Janet Stanford, Artistic Director
Imagination Stage, Bethesda MD
RISKY BEHAVIOR HAS ITS REWARDS
In the dark depths of the financial recession—in fact, in part, because of it—the Washington Ballet came to Imagination Stage in 2009 and asked if we would like to collaborate on a show. We obtained the “Dance Rights” to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and hired a NYC-based composer. Septime Webre and David Palmer of TWB and Kate Bryer and I from Imagination Stage all locked ourselves in Septime’s small second floor office for hours at a time discussing how best to translate the story into a mix of dance, music, song and dialogue. Septime insisted that the four children be played by dancers as well as actors. I begged for a giant puppet—rather than a guy in tights—to portray Aslan. There was endless back-and-forth. What elements are essential to the plot? Which scenes should be danced? How much could the doubled characters be integrated on stage? In January 2012, we did a development week in which most of the dances from the first act were choreographed and a libretto for all the songs and dialogue was drafted. A small audience attended and confirmed the creative team’s instincts that we were on to something good.
Then came the road block. The inevitable money problems. TWB had no funds to commit to our production, just time and talent. Imagination Stage had to come up with $175K in donations to underwrite the planned summer 2012 production, twice as much as the theatre has ever raised before for a show! Factions on our Board of Directors were nervous and lobbied to pull the project due to the fear of ending our season with a deficit if the contributed and ticket money failed to materialize. Fortunately, the Lion Ladies—three trustees who sit on the Boards of both TWB and ISI—promised to deliver while staff, actors, dancers and puppeteers rallied around in support of taking the lion-sized risk.
Right after the first preview, David Palmer leaned over to me, shaking his head, “It’s beautiful but we’ve made something too sophisticated for the kids.” Like all of us, he was worried about how so unusual a production would be received. He need not have been. Critical acclaim quickly followed in The Washington Post and other media. Our audience turned out in droves, tweeted their friends and came back to see the show for a second time, ultimately sending our box office over budget by an unprecedented $70K.
It was the experience of a lifetime. One time when, after a thousand questions, you’re blessed to find all the right answers. Risky behavior in the arts may not always be a good idea but in this case it was. And the truth is such a success just heightens your appetite for more.
Photo credit: Scott Suchman