Red Branch Theatre Company started off with what most emerging theatre companies only dream of: a permanent artistic home. Stephanie Williams, the owner of the Drama Learning Center and a founding member of Red Branch, purchased the Center in 2007 and founded its resident theatre company just a few years later.
Located in Howard County, Red Branch’s home is what Managing Director Tiffany Underwood Holmes calls “snap dab between Baltimore and Washington.” With audiences from Baltimore, DC, and Howard County, Red Branch boasts a fanbase as diverse as their programming.
Their mission is to foster a lifelong love for theatre, so “there is something in every season which serves every age, every demographic, every person,” Holmes says. “We always have something for children and families, for people who are on the older side of the spectrum, and everywhere in between.”
Having always been in residence at the Center, Holmes admits, “It works for us and works against us.” The Center offers training programs for young actors, and patrons to Red Branch may expect to see those actors on stage. However, Red Branch is its own entity: a fully professional, adult theatre company that produces cutting-edge, contemporary work for adult audiences.
Jenny Male, Resident Dance/Fight Choreographer and director of the current A Year with Frog and Toad, claims that Red Branch audiences are “anyone who is young at heart.” She continues, “not just young people; anybody, can come to the theatre to learn how to be a better person.” Male describes a key scene from Frog and Toad in which the protagonists take a sled ride down a hill: “Frog is trying to get Toad to ride down, and says, ‘Don’t stay safe in your home, come out, take a risk, have an adventure!’ Stories like that teach all of us a lesson.”
Red Branch’s mission of inspiring a lifelong love for theatre grew out of the company’s residency in a space where people come to the theatre at a very young age. Holmes believes, “You get them young, you get them for life.”
The Drama Learning Center not only provides a philosophical backbone for Red Branch, but sets an artistic tone as well. The intimate space is vital to their programming, compelling them to focus on storytelling in lieu of grandiose production spectacle. Male, who directed Red Branch’s inaugural production of The Secret Garden and has directed at least one show per season since their founding, explains, “The thing I’ve really enjoyed about Red Branch is that every show I’ve been able to direct there has such a focus on clarity of character. You get very strong characters that have something important to say. I don’t think we’ve ever done what I consider to be a ‘fluff musical’ with no important message. Because the space is smaller, we have to focus on story.”
Holmes emphasized that they “don’t want to program the big Broadway musicals that you’d see at other places, but really want to show our audiences the gems in the American musical theatre canon that aren’t necessarily being seen elsewhere.”
Red Branch produces four to five shows each season, which they describe as “a mix of contemporary and family-friendly titles.” Their biggest focus, however, is, in Holmes words, “the underserved musical.” Though they program straight plays, productions that rely on “the interaction between music and theatre” are integral to their identity.
This interaction of sound and story, which takes place in their intimate 120-seat theatre, not only allows Red Branch’s audiences to engage fully with the work, but also compels their artists to do the same. Holmes explains, “We love not being in a big space, because it forces us to think outside of the box. Even if we’re telling a story that people have told, it’s always going to be in a new and fresh way.”
At the core of Red Branch’s work is the belief that theatre has the power to transform lives. Holmes believes the goal of their work is to “continue the conversation.” She explains, “We think that theatre can start the conversation, but we want to make sure that’s not where the experience stops for our audiences or our artists – that it’s a catalyst for greater social action.”