Feature: An Advocate in Providing Arts For All Deb Gottesman's Passion is Awe Inspiring

The longtime arts in education goddess of the DMV on becoming being named a Washingtonian of The Year and more.

By: Jan. 23, 2024
Feature: An Advocate in Providing Arts For All Deb Gottesman's Passion is Awe Inspiring
Deb Gottesman. Photo by Clinton Brandhagen.

If you have been following my writings over the years, you know that when someone asks me about what arts in education to go to in the DMV, The Theatre Lab School of The Dramatic Arts is the ONLY one I will recommend. For over thirty years, The Theatre Lab has been helmed by co-Founders Deb Gottesman and Buzz Mauro. Their philosophy of arts education for all makes them an organization that just keeps raising the bar for what arts education should look like across the country and the world.

Recently Deb Gottesman was named one of the 2023 Washingtonians of The Year by Washingtonian Magazine for giving voice to those who might not otherwise have one in a theatrical setting. The Theatre Lab’s Life Stories programs is just one of the organization’s many achievements. They provide scholarships to those who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend theatre camp. Their classes are taught by DC’s best artists. And let’s not forget that Deb and Buzz have built a very welcoming place where beginners all the way through to professionals who just want a brush up can come and know that their needs will be taken care of.

As a huge fan of the Theatre Lab School of The Dramatic Arts, I am deeply proud that Washingtonian Magazine recognized Deb Gottesman for her artistic and community achievements. It just reinforces what I have been saying for years “When you can have the best training as taught by the best, why go elsewhere?”

How many years total have you been working in arts education?

Buzz Mauro and I started The Theatre Lab in 1992, right after graduating from Catholic University’s MFA program so it’s been 32 years.

When you co-founded The Theatre Lab School for The Dramatic Arts with Buzz Mauro, did you have any idea the organization would be going stronger than ever 30 plus years later?

I don’t think either of us had that thought.  We hung out a shingle offering acting coaching—hoping to be able to supplement our acting careers with some audition coaching and teaching.  But we soon realized this was something we were really passionate about. The demand for classes was strong, we were able to connect with wonderful theatre artists who shared our passion for teaching, and a third friend (Michael Rodgers) joined us to help turn it into a real school.

What accounts for our longevity, I think, is that we got very interested in the benefits of theatre training both on and off the stage.  Offering serious classes in a nurturing environment that encourages people to stretch themselves not only prepares people who want to become professional actors, but also helps a shy kid gain the confidence to speak in class, or an adult who spends all day in a cubicle discover the joy of creative collaboration.  And, through our Life Stories programs, where we train people from historically under-represented communities to create and perform original dramatic works based on lived experience, we’ve been honored to help amplify the voices of people whose stories too frequently go unheard.  We now serve and enrollment of more than 2,700 students each year in all of our programs, which proves that acting really is for everyone!

How did you find out that you became one of the Washingtonians of the Year for 2023?

I got a somewhat mysterious email from the Editor of The Washingtonian asking for a phone call.  I figured she might want to do a story on one of our programs, so I was pretty excited.  I was totally speechless when she told me the real reason she was getting in touch.

What was your first reaction after being notified about this honor?

I thought she might have the wrong number. ? Actually, I know of this award and the extraordinary people who have received it, so it was really humbling.  And, of course, my second reaction was the awareness that just about everything I do at The Theatre Lab is in partnership—with Buzz, our amazing staff, all of the social service organizations with whom we collaborate on Life Stories, our phenomenal faculty, our many supporters, and of course our students.  So, I can’t really take the credit. But the award specifically recognized Life Stories, which is one of the programs that fall under my umbrella here and I really appreciate the visibility that The Washingtonian has brought to our work.

Also, I was born and raised in DC, and it is truly an honor to be recognized for contributing to this city I love.

Can you please tell us about one of Theatre Lab’s newest programs entitled Arts Institute for Creative Advancement?

This is a perfect example of the kind of partnership I’m talking about!  The Arts Institute for Creative Advancement (AICA) is a workforce development program training young adults who have encountered obstacles to a livable wage career path to become theatre technicians.  It was started by The Theatre Lab, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Life Pieces to Masterpieces, and the DC Arts Education Alliance as a response to the pandemic, which had hit both DC youth and the theatre community especially hard. A lot of people don’t know that there is a labor crisis in the industry—a near crippling shortage of people who build sets, run lights and sound, and stage manage—and that backstage jobs can pay really well (starting salary of $22-25/hr in DC and $35 for union work).

AICA is an “earn while you learn” program in which our student apprentices are paid minimum wage for every hour that they learn in addition to every hour that they apprentice in professional theatres, so they don’t have to choose between getting an education and putting food on the table.  We also offer childcare and transportation stipends to remove traditional barriers to participation.   The Theatre Lab houses the program and provides the technical theatre training, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop provides financial management and operational support, Life Pieces to Masterpieces brings their unique human development curriculum into the program to help build community and provide social-emotional support for the students, and the other members of the DC Arts Education Alliance teach arts electives.  Plus we have more than 30 theatre and producing partners who are employing our students and graduates. (17 students graduated in the 2023 pilot year, and a new class of 24 begins next week.) Working in this collaborative way and getting to spend a year with extraordinary young adults who are finding their path has been one of the great experiences of my life.

People that are in the same type of job for many years sometimes lose their passion for the work. What continues to drive your passion for arts education?

The late Oran Sandel, one of our great Life Stories faculty members, used to say that “Theatre is where your story meets my story and becomes our story.”  I think the idea that we can celebrate our uniqueness while at the same time finding our collective humanity is endlessly exciting to me.   And I want everyone to experience that, so I am driven to make theatre education accessible.

From your many years of being an arts educator, what do you consider to be the thing you are most proud of?

I think I am most proud that we have continued to ask the question, “How can we use the arts to be helpful?”  And the answers seem to be endless.