Traveling constellation

A performing duo from Asheville’s Bright Star Touring Theatre will soon be packing up and checking in with the American Embassy in Moscow. But for the sake of theater — not political asylum.

David Ostergaard, founder of Asheville-based Bright Star Touring Theatre, and Erin Schmidt, the company’s theater manager, will travel to Moscow to perform their play Aesop’s Fables and take part in a residency program arranged by the embassy and the Anglo-American School of Moscow, an English-speaking, international co-educational day school.

To celebrate the opportunity, they’re doing a free performance of Aesop’s Fables at the Asheville Community Theatre this Monday, Sept. 23. To follow up, they’re throwing an equally free celebratory red-carpeted soiree next door at the Renaissance Hotel.

Their picks from the 2,600-year-old fables include “The Fox and the Grapes,” “The Lion and the Mouse” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” among others. Ostergaard and Schmidt recount the stories as memories told by two Renaissance-era vaudevillian travelers named Lenny and Mable.

Bright Star’s invitation to visit Russia came through connections they formed in Washington D.C., via The National Theatre, where they’ve worked extensively.

The theater company’s roster includes 24 actors who perform some 30 different shows in more than a hundred locations across the U.S. Their stages range from school libraries, classrooms and gymnasiums, to parks, parking lots and an array of auditoriums and stages. They’ve even played opera houses and detention centers.

Performers spend their days traveling the country, putting on character-building and educationally focused performances. Ostergaard estimates they’ve logged more than 70,000 miles a year getting to and from each show.

But as they enter their 11th season, the trip to Moscow marks the first time the traveling company has left the country. At least, the first time they’ve done so on purpose. “We’ve had actors accidentally drive into Canada before,” Ostergaard jokes.

Aside from their own performance, Ostergaard and Schmidt will spend much of the 17-day trip working with students from the Anglo-American School of Moscow, an independent, English-speaking co-educational organization. It’s part of a weeklong residency program that takes a hands-on approach to teaching theater production, design and performance.

“The whole point of the residency is to expose the students to the theater,” says Schmidt. “By the end of the residency they’ll have built a play from start to finish.”

Those lessons translate into other life skills. “Teaching them how to write, produce and perform,” Schmidt says, “helps them flex a whole array of skills that they will use every day.”

Schmidt says that communication and collaboration are the foundation of a play’s formation. Risk-taking, such as addressing positive and negative facets of their school life, melds with creative thinking and enables creative problem solving. It also helps them develop confidence and take personal responsibility for their actions and learn time-management skills.

Like many of Bright Star’s performances, they’ll focus on education and integrating social themes that impact the student’s daily lives. “It’s all about character education,” Ostergaard says. “It’s ideas and plays like these that we like to get behind.”

Bright Star’s approach to theater aims at merging social issues affecting students and schools with broader historical themes relevant to problem solving. “We study curriculums and work them into shows,” says Schmidt. They even make study guides, Q&A sessions and curriculum outlines available with each play and performance. It enables the conversation to continue into the classroom and beyond.

If it’s not already apparent, Bright Star isn’t your average theater company. For starters, they’re certified living wage by local labor advocate Just Economics. And they don’t own or rent a performance space. Everything is mobile. This freedom keeps their company affordable for school systems, Ostergaard says.

They’ve got just over 1,000 shows booked this year. That includes four solid weeks of shows in Arizona, over 50 bookings in Raleigh and weekly shows in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, to name a few locales.

“We do shows everywhere,” says Ostergaard. Everywhere else, that is. With the exception of an ongoing partnership with ACT and few ties to area schools, their schedule doesn’t hit to close to home as often as they would like.

But that’s something they’re trying to fix by reinforcing the educational value of their performances. Some of Bright Star’s more popular shows focus on historical topics ranging from the Civil Rights Movement and bluegrass-backed mountain folk tales, to highlights from American history.

The company also uses the stage as a first line of defense against bullying. They confront the cast and the audience with options on how to handle various scenarios, from those who bully to those getting bullied, letting the students make the calls on what to do.

“It's important that live theater is happening now, right before the eyes of the young audience,” Schmidt says. “It's one thing to be told how you can deal being a victim of bullying, but to hang out with the student on stage while they are getting picked on, and to see them using tools to help themselves out of the situation, is much more memorable.”

who: Bright Star Theatre
what: Free performance of Aesop’s Fables and celebration party
where: Asheville Community Theatre and Renaissance Hotel
when: Monday, Sept. 23 (7 p.m. Free. Reservations at 254-1320. Afterparty at the Renaissance. ashevilletheatre.org and brightstartheatre.org)

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About Kyle Sherard
Book lover, arts reporter, passerby…..

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