BETHESDA, MD.: Imagination Stage has announced that founding artistic director Janet Stanford will step down in the summer of 2024, after more than 30 years in the position. Working alongside founder Bonnie Fogel, Stanford helped transform the small performing arts program into a nationally-recognized regional theatre and leader in positive youth development through the performing arts for children ages 1-21.
When Fogel retired in 2020, Stanford continued to guide Imagination Stage out of the pandemic and has since partnered with managing director Jason Najjoum to plan a sustainable future for the organization. The company’s board of trustees will form a committee to conduct a national search for Stanford’s successor.
“I have watched Janet in awe as we have worked together over the last 18 months,” said Najjoum in a statement. “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.”
Since joining the company in 1993, Stanford has produced 160 shows, directed 55, written 9, commissioned 50 new works, introduced innovative educational programs, and fostered enduring partnerships with fellow TYA Theatres. She established the Youth Speaks to Age Series in the 1990’s that brought a dozen new scripts by BIPOC playwrights to the field, has featured Deaf actors and actors with disabilities in 9 mainstage productions, pioneered programming for the very young (TVY), and made a practice of casting diverse actors in everything so that all children could see themselves onstage.
Stanford has commissioned works from local and international writers such as Charles Way, David S. Craig, Psalmayene 24, Joan Cushing, Karen Zacarias, and more. She 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.
“Janet Stanford is the first person to commission a play from me,” said playwright Karen Zacarias in a statement. “Since the 1990’s, 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.”
Through her work, Stanford has traveled to festivals in South America, Europe, the U.K., Scandinavia, Canada, and Asia, and invited guest artists back to Imagination Stage. In 2007 she piloted Edge Fest, an international festival for children which 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 D.C. each year for a decade.
“A commitment to youth is the North Star that draws us all,” Stanford wrote in a letter friends and colleagues. “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 theatre can provide.”
Imagination Stage is a holistic theatre arts organization for all children and youth. The theatre seeks to empower all young people to discover their voice and identity through performing arts education and professional theatre. As of 2022, Imagination Stage had an approximate budget of $4.8 million.
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