Growing up in Columbia, Sarah Grace Hart says she was intrigued by the arts in her hometown.
After joining Columbia's Drama Learning Center at age 11 and starring in her first stage production, Hart began working with Camera Ready Kids Talent Management in Takoma Park, later booking television commercials and roles until her graduation from Wilde Lake High School in 2009.
Although confidence and stage presence were a work-in-progress, Hart said it was Columbia's support of the arts that led her to Los Angeles in 2013 to pursue an acting career, after graduating from Kent State University in Ohio.
"I did the drama camps at Slayton House and I was part of the dance company in Wilde Lake," Hart said. "If it wasn't for Wilde Lake, I would have never known that that was what I was interested in."
At first, Hart said, she was unsure of her decision, until joining the Shipwrecked Comedy production company. Founded by Sean Persaud, and his sister, Sinead, the group places a comedic spin on historical literary content through a YouTube web series as told by famous authors.
Alongside the Persuads and actress Mary Kate Wiles, Hart was cast as Emily Dickinson in the latest production, "Edgar Allan Poe's Murder Mystery Dinner Party," featuring other well-known authors, including Ernest Hemingway and H.G. Wells.
As of Tuesday, the production company's KickStarter campaign — launched on Feb. 2 — had 689 backers, raising $35,635 of their $55,000 goal to cover the costs of cast, location, crew and production, which must be reached by March 6.
Being the only Maryland native in the group, Hart says her hometown experiences make this project unique in its connections to literary figure Edgar Allan Poe.
Before moving across the country, the young actress said she starred in several Baltimore-based projects, such as the film, "An American Affair" and HBO's "The Wire" television series. Hart said her immersion in the Baltimore culture introduced her to Poe's works.
"In Columbia, we went to the Poe House on a field trip. We learned about Edgar Allan Poe on his birthday and the mysterious person who left the roses at his grave every birthday," Hart said. "All of those really fun things are so unique to Baltimore because you have roots there and getting to see that on a wider stage is really cool."
But the Columbia community showed her the true meaning of the arts, Hart said.
"After I left, I realized how many different places aren't as fortunate to have a strong arts community," she added. "It starts exposing kids when they're younger. It allows them to find out who they are, what they like and don't like."
Wilde Lake High School dance instructor Christine Estabrook said she remembers seeing the pride in Hart's work in various productions. Being a part of the high school's senior dance company, Estabrook said Hart was never afraid to take chances when learning choreography.
"We teach them the basics of choreography and they create their own pieces," the 23-year teacher said. "It was wonderful to watch Sarah take that and run with it."
In addition to focusing on science and math in the county school curriculum, Estabrook said, the arts should be included because of the creative thinking process involved.
"Students involved in the arts score higher on the SATs," she added. "It is just amazing to me when you have students that learn to create something from nothing. Some of them have epiphanies; they didn't even know they were good at something."
Sean Persaud agreed.
"An arts presence fosters a kind of critical thinking you can apply to culture and society, which is something I wish people had more of whenever I watch the news or read any kind of Internet comment thread," Persaud said. "Exposure to the arts promotes thoughtfulness and empathy. In a lot of communities, people simply don't have the means to provide all of this for themselves, which is why it's so important for schools and communities to prioritize it."
With 19 days left in the Kickstarter campaign, Hart said she and her colleagues are optimistic about bringing the "Poe Party" to life. Regardless of the outcome, she said, Hart is thankful for the Columbia community.
"Having that support system was so important because it allowed me to believe that I could do it," Hart said. "That's one of the things that's really special to me and one of the things I really like about the acting community. Bringing people together is a really wonderful thing."