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Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts marks 40 years of inspiring young talent

Colleges and UniversitiesColumbia UniversityArtMusic

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.”

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.

One performer was Carole Graham Lehane, now 51, who said Orenstein recruited her after seeing her perform at age 13 in a Prince George’s County summer theater production. “Toby came in, and she invited several actors from that production to be part of a class,” said Lehane, who has been performing arts chair at Glenelg Country School since 1998. Orenstein, who still lived in Montgomery County at the time, would drive Lehane and other students to classes in Columbia.

Lehane was the youngest in the class and the youngest in the first group of Young Columbians, experiences she described as “transformative.”  With the Young Columbians, she started out just dancing, with no singing role, but Orenstein eventually gave her more responsibility, she said. “She kept giving me chances, and through that I really learned to risk and trust myself.”

“We would land on stage or we’d go to a Hilton downtown for a convention or something, and there would be some strange thing we’d need to adapt to,” she recalled. “That idea of being able to go anywhere and adapt to the situation and continue to tell the story was one of her important ideas.” (Another connection: Lehane is also the daughter of William H. Graham, who was the head of the drama department at Catholic University and who hired Orenstein, who taught there for many years.)

Ric Ryder, 50, with Broadway performances in “Grease!” and “The Music Man” on his resume, was also in the Young Columbians. “It was a great training ground,” he said. “What we really had to do was be very, very, very adaptable because we were always playing different venues.”

The lessons imparted by Orenstein remain important to him. “She’s all about connecting,” he said. “Connecting to the people you’re singing for.”

Said Orenstein: “That’s what my credo is. Tell the story, and find the heart in the story.” 

A mission to inspire

CCTA is now run by executive director Melissa Woodring Rosenberg, who joined CCTA as a part-time development director in 2003. In 2011, CCTA served 26,000 children, including 2,700 low-income and special-needs children through outreach programs in Baltimore City and Howard County. CCTA also awarded $23,000 in scholarships for students who otherwise would not be able to afford the classes, she said.

CCTA has three components: a conservatory that provides performing arts camps, workshops and classes; a theater production division that takes performances to schools in the region; and an outreach program that brings theater education and performances to underserved children.

The thread that weaves these three components together is Orenstein’s belief in connecting with children through dramatic arts. For about 15 years, starting in 1990, Orenstein offered a program called Labels, which guided students as they wrote and performed plays on topics of importance to them, such as bullying. Also, since 2004, more than 15,000 students in Baltimore public schools have seen the CCTA production of the “Ben Carson Project,” which CCTA provides free of charge, even providing transportation and copies of the renowned pediatric neurosurgeon’s autobiography to participating schools.

Orenstein, in her ongoing role as artistic director for CCTA, “volunteers her time and never has taken money for it,” said Rosenberg. “This is her love. She’s a wonderful teacher, and she loves kids. It’s really a joy to watch her direct kids.”

The Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts is celebrating 40 years since its founding with a gala
April 30 at 5:30 p.m. at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Baltimore.

An original production highlighting CCTA’s achievements, featuring past and current students, will begin at 7:30 p.m. The event will benefit the CCTA. For more information or to buy tickets, call CCTA at 410-381-0700 or e-mail info@CCTArts.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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