Ovations Theatre offers theater education and performance experience for all ages

In a series called 'The Companies We Keep,' DC Theater Arts spotlights the good work done by theater companies in the DC region. This month we focus on a company that builds the next generation of theater artists.

Darnell Patrick Morris is a triple-threat jack-of-all-theater-trades. The founder and artistic director of Ovations Theatre, he directs, designs lights, sets, and costumes, teaches, manages, does the books, plus anything — and everything — necessary to keep the shows going while supporting the next generation of theatermakers on, off, and back stage. Morris touts the Gaithersburg-based education and production company as “DC metro area’s only Black- and Queer-owned theater education and performance program for all ages.”

The ten-year-old company runs age-based classes that provide students from elementary through high school and beyond with the varied skill set required of theatermakers. That begins with theater games, movement play, and sing-alongs geared for the youngest budding performers registered for Ovation’s Conservatory and builds to skills like learning memorization and blocking that will lead to roles in plays and musicals. The Conservatory program meets weekly and provides a creative outlet for elementary-aged children to learn songs and scenes from a Broadway musical while they begin to understand how to work together, incorporate emotions into their performance, and learn basic stage etiquette and music-reading skills. For kids in fourth and sixth grades, there’s a class where they work to create a 30-minute cabaret show, with solos and group work, while beginning to understand song and script analysis. The seventh- to twelfth-grade 90-minute Acting Studio class provides greater depth for those interested in working on dramatic monologues and scenes that can lead to a performance in a straight play by the following summer.

Scene from ‘Spring Awakening’ (March 2023) at Ovations Theatre. Photo by RJ Pavel.

Recess Drama Club

Morris, who was born and grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland., described himself as an expressive child. As a student at Waters Landing Elementary in Germantown, he recalled, “We had two different drama clubs: one for second- and third-graders, and they would do a show every year. Then the fourth- and fifth-graders also put on a show. But I had my own recess drama club. I would write my own productions and have my friends perform them for the whole grade!”

From his description, these sound like they were full-fledged productions. “I would take stories and adapt them, then include music that I thought went with the show,” Morris said of his youthful recess directorial exploits. “For instance, I did Alice in Wonderland, and we infused popular music of the time into it. Very illegal, but my fourth- and fifth-grade self had no idea.

“One year, I was obsessed with The Nutcracker. I just loved the way the dancers looked and how magical the music sounded,” he recalled. “I wrote a ‘Nutcracker’ musical that we did … at one point we sang Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ because that’s what was popular at the time!”

Ovations Theatre founder and artistic director Darnell Patrick Morris. Photo courtesy of Ovations Theatre.

Building on Fundamentals

A stint in the Theater Department at Montgomery College’s Rockville Campus set Morris on his professional acting and directing career. He credits his fully immersive experiences with Montgomery College Summer Dinner Theater — where students take roles on stage alongside the artistic team and backstage in the scenic and costume shops, hanging lights, and stage managing — as a model for the educational programs he has honed for Ovations over the past decade.

“It was really awesome to be able to work in such a professional environment,” Morris emphasized. “It was not dumbed down to work with young people. I’ve taken the idea that you can create something very special, intimate, and personal, but also be very professional and educational at the same time. In fact, the way I run my rehearsals and talk to my students is the exact same way I do in a professional setting.”

“What I learned from just the couple years [at Montgomery College] has really formed my idea of how I approach theater and characters,” Morris said. “While I didn’t finish my degree, I was performing so much [professionally] that I didn’t want to pay tuition and go to class. I wanted to do.”

Building a Committed Community

For about a decade, Morris made the rounds of particularly educational and community theaters, including Musical Theater Center and Adventure Theatre (prior to their merger), Kensington Arts Theater, and almost every community and numerous pro theaters around the Beltway.

So, did the DMV really need another youth educational theater? Morris says emphatically: “Yes,” and notes, “Working at these places, I thought I developed, honestly, a very interesting community where no one would feel that they could not be a part of it. Something I thought was lacking, honestly, was my voice. I always wanted to be a director.”

Ultimately, Morris went out on his own, eschewing the not-for-profit model of many of the theater and production houses in the DC metropolitan region for an LLC. That way, although Ovations cannot apply for foundation and public grants, it draws the operating budget from class tuition, along with ticket sales. And, even though contributions are not tax deductible, he noted that some parents and audience members still choose to make donations to Ovations.

“When I started Ovations, it wasn’t spur of the moment, something that just happened,” he said. “It was something I was working toward since I first started out directing and working with young people. I had a very clear idea of the kind of place I wanted to build, both … what Ovations is physically, and also what Ovations is as a resource to people, to the community.”

The constituency Ovation serves is mostly, but not exclusively, in the Germantown and Gaithersburg areas of Montgomery County. While both enrollments and audiences have dropped in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, growth is now on the upswing again. “A lot of people come because they want to do our productions,” Morris acknowledged, “but also a lot of people come because they see the kind of community that we build. Most students stick through my program. I’ve had students who started with me in third and fourth grade and now are teaching for me, which is really insane.”

Scenes from Ovations Theatre productions (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT): ‘Seussical Jr.’ (January 2022), ‘Mean Girls Jr.’ (May 2023), ‘A Christmas Carol’ (December 2022), Lippa’s ‘The Wild Party,’ (June 2023). Photos by RJ Pavel.

Each production is structured as a weekly class, meeting from one to two hours, depending on the age of the students. The family pays tuition, and within the class rehearsal structure, acting, dancing, improvisation, singing, and other skills are taught in the context of the production. “It’s 18 to 22 rehearsals, a tech week, and performances,” Morris explained. Each show is fully staged with costumes, lights, and sets, and students are expected to live up to expectations — for example, they need to be “off book” (have their lines memorized) early in the semester so the process can move smoothly.

He also pointed out that he doesn’t simply gloss over controversial or adult material in Ovations productions for high schoolers. “We are able to have tough conversations,” Morris said. “With our high schoolers, we’ve done Hair, Spring Awakening more than once, Parade more than once. These shows allow us to have deep conversations both on and off the stage.”

Initially, the theater and its classes were itinerant, often renting performing venues like the Bender Jewish Community Center’s theater. In recent years the company found a rehearsal and performing space in Gaithersburg. Morris named the black-box theater “The Harriet” after Black abolitionist Harriet Tubman. With barely 50 seats, the studio-theater provides an unintimidating venue for young performers as they gain stage experience and comfort performing for audiences.

“It’s not pre-COVID,” Morris admitted. “It’s a very different time. That’s why this community supporting us has been so important. We went from selling out a run of 300 seats [at the Bender JCC] to selling out a run of under 50 seats here at The Harriet.” But, he insisted, the quality of learning and of the productions has not diminished.

One of the results that Morris is most proud of is that many Ovations alums have gone on to selective theater programs and scholarships on college campuses, work on stage or behind the scenes with theaters around the region, in New York, and beyond, as well as return home to work with him directing, choreographing, teaching, and coaching. Managing director Moran Fannon previously shared the stage with Morris. Associate artistic director Carly Schwartz is heading into her seventh season with Ovations moving from an associate to choreographer to full-fledged show director. And Montgomery County Public Schools music teacher Arielle Bayer has a degree in music education from Shepherd University in West Virginia and has directed numerous previous Ovation shows, including Seussical Jr., Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Jr., and Hairspray Jr.

Summerstock Is Coming

This season the Ovations artistic team, helmed by Morris, will institute its new all-ages Summerstock program. With auditions coming up in early March. Sweeney Todd and Urinetown will feature performers ages 16 and older, while Seussical, The Musical is open to casting both youngsters and adults of all ages. “It was really important to me to offer this free stage program where cast members get the same experience, the same education, both with young professionals and with young kids, on stage,” Morris said, alluding to the financial costs of a performing arts education in this region. “So we do our summer class and show for free now, which is really awesome.”

He also instituted a community service program: Artists Helping Alliance. Particularly with the more mature shows he programs for high schoolers, he expands the learning component beyond the walls of the studio theater. “Those high schoolers are touching this often-adult material,” Morris said. “We try to partner that with real-life applications or experiences.” That could mean a field trip to a community service agency, collecting for a food bank, or a research assignment and discussion with the cast and director on a thorny issue, like racism and lynching when they did Parade. When the senior company performed Les Misérables, they connected with a nonprofit that worked with incarcerated young men. He also encourages the teens to journal and write personally about the characters they play. Then they meet, talk, and share ideas and the issues and questions they find relevant to the play. Oftentimes, Morris noted, these casts raise additional funds from audience contributions that are passed on to the nonprofit organizations the casts connected with.

Where Is Ovations Headed?

Morris pondered the future of the company. “What do I want Ovations to be? What do I want the longevity to be? Do I want to just do big flashy … shows — look at our pictures, you would think these are national tours with top-notch sets, lighting, and costumes. Honestly, even though we are tuition-based, it barely covers it.”

He continued: “We have our own rehearsal space now, with performance space storage all in one place. We have a fully functioning theater. My team is awesome, but I’m the only full-time person.” That means little rest and lots of work.

“Ovations is less of a youth theater … I call it a production company because we do something for everyone. You can be an adult; you can be a young person. [The work] encompasses who I am as an artist. I feel fulfilled as a business person even when some months are definitely way harder than others. We’ve been able to find our stride and to financially carry ourselves. We’re going on year ten and still doing this!”

For information on Ovations Theatre’s classes, performances, and programs, visit ovationstheatre.com. 

About the Wendi Winters Memorial Series: DC Theater Arts has partnered with the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation to honor the life and work of Wendi Winters, the DC Theater Arts writer who died in the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 28, 2018. To honor Wendi’s legacy, the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation has funded the Wendi Winters Memorial Series, monthly articles to be produced by DC Theater Arts to bring attention to theater companies and theater practitioners in our region who engage in exemplary work that makes our community a better place. The centerpiece of these articles is a series we are calling “The Companies We Keep,” articles offering an in-depth look at one local theater company each month. In these times of division and conflict, DC Theater Arts chooses to celebrate those who do good.

For more information on DC Theater Arts’ Wendi Winters Memorial Series, check out this article graciously published by our friends at District Fray Magazine

SEE ALSO: DCTA’s coverage of Ovations Theatre over the years.

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Lisa Traiger
An arts journalist since 1985, Lisa Traiger writes frequently on the performing arts for Washington Jewish Week and other local and national publications, including Dance, Pointe, and Dance Teacher. She also edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online eJournal. She was a freelance dance critic for The Washington Post Style section from 1997-2006. As arts correspondent, her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week where she has reported on Jewish drum circles, Israeli folk dance, Holocaust survivors, Jewish Freedom Riders, and Jewish American artists from Ben Shahn to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim to Y Love, Anna Sokolow to Liz Lerman. Her dance writing can also be read on DanceViewTimes.com. She has written for Washingtonian, The Forward, Moment, Dance Studio Life, Stagebill, Sondheim Review, Asian Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Atlanta Jewish Times, and Washington Review. She received two Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Arts Criticism from the American Jewish Press Association; a 2009 shared Rockower for reporting; and in 2007 first-place recognition from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. In 2003, Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. She holds an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has taught dance appreciation at the University of Maryland and Montgomery College, Rockville, Md. Traiger served on the Dance Critics Association Board of Directors from 1991-93, returned to the board in 2005, and served as co-president in 2006-2007. She was a member of the advisory board of the Dance Notation Bureau from 2008-2009.


  1. You remind me of a gentleman in High School around the 1980’s named Darnell Jackson perhaps you have heard of him , full energy and vigor . It’s exciting to hear that the arts are alive in D.C.


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