When I moved from London to Pittsburg in 1967, there were riots in my neighborhood, soldiers in the streets, and there was only one theater. It was quite a shock.”
Fogel, Founder and Executive Director of Imagination Stage, a year-round theater/arts organization for children ages 1-18, with classes in dance, drama, vocal music and digital media, has come a long way since her days in the nosebleed section.
The future faces of theater gather around Bonnie and Imagination Stage teachers. The arts education classes serve over 4,200 students annually.
What began in 1979 as a way to increase her daughter’s arts education has turned into the region’s leading theater devoted to children. Inaugurated at Burning Tree Elementary by Fogel and a fellow parent, former actress Martha Smith, what is now known as Imagination Stage was then widely known as “BAPA”: the Bethesda Performing Arts Academy.
In those days, Fogel recalls, they had no business or strategic plan and the board was made up of their husbands and a few other parents. Fogel, who worked as a freelance writer, would write the plays and make the costumes. “I am one of the worst seamstresses. I used to glue and staple costumes together. But it grew in spite of us,” she says. As BAPA grew, Fogel and her business partner realized they were not touching the lives of children with disabilities. They founded the Arts Access program for children with physical and cognitive disabilities in 1987 and the Deaf Access program in 1989. “In many ways these programs became the soul of our agency. Every day we see how the performing arts empower children, but it is most apparent in children with disabilities.”
Fogel in the foyer gift shop surrounded by lions and tigers and bears oh my. Imagination Stage is presenting the Jungle Book this fall in conjunction with Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ).
Enormously popular but lacking in space, BAPA entered into a cooperative agreement with Montgomery County in 1998 to move into a public parking structure in Bethesda. Now known simply as Imagination Stage, the company acquired its new headquarters in 2003 and immediately business started booming. “We went from a rudimentary theater where it was literally lights on or lights off to a place where you feel like you are in a work of art,” says Fogel as we dodge enthusiastic children in the lobby of the building.
Fogel and colleague David Stern in the digital media studio. Children begin taking classes here at about 8 or 9.
Since moving to their new headquarters in Bethesda, Imagination Stage has experienced 72% growth in four years. The not-for-profit was ranked 49th fastest growing company in America by Inc. Magazine for 2007. It is probably the only company on Inc’s list that has a crying room. La Scala may not need one but the main theater at Imagination Stage certainly does. “We got the idea from churches,” says Fogel, who mentions that the mantra of the theater is “serious fun.” During the time of the Virginia Tech tragedy, Imagination Stage was running a show about a Vietnamese student who felt ostracized. “We wanted every child in the region to see this play. Trying to get the school system to legislate this was a new challenge, a new way of thinking.”
“We are not humble about our mission. We help children with difficulties learn in non-traditional ways. We have a huge role to play in society,” says Fogel, who drives a yellow VW bug with black spots around town. “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” Imagination Stage’s annual gala, will take place at the Bethesda facility on October 13th, with Nancy Pelosi serving as Honorary Chair.