- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 15, 2001

Denise Barnes interviewed Anita Gill-Anderson, leader of A New Voice, a theater group for teen-agers in Reston, Va.
Question: What inspired you to get into theater?
Answer: I joined the drama club when I was in high school in Covington, Va., and our club won first place for a one-act play in the Virginia State Tournament. Three years later, in college, two of my friends and I founded our own theater troupe. We performed up and down the East Coast doing religious drama for different groups and organization. We performed James Weldon Johnson's "God's Trombone" for PBS in Tennessee and made money to pay the phone bills, and it was just lots of fun.
After I graduated from Radford University in 1979, I founded my first youth theater group, called God's Trombone because of my baby sister, who was 10 years younger than I. It bothered me that she wasn't being exposed to African American literature or history in school. So, I used the theater group to teach black history and expose audiences to the works of African American writers.
We performed at the Veterans [Affairs Department] hospitals, at civic organizations and churches throughout Roanoke, Va.
Q: What prompted you to begin a second theater troupe in this area?
A: I had so much fun with the first one. I attend a church that's open to the dramatic arts, and I had and continue to receive the full support of the church congregation and administration. The Rev. Norman A. Tate feels strongly about A New Voice and always includes us in church activities.
Plus, I had a four-day workweek, a wonderful marriage, my son was older, and it all came together. So, I started A New Voice in September 1993.
The purpose of the troupe is not to make the kids stage actors and actresses, but to give them an opportunity to speak in a clear voice in front of an audience. Theater experience helps students in their class work in any number of ways. For one, when they're asked to give oral reports in school, and many students today have to interview to get into the better colleges and universities. This allows them to relax because they've had the experience in speaking in front of large audiences. Naturally, being teen-agers, they do all have an opinion, and theater gives them a forum to creatively express themselves.
Right now, I have seven members in the troupe, ages 12 to 18, but the numbers fluctuate. The beauty of A New Voice is that there are no auditions involved and we open our doors to new members every August through September. We're now in our ninth season, which runs from September through June.
I sincerely believe our young people have the solution to the world's problems within their grasp. So I try to give them an opportunity to voice their opinions, and adults an opportunity to sit and listen. That's achieved by theater. We perform throughout the year for civic groups, historical events and at churches. Each spring we put on a performance, and the young people direct the play. They tell me what theme they want and actually assist in the writing of the play, so that their ideas are what the community sees, not mine.
Q: What's your approach as a director?
A: In most cases, we don't use props in our performances. It's simply the actor and the audience.
What I do is ask the actor to draw the audience in using their imagination. So when the actors says there's a rainbow, the audience sees it. It's done through tone of voice, body movement and attitude.
For example, there's a line in a poem written by James Weldon Johnson, "The Creation," that talks about a Cypress swamp and the actor brings his audience with him down to the dark, damp dreariness of the swamp by using his voice and directing his audience to follow him with his arms. I prefer straight drama it makes us extremely mobile and we're able to perform essentially anywhere.
Q: Will A New Voice perform during the holidays?
A: We have a performance scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 15, at Heritage Fellowship United Church of Christ. We're working again this year with the Angel Tree Project. You've probably seen Christmas trees at different malls throughout the area decorated with angels cards. Well, on the back of each card is the name of a child, their age and their sizes, along with the child's holiday wish.
For example, a child may say they would like to have a warm jacket, another might ask for a Barbie doll. If someone buys the item for the child, the Angel Tree Foundation in Baltimore makes sure the gift reaches the little one by Christmas.
We put on a play, so when the children and their parents come to the church to get their wrapped gifts, they're treated to a performance, punch and cookies. Last year, we focused the play on "Silent Night." This year, we are going to perform "Oh, Holy Night."
We present the play in English, Spanish and sign language. We do the three languages because there are children who are [Hispanic] and we want them to enjoy the production just as much as the children who speak English. Also, so many of the children are learning sign language in school nowadays.
Earlier this month, we performed our third annual presentation of "Warm Clothes from Warm Hearts," with accompaniment by Michael Girdy and Co., a jazz ensemble in Reston.
The play is based on a true story: One of the teen-agers from Heritage Youth Fellowship was giving out sandwiches to the homeless several years ago. She handed one to a lady who thanked her but asked if she had any warm socks or gloves. The woman explained the homeless community loses fingers and toes due to frostbite. The teen-ager took off her socks on a really cold day and gave them to the woman.
To this day, the teen wishes to remain anonymous. The homeless woman didn't have a problem humbling herself, and this youth had the generosity to give what was needed.
So now, we're in our third year of the "Warm Clothes from Warm Hearts" clothing drive. We call it leading by example, and we're still collecting warm hats, socks and gloves. We distribute the clothing to homeless shelters throughout the metropolitan area. We're extremely fortunate to have received support from J.C. Penney in the Fair Oak Shopping Center, and we've gotten the support of Crest Cleaners' regional offices in Springfield.
Saxophonist Michael Girdy [accompanies] the actors and actresses during the performance. And they also entertain audiences with religious jazz before the play.
Q: What are your feelings about the troupe's efforts not just around the holidays but throughout the year?
A: I am always enchanted by their imaginations, their hard work and dedication in helping others. I'm always looking forward to the next production because it's another opportunity for me to learn something new.


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