Teens take social issues to stage

The weather is warm and school is out, but one group of young people is spending three weeks at Reservoir High School exploring racial tensions, social inequality and the struggle to realize the American dream.

Those members of the Teen Professional Theatre camp also have to learn dance steps, blocking, dialogue and lots of big Broadway songs in three weeks as they tackle the musical Ragtime.


Program founder and director Toby Orenstein said her 55-member cast, chosen from more than 200 who auditioned from throughout Central Maryland, is up to the challenge.

"It was amazing," she said after being moved to tears by the first full run-through of the complicated opening number - three days after the group met for the first time. "There is so much energy between them."


The group will present Ragtime from July 29 through Aug. 1 at Reservoir High School in one of the first student performances of the show anywhere. Orenstein and her staff are working with a New York production agency, Music Theatre International, to develop a version for younger actors.

So far, she said, the student version includes most of the original content but has lost some of the dance numbers.

This is also the first year the Teen Professional Theatre received a $25,000 grant - one of 10 given nationwide - from the National Endowment for the Arts. That group is using surveys, focus groups and student journals to study the effects of arts education programs.

Ragtime, based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow, tells the story of three diverse groups coping with a changing society in New York in the early 1900s: white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, African-Americans and recent immigrants. It combines fictional characters and historical figures and culminates with a violent outbreak of racial and class tensions.

Many of the camp members say they can't picture their schools putting on the show because of its hard look at social issues and some harsh language, but they believe it is an excellent choice for young people.

Rebecca Davis, 17, of Bowie, plays Sarah, a Harlem woman who is uncertain about her relationship with a musician named Coalhouse Walker Jr. Davis said that when she hears characters using a particularly harsh racial epithet, "it hurts every time. It's hard for me to hear that word used."

But, she said, "I think the show has unlimited educational power."

"We've really gotten into the meaning of the show," said Jay Frisby of Columbia, who plays Coalhouse. "It makes complete sense" in a modern context, he said. "You get a truer feel for American history than you might get in a classroom."


Frisby, 17, who will be a senior at Glenelg Country School, also said the material offers a chance to stretch his abilities.

"This can be a very emotional show," he said. "Having to go to that place is a challenge."

Other cast members agree the artistic experience has been a positive one. "It's great working with such an experienced cast," said Davis, who will attend Northwestern University in Illinois in the fall. "I get to watch all these amazing people."

"It's good to have good people in the ensemble," said Sarah Brewer, 16, of Fairhaven in Prince George's County. She said she was impressed with how fast the group progressed in just the first few hours.

"Orenstein, owner of Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, has held several open-admission camps for years through the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts. She started the Teen Professional Theatre three years ago to give top performers a more challenging experience.

In 2002, the group was among the first in the nation to do a student version of Les Miserables. Last year, the camp performed Children of Eden.


Orenstein hires professionals from the metropolitan area and across the country to staff the camps. Ilona Kessell, who lives in Owings Mills and directs the dance program at McDonogh School, won the Helen Hayes award for her choreography on Ragtime, produced at Toby's Dinner Theatre last fall. She is one of several leaders from Toby's production who is working with the students.

The Teen Professional Theatre will perform "Ragtime" at 7:30 p.m. July 29, 30 and 31 and at 2:30 p.m. July 31 and Aug. 1 at Reservoir High School, 11550 Scaggsville Road, Fulton. Tickets are $5 to $15. Information: 410-381-0700.