By Barbara Trainin Blank @traininblank
Arguably the newest performing-arts group in the County came into existence last June and is presenting its debut show.
The Free Theatre, a Bethesda-based group, defines itself as “by students for students.”
Free Theatre was the handiwork of 11 students – now either high-school seniors or rising seniors – who knew each other via various theatrical productions.
“The DMV area may be very large, but the theater community is very small,” said Devin Lucas, a senior at St. Andrews who was one of the 11 founding members and is now general manager. “We saw a need for students who wanted to go through every aspect of making theater – not just acting – to come together without having to pay fees.”
Classes and performing opportunities are tuition-free, as part of the group’s emphasis on increasing accessibility for young people.
Free Theatre has 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, and supports itself via donations and ticket sales.
With the original 11 as well as several other students who auditioned now on board, Free Theatre has pulled together a cast of 40 for their first production, “Mamma Mia!”
“Mamma Mia!” is a jukebox musical written by British playwright Catherine Johnson, based on the songs of ABBA – composed by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, former members of the band. It was the ninth longest-running show in Broadway history.
“We looked at a lot of different shows, and chose ‘Mamma Mia!’ because it’s ensemble-heavy,” Lucas said. “Everyone has a lot to do.”
“It’s also very popular and very high-energy,” she added.
Despite the youth orientation, there are “some adults in the room,” laughed Marci Shegogue, music director.
Even the adults have student interns.
“Retaining our autonomy is one of our principles,” said Lucas. “So, we have various student apprentices – for example, for costumes and props.”
One of those is music apprentice Anna Nowalk, a senior at Washington-Lee High School who assists Shegogue.
“I’ve been in choirs for a long time, have worked with many directors, and have been in musicals,” said Nowalk. “I took piano for several years.”
Like other students who auditioned for the company, Nowalk filled out a form about her interests and what other roles she’d like to play. Music was a natural.
She takes notes for Shegogue during rehearsals and sometimes leads vocals.
There’s no discomfort being both an actor in a production and having a “supervisory” role, since “everyone in the shows plays multiple roles,” she said.
“I’ve gotten more comfortable leading people musically, and have less of a need to avoid eye contact,” Nowalk said.
The music apprentice regrets that this will be her first and last show at Free Theatre. She’s graduating, but also had committed to another production during the same time framework as the next show. It will be “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s inaugural show, in late May.
Students are running things, but Lucas admitted it’s hard playing an adult with a daughter older than she is.
Lucas is Donna, the role Meryl Streep had in the movie version of “Mamma Mia!”
“Donna is very independent and ambitious, very smart, and she loves her daughter dearly,” said Lucas.
Ticket prices are $25, but, Lucas said, the theater group is withholding a portion of tickets for those who may not be able to afford the full price. Those needing assistance can speak with Shegogue confidentially.
Another component is community involvement. The group will go caroling, for example, as well as collect food and toiletries for people with HIV and other life-threatening illnesses.
The “Mamma Mia!” performances will take place Dec.14 and 15 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, in downtown Silver Spring. Two performances were sold out at deadline time, so check out the status of the other performances. For information, visit thefreetheatre.brownpapertickets.com.