Founding Artistic Director Janet Stanford has announced that she will depart Imagination Stage in the summer of 2024, after over 30 years at the youth arts powerhouse.
Stanford, along with Founder Bonnie Fogel, was instrumental in transforming the small performing arts program into a nationally prominent regional theater and leader in positive youth development through the performing arts for children ages 1-21. After Fogel retired in 2020, Stanford successfully led Imagination Stage out of the pandemic and, beginning in April 2022, has partnered with Managing Director Jason Najjoum to plan for a sustainable future for the organization at a perilous time for performing arts organizations. Thanks to the diversified and extensive programming throughout the DMV that she has championed, Stanford leaves Imagination Stage in the strongest financial position of its 43-year history.
Stanford is grateful to the hundreds of dedicated and talented colleagues, staff, board members, fellow artists, and supporters that she has had the opportunity to work with. “A commitment to youth is the North Star that draws us all,” she says. “Together, we have done much in four decades to bring the arts to more than a million young people, and to nurture them with the ‘slow food’ that only live theater can provide.”
Since joining the company in 1993, Stanford has produced 160 shows, directed 55, written 9, commissioned 50 new works, and introduced innovative educational programs that prioritize social justice and finding a young person’s unique identity or “voice” through theater arts. She has long been a leader in promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion; establishing the Youth Speaks to Age Series in the 1990s that brought a dozen new scripts by BIPOC playwrights to the field; by featuring Deaf actors and actors with physical and cognitive disabilities in 9 mainstage productions; and by casting diverse actors in everything so that ALL children see themselves in the stories on stage.
Stanford viewed Imagination Stage’s location near the nation’s capital as an opportunity to be a portal to the rest of the world for best practices in Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA). She traveled frequently on grants, or with the support of Embassies, and on Theatre Communications Group delegations to festivals in South America, Europe, the UK, Scandinavia, Canada, and Asia. She brought guest artists to Imagination Stage including an acrobatic choreographer from Montreal, a magician from Belfast, a composer from Berlin, and playwrights from Canada and the UK. In 2007 she piloted Edge Fest, an international festival for children that morphed into the company’s connection with Kids Euro Festival, the European Union’s program for children that brought hundreds of performers from 28 EU countries to Washington, DC, each year for a decade.
A firm believer in cultural and artistic exchange, Stanford is glad that Imagination Stage’s students had begun to travel to international theater festivals pre-pandemic, and to welcome others from abroad to Bethesda. She is proud of Imagination Stage’s professional collaborations with TYA companies in Barcelona and London and was instrumental in getting Imagination Stage’s Theatre for the Very Young (TVY) play Inside Out to the 25th Anniversary Festival of Children’s Theatre in South Korea in 2017. She has also partnered regularly with Honolulu Theatre for Youth to bring an Asian American perspective to our audience, most notably with Anime Momotaro, directed by Eric Johnson, which received the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding TYA Production (2013).
At home, Stanford forged fertile artistic partnerships with fellow TYA theaters. She did co-commissions with Seattle Children’s Theatre and Childsplay, AZ, and a co-production with Charlotte Children’s Theatre on an original version of 101 Dalmatians. Locally, she partnered with choreographer Septime Webre of The Washington Ballet to co-create dance theater pieces for The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe (2012) and The Little Mermaid (2016). She wrote the librettos and lyrics for both these pieces in collaboration with composer Matthew Pierce. Stanford’s legacy includes introducing Theatre for the Very Young (TVY) to American audiences. In 2008 she and Associate Artistic Director Kathryn Chase Bryer co-created Wake Up, Brother Bear as the first in their repertoire of developmentally appropriate, small-audience pieces for 1-4 year-olds. In addition to continuing to delight pre-schoolers and their families at Imagination Stage, five of these shows are leased to companies across the country by Plays for New Audiences.
Stanford was honored by Theatre for Young Audiences/USA (TYA/USA) with the Harold Oaks Award for Sustained Excellence in TYA, and Imagination Stage has won a total of 12 Helen Hayes Awards, including Outstanding Production–Theatre for Young Audiences seven times. She has twice been nominated for Outstanding Director of a Musical. Stanford has presented at numerous Theatre Communications Group and TYA/USA conferences. She has written articles and reviews for the TYA/USA magazine, served as a judge on many grants panels, and taught at the Catholic University of America, American University, Goucher College, and Georgetown University (SSCE). Stanford is a member of Actors Equity and of the Dramatists’ Guild.
Jason Najjoum says, “I have watched Janet in awe as we have worked together over the last 18 months. She is a fierce advocate for the needs of children, but also incredibly kind and whip-smart — constantly growing as a leader and artist while also being our role model. I will dearly miss working with her daily, but am grateful that she will continue to advise us from the Board of Trustees. And I am honored that she and Bonnie have entrusted the organization to us, the next generation of arts educators.”
Stanford will be remembered for her insistence on well-crafted scripts. She commissioned and produced top-flight international writers like Charles Way (UK) and David S. Craig (Canada). Among the 20 DC-area writers she nurtured are Psalmayene 24, current Mellon Foundation Playwrighting Awardee and Playwright-in-Residence at Mosaic Theater Company; Joan Cushing (a.k.a. Mrs. Foggybottom), whose musical adaptations of books have had 400 productions at TYA theaters nationwide; and Karen Zacarías, one of the most produced playwrights in regional theater today. Zacarías says, “Janet Stanford is the first person to commission a play from me. Since the 1990s, Janet has made it her mission to ask playwrights of color to create new plays for her audience. The craft I learned while writing my children’s plays under her direction has translated into a vibrant artistic muscle that has influenced and bettered my work for adults. She made me a better writer…and a better person…by reminding me to never lose sight of why I am writing a story. With Imagination Stage, I have watched her grow an idea into an institution with substance and integrity and provide an impetus and home for all the new stories she has fostered. She has changed the face and content of TYA.”
Imagination Stage’s Board of Trustees will form a committee to conduct a national search for Stanford’s successor.
Imagination Stage announces 2023/24 season of ‘greatest hits’ (news story, June 15, 2023)