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Toby's founder Orenstein wins award for community work

Toby Orenstein is once again at the helm of one of her favorite projects — directing the Young Columbians, a singing group formed in 1975 by the founder of Toby's Dinner Theatre when Columbia was still Jim Rouse's baby.

Working with talented teens as they interpret tunes that tug on heartstrings never grows old, says the artistic director, who recruited the group's first members to perform for America's bicentennial.

But then again, neither does the other work she also cherishes: helping disadvantaged and special-needs children succeed in life by giving them access to the esteem-building lessons bestowed by the theater.

Her behind-the-scenes work has earned Orenstein an advocacy award that will be presented Wednesday during the 14th annual Maryland Arts Day, when hundreds of arts professionals converge on the state legislature in Annapolis to promote funding of the arts.

"I am grateful for every single award the dinner theater wins, and there have been many in its 32 years," said Orenstein, 74. "But the nonprofit work is my real legacy."

The Sue Hess Maryland Arts Advocate of the Year Award is given by Maryland Citizens for the Arts in honor of its first chairperson to someone who has "raised the level and profile of the arts in their community and in the state," said John Schratwieser, executive director.

"Toby stood out among this year's field of eight nominees, and her passion and commitment to the arts and to her community really shine through," he said.

Take the Ben Carson Project, which annually buses thousands of inner-city kids to see a play about Carson, the world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon who rose from poverty in Baltimore. The project continues to operate, even though the recession has caused "a horrible slowdown" in the fundraising that offsets the program's significant transportation costs, Orenstein said.

There are 36 schools signed up to see "Ben Carson, M.D." and another 50 on a waiting list, said Melissa Rosenberg, executive director of the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts. CCTA is the nonprofit corporation Orenstein founded in 1972, eight years before opening the dinner theater for which the director is better known.

"The requests never die down," Rosenberg said, and CCTA intends to keep honoring them.

"The play has such a great message, and showing it to these disadvantaged kids is the right thing to do," Orenstein said, noting that sales of theater tickets, viewed by many as a luxury during a recession, are "struggling."

"We'll just have to do extra fundraising as we celebrate our 40th anniversary this year," she said. The money will also be needed for CCTA's after-school programs and its performing arts camp.

An outreach program to assist special-needs kids by putting them onstage has become Orenstein's other pet project, ever since it was initiated in 2009 in collaboration with the Loyola Clinical Centers at the college's Columbia campus.

"Kids with autism, Down syndrome and Asperger's syndrome — kids who have trouble speaking or making eye contact — these are the kids we're working with, and it's been an amazing journey," Orenstein said about the program for children ages 10 to 14.

The children, two-thirds of whom are Howard County residents, work with the college's speech and occupational therapy students as well as Toby's theater professionals. Being onstage gets the children to let their guards down and disguises therapy as fun, she said.

"I have seen these kids — kids who used to curl up in a ball and look away — grasping sounds and [modeling] social behavior, and they love it," Orenstein said. "Their parents never could have imagined they'd be giving flowers to their kids for performing on stage."

Orenstein knows firsthand the value of such programs; she has one grandchild with Asperger's and another with dyslexia.

"I'm very well aware of disabilities in children and the ways they learn," she said. "The best actors in the world are children, since they're more willing to forget where they are at any given moment in time. As we get older, we feel more social pressure and make ourselves unavailable to take risks."

Coleen West, executive director of the Howard County Arts Council, described Orenstein as "a true advocate" in nominating her for the award.

"Toby is the epitome of what this award stands for," West said. "The theater in and of itself is amazing, but many people don't realize she does this other thing."

As a young arts educator and advocate, Orenstein was inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt, who chose her and 11 others to join a program to stimulate underprivileged Harlem youth to learn through the arts.

"That experience changed my whole life," says Orenstein, who continues to allow a core group of five or six directors to work with increasing autonomy at her Columbia and Baltimore dinner theaters.

"I guess you could say I'm teaching directing now," she said. "Not being involved in every step of the process isn't easy, but on the positive side, it allows me to spend more time with my grandchildren."

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