Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts (CCTA) celebrated its 40th anniversary at the end of April. “It seems like yesterday that we got started,” said Artistic Director and Founder Toby Orenstein. “It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years.”
CCTA is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) entity, funded in part by The National Endowment for the Arts, The Maryland State Arts Council, and The Howard County Arts Council through a grant from Howard County. Much of its programming takes place at the Columbia location of Orenstein’s Toby’s Dinner Theatre (there’s a second Toby’s in Baltimore).
“We are unique,” said Executive Director Melissa Rosenberg. “For more than 40 years, we have served kids from many backgrounds with high quality programming.”
This community of talent focuses on three basic types of activities. The Conservatory offers several performance arts-based programs — camps, classes workshops and shows — designed to nurture and develop the whole child. Theatrical Arts Productions (TAP) stages four professional productions each year. The productions relate to school curricula and reflect current social issues and concerns. School groups attend the productions held at Toby’s Columbia.
CCTA’s Outreach Programs join the Conservatory and Theatrical Arts Productions, making them available for low-income and special needs children. The Center’s “Ben Carson Project” brings several thousand students from the Baltimore City Public School System to free after-school performances of “Ben Carson M.D.,” a theatrical production about the life of the renowned pediatric neurosurgeon.
This year, more than three-dozen schools have signed up to see the performance. “We even pay for the buses,” said Rosenberg. “It’s for the kids who don’t normally have access to theater.”
Assisting Special Needs Children
One of Orenstein’s newer projects, the Outreach Program, assists special needs kids by putting them onstage. Initiated in 2009 in collaboration with the Loyola College Clinical Centers, the program pairs kids with autism, Down syndrome and Asperger’s syndrome with the college’s speech and occupational therapy students and theater professionals.
Orenstein began CCTA in 1972 at the request of Columbia’s developer, Jim Rouse. Orenstein had been teaching, directing and producing at the old Burn Brae Theatre when Rouse asked her to create a theatrical arts school for the new city.
In 1979, Orenstein opened Toby’s Dinner Theatre and has since taken a number of awards including the Sue Hess Maryland Arts Advocate of the Year Award, given by Maryland Citizens for the Arts.
“I am grateful for every single award the dinner theater wins, and there have been many in its 32 years,” said Orenstein. “But the nonprofit work is my real legacy.”
Funded through scholarships, donations and grants, CCTA’s students range in age from 3 to 18 years, with some students in college. In 2011, the center served 30,000 children through performances in the schools, gave $23,000 in scholarships and saw 2,700 kids go through the outreach programs. The center also employs 84 theatrical arts professionals.
“We are demonstrating the power of the arts to reach children in a different way,” said Rosenberg. “We are working with special needs kids, helping them to grow, educating them through the arts.”
“I’ve got students now, teenagers, who are children of former students,” said Orenstein. “It’s multi-generational talent.”
Opening Malls for Rouse
One of Orenstein’s favorite projects has been directing the Young Columbians, a singing group formed in 1975. The Young Columbians premiered at Merriweather Post Pavilion and went on to play at the White House and tour the country.
“It was Jim Rouse’s baby,” said Orenstein. “The Young Columbians opened all of his malls. We were the first people to do a full-scale theatrical production in the [Columbia] Mall. In 1983, we raised funds for The Arc [of Howard County]. We wanted to do something to help someone else. Jim Rouse promoted the idea. We set up a stage in the center of the Mall, and it was a champagne event. The lead [from that production] is coming back for the 40th anniversary celebration.”
“Tons of our students have been on Broadway,” she noted. Orenstein mentioned that the actor Edward Norton is one of her graduates. “He is one of the main donors for our celebration event. He cannot attend but sent us a video.”
After 40 years, though, it still seems to be the disadvantaged children who receive the bulk of Orenstein’s considerable talent. “It’s amazing what has happened with that. We are reaching out to children and helping them through using the arts. It’s a very exciting life, and we are not your ordinary nonprofit children’s theater.”