- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 20, 2004

There is room to spread out at Imagination Stage’s new home in downtown Bethesda. For more than a decade, Imagination Stage’s theater performances were presented in empty store space on the third floor of White Flint Mall. The theater’s patrons generally sat cramped together on folding chairs or on the floor. It was rustic, but charming. The children enjoyed the professional drama troupe’s productions of plays such as “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day” and “Miss Nelson Is Missing.”

Imagination Stage formerly was called Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts (BAPA). The nonprofit arts group was founded in 1979 with a mission of making the performing arts accessible to area children. Nearly a year ago, Imagination Stage moved into a brand-new, $12 million facility. The surroundings give an impressive and professional edge to the productions.

“People made the transition pretty quickly,” says Laurie Levy-Page, Imagination Stage’s director of marketing and public relations. Still, the theater designers left room between the stage and the front row in case anyone is nostalgic for the old days.

Imagination Stage’s Lerner Family Theatre features professional seating and acoustics as well as room for more sophisticated scenery and lighting. Most important, 437 persons (377 in seats and the rest using standing room and floor space) can watch a performance, nearly four times the number that could jam into the White Flint location, Ms. Levy-Page says.

Imagination Stage has presented four productions in the Lerner Family Theatre so far this season. It recently wrapped “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters,” a tale from Africa that featured native dancing and music. “Liang and the Magic Paintbrush,” begins a six-week run April 3.

“Liang and the Magic Paintbrush” — which will feature special spring break matinees April 6 through 9 and April 12 — will use dance, mime and digital media projections to tell the story of Liang, a Chinese boy who dreams of being an artist though the emperor forbids it. The production will feature deaf and hearing actors.

The new facility also features plenty of space for youngsters who want to participate in the performing arts. The new Imagination Stage features classrooms and workshop rooms plus classes in singing, dancing, acting and digital film production.

About 1,000 children of all ages are enrolled in classes, Ms. Levy-Page says.

“We have kids as young as age one in our early childhood program, where they come with an adult,” she says. “We have a new program, an acting conservatory, which is a two-year commitment for advanced students who are very committed and focused.”

In-between levels of classes are offered, too. Imagination Stage also will present a full slate of activities and camps this summer. High school students can enroll in the Mid-Summer Shakespeare Company, an intensive five-week program that will culminate with a performance of “Macbeth.” Children in grade five and higher who want to do more behind-the-scenes work can take part in filmmaking, clay animation and flash animation workshops.

The building’s airy lobby, which features a child-friendly coffee shop, is a natural place for children who take classes to socialize afterward and for their parents.

The lobby also serves as a lunchroom for the many school groups that attend performances on weekdays, Ms. Levy-Page says.

Also in the lobby is a unique gift shop featuring theater-themed items. This is a good place to pick up children’s books on Shakespeare, dress-up costumes, finger puppets and other “let’s pretend” items for the dramatic child in your life.

WHEN YOU GO:

LOCATION: Imagination Stage is at 4908 Auburn Ave. in Bethesda.

Directions: From the Beltway, take the Old Georgetown Road exit. Go south. Turn left on Auburn Avenue.

Parking: There is a parking garage in the same building, where parking is free on weekends. On-street metered parking is nearby as well.

Upcoming production: Imagination Stage’s Professional Theatre will present “Liang and the Magic Paintbrush” from April 3 through May 16. Shows are Saturdays at 3:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Spring break matinees will be offered at 11:30 a.m. April 6 through 9 and April 12.

Morning performances are held Tuesday through Friday for school groups and other group field trips. Tickets are $5 each for school groups.

Tickets: $12, $9 for groups of 10 or more, $7.50 for balcony seats.

Notes: A full slate of performing-arts classes and productions are offered for all ages. Imagination Stage also has a Deaf Access Company.

Weekend birthday party packages start at $175 for a 10-person party, which includes show ticket, paper products, cake, juice, setup and cleanup.

The building contains a child-friendly coffee shop and a theater-themedgift shop.

More information: 301/961-6060 or www.imaginationstage.com.

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