Growing theater organization expanding community outreach

Matthew Nicola, artistic director of The Highwood Theatre, with posters from recent productions. Photo by Mike Diegel.

A Silver Spring-based theater organization that believes “anyone can do theater” has expanded into new spaces and is looking to increase its outreach to the community

The Highwood Theatre is all about building community through theater,” Artistic Director Matthew Nicola said of the organization, which is located at 914 Silver Spring Ave.

Executive Director Kevin Kearney started the group in 2004 by when he was in high school. Its original location was the basement of his home on Highwood Drive in McLean, Va. The organization moved to Silver Spring in 2013.

“We try to create a very welcoming environment for people who have done theater for years and for people who’ve never done it before,” Nicola said.

“We really believe that providing that safe environment gives them the confidence and allows them to really blossom in a way that sometimes is not necessarily stimulated by more competitive environments,” he continued, “so we really eliminate any sort of competition and focus on building the community.”

The group’s primary audience during the school year is students in grades 3 through 12, and they come from all over the metropolitan area.

“It’s kids from all different backgrounds, kids of all ages,” Nicola said, who learn to work together as a team. As they do, “they really forget about the ages,” he added.

Highwood also has a program for home-schooled students in grades 1 through 7, while the summer programs are designed for kindergarten through 12th grade students.

Programs include classes in acting and technical, backstage aspects of theater, as well as students writing and producing their own productions.

The group’s original space on the ground floor held just 25-35 attendees, which didn’t meet the demand for tickets. Highwood expanded in December into second-floor space for its new black box theater, which is both more flexible and allows for seating of up to 70 patrons.

The second floor expansion also gives Highwood more classroom, workshop, dressing room and rehearsal space, as well as additional storage areas for costumes and props.

The current fundraising campaign developed to pay for the expansion is also looking to install a wheelchair lift to increase access for all those who wish to come to a performance.

The original theater will become an open source studio, a community space available for rental at subsidized rates, and allow more space for programs such as Improv Comedy Nights that were formerly held in a rehearsal space.

“It’s already become quite active,” Nicola said. “There’s a lot of interest and there’s unfortunately a limited amount of affordable space in the area, so we’re trying to help out as much as we can to really keep the arts as thriving as we can in this wonderful area.”

This year, they added a new summer camp for students called Art Squared.

“[This camp] focuses on modern applications of the arts,” Nicola said. “We have very experiential classes in 3-D printing, photography [and] digital music.”

“It’s all about giving [students] an exciting pathway for really learning about these technologies and seeing how it’s really applicable to their lives,” he said.

Highwood also offers intensive summer classes in acting and musical theater, technical work in designing and building for a production, and an opportunity to create and produce a musical, among other programs. There are three student productions scheduled to run in July and August, which will wrap up Highwood’s 2016-17 seasons.

In addition to student shows during the year, Highwood also does professional productions with paid actors from the area. Last year, they put on a drama and farce as the professional shows. Students often get involved with these productions as well, Nicola said. All together, Highwood produces 13 main stage shows a year.

The organization also has the Highwood at School program, which has grown from seven schools when they started three years ago to 37 schools participating, with more expected next year.

“That’s taking our model of student-produced theater out into the schools” Nicola said. “We work all across the area.

“The basic mission of it is to really provide these schools what they need to do their shows really well and to bring their shows to the next level and make them really high quality, as they should be,” he continued.

That can include classes, workshops, technical assistance, or bringing in specialists such as choreographers, among other help, tailored to whatever the schools need.

“We’re very proud of it and we’re excited to keep growing, especially for next year,” Nicola said.

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