Middlesex Community College Theatre Department Chair Karen Oster will direct and host “Let’s Play,” a docuseries on the Stage Network, a national video streaming outlet.
In Arlington, Virginia, high school students are delving into imperialism, the Black Lives Matter movement, feminism, immigration issues, and First Amendment rights, not in their social studies classes, but in their drama program.
“Signature in the Schools” brings Arlington’s Signature Theatre into public schools.
“At the heart of it, it’s a program that has become about giving kids a voice and a way to understand difficult things happening in their world,” said Education Director David Zobell.
This is just one of the youth theater programs across the United States spotlighted in “Let’s Play,” a docuseries on the streaming Stage Network, an online platform dedicated to showcasing the dramatic arts. The show is directed and hosted by Karen Oster, Middlesex Community College’s Chair of Performing Arts.
Oster, who holds a BFA from the Boston Conservatory in Musical Theatre and Directing and a master’s from Cambridge College, has been involved on stage and behind the scenes in dozens of productions on Broadway and across the country. She left New York following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and landed at MCC in 2003, where her friend David Zoffoli was running the drama program. In 2006, she was named Chairwoman of Performing Arts.
Oster was approached to work on “Let’s Play” by a friend and former colleague, Jen Wiggin, who had been named Executive Producer of Media Operations for the Stage Network. Oster and Wiggin had worked together in the early 1990s on a revival of Stephen Schwartz’s “The Baker’s Wife.”
“I had never directed film or TV before and was intrigued by the concept,” said Oster.
She and her crew of just four others started their journey at Arlington’s Signature Theater and then went to Norfolk, Virginia, for an episode chronicling the Hurrah Players, a group founded 35 years ago by Hugh Copeland that never turns a student away. At any one time, they may have 300 students involved in the program, including those with physical or mental handicaps, social anxiety, self-consciousness, or just that feeling of being lost that comes with adolescence.
The goal is to travel the country and highlight these unique youth theater programs and the impact they have on the lives of the students and teachers, while showing a little about the city where they are located and the support, or lack of support, the programs receive from the community – a kind of “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” for the youth theater community.
They are currently in talks to visit Revolution Latina in New York City, an organization that offers a weeklong theater program for low-income and homeless Latino students.
“It has been an incredibly rewarding experience so far, and we are just getting started,” said Oster. “It is another way for me to advocate for the arts and for people to see how important theater and arts are in building life skills. In these programs, you can see firsthand the impact the arts have on young people who have been introverted or marginalized and how their lives have changed for the better and how their perspectives are broadened.”
“The arts is fun, but it is also serious, and we are covering such broad and serious issues, we can’t help but be educated every day,” said Danah Fatimah Alkhafaji, a 17-year-old actor interviewed in the Arlington episode of “Let’s Play.”
Being embedded in Youth Theater programs while filming the show brought Oster back to her own childhood. Growing up in Ohio, her father, Allen, a well-known dentist, acted in local productions, and her mom, Rosalyn, was a set designer for a local children’s theater program.
At the age of six, Oster took the stage for the first time, clad in an apron and mob cap as a cook’s assistant working for the villain Inigo Snurl in a production of “Richard Harding Bush, or the Rococo Coco Bean.”
“I had one line – ‘Yes Sir, Snurl Sir’ and I will never forget it – I was hooked,” Oster said.
When she was nine-years-old, her parents divorced, and she found comfort and a second family in the theater.
“Theater is always about providing a family,” she said. “My involvement in the theater was essential when my parents divorced, and the close and nurturing environment is important to many young people.”
Oster added that her involvement with The Stage Network will reap rewards for MCC’s performing arts students, as they will receive a discounted subscription to the streaming channel and hopefully some access to industry professionals.
“It is a tremendous connection for MCC to draw attention to our program and possibly start a 24-hour play festival, or bring in high-powered Broadway performers to teach master classes,” she said. “There is no telling what other programming opportunities there are due to our affiliation with this program.”
To watch “Let’s Play” and check out the other offerings on The Stage Network, visit www.watchstage.com.
You can also catch Oster’s theatre work at MCC by attending a performance of “Noises Off” December 5-8, 2019, in the Richard & Nancy Donahue Family Academic Arts Center Recital Hall, 240 Central St., Lowell. To purchase tickets or for more information, visit: https://www.middlesex.mass.edu/performingarts/
About Middlesex Community College
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