Janet Stanford has served as artistic director of Imagination Stage in Bethesda, MD for more than two decades. During this time period, Imagination Stage has moved from an elementary school into a purpose-built facility, increased in size from a staff of 10 to nearly 50 individuals, steadily grown the number of Actors’ Equity Association contracts offered each season, and introduced numerous world premiere shows to the theater for young audiences field, including some of the first theater for the very young pieces.
These accomplishments are in many ways the result of personal attributes Janet possesses. As playwright Suzan Zeder wrote in nominating Janet for the Harold Oaks Award, “Not only does her work with Imagination Stage exemplify the criteria for this award: innovation, high aesthetic and ethical standards and sustained professional accomplishment; Janet herself embodies some of the same quiet qualities of generosity, patience and integrity as the award’s namesake, Harold Oaks.”
The Harold Oaks Awards honor innovation in the theater for young audiences field. Janet and Stages Theatre Company will receive their respective awards at the TYA/USA membership meeting on May 4, at 2PM as part of the national One Theatre World Conference. The following interview excerpt shines a spotlight on Janet’s many creative contributions, and certainly confirms the qualities that make her an ideal recipient for this award.
An interview with Janet Stanford:
You have led Imagination Stage through many stages of institutional development. Over the course of a relationship that spans decades with this single company, how have you renewed or changed the theater’s vision? What have the major turning points been?
The thing that influenced my life probably more than anything was that my family moved to England when I was five years old. I grew up there. I had the good fortune to go to plays that were for kids, at The Drury Lane Theatre, the Mermaid Theatre, and The Young Vic. So theatre was a very important part of my life, and what I chose to do from very early on. I ended up back in London to get my master’s degree and married an Irishman and I worked my first real job with Samuel French. I learned a lot about contracts and royalties, and how the business side works. I had a fantastic boss who recognized that I was interested in the artistic side and sent me off to see a lot of plays.
When I came back to the states I was trying to make my way as an actor, but at my first acting job at a Shakespeare festival in Texas, I proposed that we make a children’s play to make a little extra money and to keep the actors busy once the other shows were open. Later, I started a TYA series at Virginia Stage Company and started writing for TYA as well. In the 1980s, I worked with the Kennedy Center’s TYA programming for a couple years, but I also started a social justice theater with Rebecca Rice. We created a piece about domestic violence and that got done in Washington and London.
When my kids started school, I joined Imagination Stage in 1993. At that time, they had a community space that was an old elementary school where they did the education programming and a shopfront space in a mall for the professional theatre. The budget was $600,000, and we weren’t on the map at all. The vision had to begin with emphasizing the professional aesthetic. This was a way of stating who you were artistically as an organization. I set out to professionalize the group. We got a contract with Equity for 1 actor, and we made an arrangement that we are still on, for us to add another equity contract each season. We’re up to 25 now. Along with Adventure Theatre and the Kennedy Center, we put a bid in to have our work considered by the Helen Hayes Organization. I felt it was important that we be seen as players in the theatre community as well.
In those days, a lot of us felt the biggest problem for TYA was that there was very little good material on the shelf for us to do, and absolutely nothing for the diverse audience that we have. That led me to commission Karen Zacarías and my friend Rebecca Rice and later Psalamayene 24 to do theater that included more diverse people. In the Washington area, we have a huge Latino community and a large African American community, and those are the places I’ve put the most effort to create scripts that honor that part of our population.
Around 2000, we started planning for our move to the new building in Bethesda. That was a huge change. We went from 100 seats to 400 seats, from compromised spaces for our education program to a state of the art facility with 7 studios. That was an institution building period. In 2003, we moved into our building in Bethesda, and the increase in staff that came with that brought on a leadership challenge that took a few years to get my arms around. We went from doing things independently to having a marketing department and a development department, and people with very defined roles.
The next big change was in 2008 when we received a TCG grant to do work for the very young. I felt strongly it should be intimate rather than a mainstage production. I never felt those big name stage productions worked particularly well for the babies. For a two or three year old, I believe they need the intimate experience you can give them in an audience of fifty. It went from a single show we co-created, to a four show season every year with an audience of 10,000 who come just for that. It doubles the amount of time we have with the children since now the kids are coming when they are younger than five years old.
Our biggest new addition was in 2014, when the news was about all these kids coming to our area from Central America. We started doing workshops with these 12 or 13 year olds who had fled their homes and taken the La Bestia train across Mexico. They have problems when they get here because they are not accepted by other kids. So we gathered material through workshops to make a play and go back into the schools to raise awareness about why these kids have come here, and why we as a community should support them. We did a pilot of it last May, started going out to schools this fall and we hope to take it to Capitol Hill.
The Harold Oaks Award honors individuals and institutions with demonstrated capacity for innovation within the theater for young audiences field. What do you consider your most interesting or valuable innovations as an artist and artistic leader?
The commissioning of diverse scripts has been important, and a lot of other theaters have been able to pick them up. Karen Zacarias and Debra Wicks La Puma have been able to be commissioned by lots of other theaters. We also started this Youth Speaks to Age series, which is theater that begins with a pop culture reference- something that’s contemporary like hip hop, anime, or Bollywood. We’ve done four hip hop shows over the last ten years. I saw Eric Johnson’s anime-inspired show based on the Japanese folktale Momotaro and invited him to remount it here.
We also have done several pieces of dance theater. Partnering with the Washington Ballet, we did a version of The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, and we just did The Little Mermaid with them. We are bringing a song from that show to the song slam at One Theatre World!
The process of innovation involves trial and error. How do you navigate the path toward developing something new, whether it’s a project, program, or framework?
I always begin with the question “who should be in my audience but isn’t, who is being under-represented or neglected?” A lot of it has to begin with what one really likes. I really enjoy hip hop. I have educated myself on Bollywood by watching a lot of films now. Your passion will make it work, make it good for the audience, if you invest in things that you are passionate about.
What is your best advice for aspiring innovators in the field of theater for young audiences?
Part of being an artistic leader is being passionate. You should feel strongly about the things. Among the things that you love, you’ll find a way to communicate them to the next generation. When you create work for children, you are channeling the child in yourself. Those of us in this field who thrive, never lose the connections to what it felt like to be a child, the most disenfranchised part of our population. Many children are at the margins for eighteen years of their lives, at the mercy of bad circumstances in their families, an education system that doesn’t honor their learning strengths. They are very vulnerable. So any attention that we can pay them provides food for the soul.
Our neighborhood is well-to-do and we see neglected kids whose parents are always travelling. So it’s not just economically disadvantaged kids who have these challenges, it’s across the board. Those are the things that make me passionate about the population we serve.