Celebrating the 80th anniversary of its founding this year, the Olney Theatre Center in Montgomery County is the recipient of 18 Helen Hayes Awards, which were established in 1983 and named after the “First Lady of the American Theatre.”
In greater numbers than ever before, audiences from Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties are coming to productions at the theater, located at 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road on a 14-acre property with a main stage that seats more than 420 audience members.
Less well-known is National Players, the nation’s longest-running touring company. In its 69th year, National Players is a program of the Olney Theatre Center.
Jmore recently caught up with Debbie Ellinghaus, managing director of the Olney Theatre Center, and senior associate artistic director Jason King Jones, who heads National Players. Both Ellinghaus and Jones live in Howard County.
Jmore: In this age of cable TV, Netflix and streaming, why do we still need live theater?
DE: No technology will ever beat the experience of being in a theater with 400 other human beings watching an event together with that particular audience. That will never happen again. You cry, laugh and applaud together, which is amazing when you consider that those other people are strangers. Yet all of you are emotionally moved by the same story. This incredible force of energy flows through an auditorium and it breathes life into each person in each seat, sharing a unique and exciting experience with your fellow audience members. To me, that’s the essence of building community. There’s no better way to create shared understandings than through storytelling. You can’t build community from your couch watching Netflix.
What’s the attraction of National Players?
JJ: We commit a majority of our time to Maryland schools, so we can adjust our reach to meet an individual school’s specific needs. For example, at the Friends School of Baltimore, we performed “Othello” one day and returned several weeks later to conduct a workshop based on our performance of “The Great Gatsby.” We tell stories that live at the critical intersection of required student reading and contemporary social relevance. For instance, our production of “Othello” highlights the structural racism inherent in the world of the plays Shakespeare wrote.
We take the work beyond the stage through a series of workshops, supplemental educational materials and a post-show discussions after every performance. We strive to help kids and adults experience a production, learn to articulate their experience and give them some tools to unleash their own creative potential. Lastly, we listen to the needs of our communities. If our set won’t fit in their space, we’ll cut set pieces to make it work. If they don’t have time in their school calendar for a full-length Shakespeare performance, we’ll present a 90-minute version instead.
Why is the theater in a suburban location?
DE: Building community in a suburb is vital to the health and happiness of residents. Live theater can be a driver of the values a community embodies. Theater promotes civility and empathy and understanding. It doesn’t matter why we live here, but it does matter that our suburban communities have access to great art and great experiences — especially live theater.
I was really fortunate to have grown up in Columbia [Md.], where access to art and theater was easy. Olney Theatre was a big part of my childhood. Now, I’m back living in Howard County with my own kids, and I’m so thankful that there are so many opportunities for them to get involved in whatever piques their interest. It’s all here in our suburban community.
How is the theater doing financially?
DE: Over the past four years, our income has grown nearly 50 percent and membership has increased 20 percent, despite a national declining trend in subscriptions. We attribute that growth to good programming. When [artistic director] Jason Loewith arrived in 2013, he led the way to invest in the art. I joined him a year-and-a-half later and we spent the next few years [financially] stabilizing the company, but we never let the art down. We are planning to add more classes and workshops for kids with interest in theater, and this summer we’re expanding our summer camp.
How has National Players been able to exist for so long?
JJ: We’ve evolved with the times in terms of how we tell our stories, which stories we tell and how we engage with the communities we serve. Artistically, the productions look more fresh and contemporary. From an audience perspective, we plan our seasons with an eye toward what students in grades 5-12 are reading. Most importantly, we focus strongly now on reinforcing deep connections to communities across the country and to building new relationships that form the bonds of our future outreach. We do that through a combination of performance, educational activities and community outreach.
What’s the future of National Players?
JJ: Artistically, our foundation will always remain on bringing to life classic texts, but how we bring those stories to life will continue to evolve. For example, this year we began incorporating video and projection in “Alice in Wonderland,” and we intend to continue to harness this technology in future tours. We see a future in commissioning and workshopping new adaptations of classics. As we deepen ties in marginalized communities across the nation, I see our future in serving more comprehensively these under-served Americans.
For information, visit olneytheatre.org.
Peter Arnold is a Olney-based freelance writer.