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Since D.C. has one of the most robust theater scenes in the country, it’s no surprise that the city is also full of schools where aspiring Hamlets can hone their craft. The biggest of these schools, Theatre Lab, turns 20 this year—-and it’s still growing. (Full disclosure: City Paper Publisher Amy Austin is a longtime Theatre Lab board member.)
It all started in 1992, when recent Catholic University MFA grads Deb Gottesman and Buzz Mauro decided to put their training to use by training others. Though they initially planned to help other actors prepare for auditions, they quickly realized that there were more people in D.C. who were interested in acting, even if they had other careers. “In this town in particular, people want to take classes because they want to do something creative, break out of their cubicles,” says Gottesman. “It became really clear to us that the real-life benefits of acting training were every bit as important and interesting to us as the professional theater applications of them.”
Now, the school attracts all sorts of people: kids and adults, professional actors, and people who just want to improve their presentation skills. The Honors Acting Conservatory, started in 2006, helps actors prepare for professional careers in performance. But through its “Life Stories” program, Theatre Lab has also partnered with first-time actors to help them write and perform stories from their own lives. Beginning in 2001 with senior citizens in an assisted-living facility, the program later expanded to work with incarcerated young men in Montgomery County and at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Laurel, Md., as well as with the homeless and low-income women at N Street Village in Logan Circle. The highlight of this anniversary year, according to Gottesmen, was the N Street women’s performance of their work at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater in April. The process of creating that work will be seen in an upcoming documentary by filmmaker Nicole Boxer.
All of this underlies the central tenet of Theatre Lab, which is accessibility. Of all the different drama schools in the D.C. area, Theatre Lab, which serves 1,500 students each year, prides itself on accepting prospective students who come in rough around the edges. “We think that acting is a craft that you can learn, just like if you were taking a pottery class,” says Gottesman. “Being able to meet people wherever they are, that’s a piece of what draws people to us.” And draw people in they do: Gottesman and Mauro estimate that over 16,000 students have passed through the school in the past two decades.
The nonprofit school’s generous scholarship initiative allows it to remain accessible. In the past year, it’s distributed more than $78,000 in scholarships to disadvantaged youth. Often, students wind up enrolling for more classes after they complete their first one. The founders hope that others will see that theater can be accessible to anyone who tries it.
The Theatre Lab celebrates its 20th anniversary tonight with a cabaret benefit honoring Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser at the Mayflower Hotel. Tickets are $200.