School Theater in Loudoun isn’t Child’s Play

School plays have become serious business in Loudoun County.

High schools have won permission to premiere big-time shows, like “Chicago” and, as of this week, the musical “Ghost.” Productions have been known to cost as much as $35,000 to put on and require the talents of 100 students and an army of parent and community volunteers. And many have gone from Loudoun school stages to win big state and national awards.

The success of the school programs has been, in large part, a grassroots effort of the school drama teachers partnering with dedicated parents and students. But school system leaders want to invest more into the performing arts, with an eye on building a foundation for young people who want to pursue careers in the entertainment industry.

Superintendent Eric Williams and Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Cynthia Ambrose want to include $121,000 as part of next fiscal year’s operating budget to create a new position of performing arts specialist. The specialist would provide support for drama programs from elementary through high school, as well as leadership in developing performing arts curricula.

Ambrose heard from parents that there was a need for more professional development for drama teachers and support for the theater programs in middle and high schools.

“We listened, we evaluated, and we saw that they had a lot of merit in what they were asking for,” she said. “Some may see theater as a hobby, but we also want to support the many students who see this as a viable career pathway.”

Opening Doors

Rock Ridge High School’s theater department landed a big opportunity to premiere “Ghost” the musical this week. The performance will be professionally recorded and played for some of the world’s theater industry leaders during the International Thespian Festival, held at Virginia Tech next week.

Rock Ridge High School students Crystal Claros and Seth Cooper perform in “Ghost” the musical.

And drama teacher and director Anthony Cimino-Johnson has more or less entrusted his students with every aspect of the production. Teens from ages 14 to 18 are designing costumes, creating and building sets, overseeing lighting and sound, and choreographing the entire performance.

Cimino-Johnson, who was recently named Virginia Theatre Teacher of the Year, wants to give young people a glimpse of the variety of jobs in the industry, most of which are off stage. “When we think about theater we only think about performing and a small pocket of celebrities, but the entertainment industry is actually the second largest industry in the world, only second to finance,” he said. “You have to think about the designers, marketers, technicians, scenic designers—there are so many possibilities.”

Noam Denenberg, a junior, doubts that he would have found his talent in scenic design if he hadn’t had access to a program like Rock Ridge’s. He knew he loved performing, but Cimino-Johnson, who students call CJ, helped him discover he had a knack for set design when he asked him to employ his painting skills in a production his freshman year.

“CJ has a special way of finding skills that you’re good at and pulling it out,” he said. “I found that I love the technical aspect of theater. I like bringing the world to life—on stage.”

Many Rock Ridge students will graduate high school with an edge over their peers also pursuing careers in the entertainment industry. Twenty-four students learned last week that they were the only high school students in Virginia to pass the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute’s performing arts certification exam, earning them three college credits. Those same students are enrolled in drama dual enrollment courses through Richard Bland College that allow them to earn as many as six college credits.

Plus, Noam noted with excitement, that next week he and his classmates will have the opportunity to meet and perform for representatives from 25 colleges and universities at the International Thespian Festival.

“Not all high school kids get opportunities like this,” the 17-year-old said.

Making the Investment

Rock Ridge isn’t the only Loudoun high school setting its students on track for jobs in performing arts. Loudoun Valley, Stone Bridge, Heritage, Dominion, Tuscarora, Woodgrove and others have won or been nominated for Cappies, a regional critics awards program, for their overall performances, acting, dancing, stage design, sound and lighting.

Leanne Littman, a parent who helped form Heritage High School’s Drama Booster Association, said the school gave her daughter opportunities most young people don’t get until college. As a high schooler, she got an invite to the Virginia Theatre Association conference, where she auditioned in front of representatives from dozens of colleges. That helped earn her a spot at University of Virginia, where she’s double majoring in theater and American studies.

Parker Koch playing Caption Hook in Rock Ridge High School’s production of Peter and The Starcatcher, a prequel to Peter Pan. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]
“It is her dream to end up working as a professional actress, and there are quite a few kids who have gone on from the Heritage program to performing arts schools,” Littman said. “Their productions are really sub-Broadway level. … We are so, so fortunate.”

A good next step, she suggested, would be increasing stipends for school theater directors, most of whom lead productions throughout the school year. “If you’re a coach, you get a stipend for each sport and if you’re a drama teacher, you get the one stipend for the full year, so it’s not necessarily equal and fair,” she said. “These teachers give and give and give, they basically don’t have a life.”

Cimino-Johnson said that Loudoun school leaders are showing that they are taking performing arts just as seriously as STEM education. “Loudoun County Public Schools is doing all the right things,” he said, noting that the division has hired talented, experienced directors and supported pathways to provide dual enrollment theater courses for students.

“People are asking how do we create the next generation of not only entertainers but technology and business leaders,” he said. “It’s by flexing their creative and innovative muscles early. You do that every single day in theater class, and I think Dr. Williams and others are seeing that.”

Rock Ridge presents Ghost the Musical
7 p.m. Jan. 26, 27, 28; 2 p.m. Jan. 28
Rock Ridge High School in Ashburn
Tickets: $10 online at; $12 at the door

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