Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts

Shanie Harris, left, and Ellen Barth of The Young Columbians embrace during a musical retrospective of American cultural change performed at The Mall in Columbia for the 13th-annual African-American History Celebration in 1994. (file photo/Stuart Bauer / April 4, 2012)

In 2003, the twice-Oscar-nominated actor Ed Norton, known for his intensity in films including “Fight Club” and “The Incredible Hulk,” sat down for an interview with James Lipton, host of the Bravo television show “Inside the Actors Studio.”

“How old were you when acting reared its head?” Lipton asked a few moments into the televised conversation with Norton, who grew up in Columbia and graduated from Wilde Lake High School in 1987.

When he was about 5, Norton said, his parents took him to see a performance that his baby-sitter was in. “She was a student at a local dramatic arts school run by a local woman named Toby Orenstein. I can’t overstate what a force she was in our community. She really was the heart of theater in that area. 

“I remember badgering my parents,” Norton recalled. “I think I had this notion that if I joined quick enough I could get into that play.”

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Before he turned 6, Norton began classes with Orenstein. “I studied at that school, with this lady, Toby Orenstein, and did plays every year,” he told Lipton and the audience.

As Orenstein’s dramatic arts school, the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts (CCTA)  marks 40 years, Orenstein herself, now 74, remains slim and energetic, animated by her passion and in no apparent danger of slowing down. She remains artistic director at CCTA, and helms the original Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia, which opened in 1979, as well as Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Baltimore, which opened in 2007.

In addition to Norton, CCTA alums include Broadway stars Steve Blanchard of “Beauty and the Beast” and Carolyn Bowman, currently the understudy for the lead in “Wicked.”

Nurturing young talent

In a wide-ranging interview in a dressing room at Toby’s in Columbia, Orenstein recounted the many coincidences and encounters that led her to a career nurturing young talent and using dramatic arts as a tool for educating and reaching children, particularly disadvantaged ones. 

As a dramatic arts educator, Orenstein teaches her students to connect with the story and connect with the audience. Connections -- with students, with audiences and with people who present opportunities -- propel her own story as well.

When Orenstein opened CCTA in 1972, Columbia was in its infancy. “There are a lot of theater schools around now,” she said. “But we have a very different philosophy of teaching. The whole child is more important to us than the product.”

Orenstein, who grew up in the Bronx, did not plan to live in Maryland or run a theatrical arts school and two dinner theaters. She had her sights on Broadway. While attending the High School of Performing Arts in New York City, she decided she would direct rather than act. She graduated from Columbia University in 1959 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater and a minor in education.

While at the university, she met two people who would change her life. One was her future husband, Harold Orenstein. The other was Eleanor Roosevelt.

Roosevelt at the time was supporting a new way of teaching, reaching students through the arts. Orenstein was one of a dozen teachers hired to develop this new education style at an elementary school in Harlem. She taught social studies and English, and guided students through productions of “Peter Pan.”  “That really changed my life,” she said.

But then the newly married Orensteins moved to Maryland, “a cultural wasteland” in Toby’s eyes. While living in Silver Spring, Orenstein opened a drama school at the Burn Brae Dinner Theater in Burtonsville. Attendance skyrocketed from “20 to 30 kids to like 300,” Orenstein recalled. The school was so successful that the theater ran out of space for the school and shut it down. 

All about connections

Undaunted, Orenstein connected again, this time with officials, including Norton’s grandfather James Rouse, who were creating the planned community of Columbia in Howard County. She opened the nonprofit Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts in 1972 with support from those officials.

Connecting with people through performing arts was the mission from the beginning, and remains so to this day.

In 1975, Orenstein was asked to contribute to a show celebrating the American bicentennial at Merriweather Post Pavilion. “As we were doing it, I knew it was special,” she said. “I just knew it. I had a feeling.”

The show won a standing ovation, and “before you know it, it became a touring company,” she recalled. The Young Columbians, a troupe of about 20 performers between the ages of 12 and 20, traveled the East Coast from 1975 through 1980, and even performed at the first state dinner in President Jimmy Carter’s White House. “A lot of those kids paid their way through college with this,” Orenstein said.