By Victoria L. Kidd
Every student who has ever been involved with a theater program is familiar with the iconic symbol of drama. The two masks—one smiling to represent comedy and another frowning to imply tragedy—could also stand as the symbol of adolescence. One’s youth is often a time period of excitement tempered with vulnerability and enthusiasm curbed by doubt. An outlet many students use to come to terms with these conflicting emotional states is theater, and students from all over the region have benefited from the tutelage of La Tasha Do’zia-Earley.
A resident of Winchester, Do’zia-Earley is an accomplished local actress and director who seems to have inexhaustible passion when it comes to introducing kids and young adults to the arts. In addition to working with municipal recreation programs and camps, Do’zia-Earley is the drama teacher for the Independent School of Winchester, a well-respected school with innovative programs for students in kindergarten through 10th grade (with 11th and 12th grade classes scheduled to begin for the 2016/2017 school year). Her program at the school complements their comprehensive and balanced approach to learning, but her involvement in the lives of young people doesn’t end when she leaves the school’s campus.
Do’zia-Earley is also the founder of the Selah Theatre Project (www.selahtheatreproject.org). The project’s mission, according to its website, is to “empower, educate, and enlighten our community with theatrical opportunities that encourage conversation and positive impact,” and they note that their programs are designed to offer students affordable artistic opportunities, regardless of their ability to pay. The philosophy behind the project’s work is built on the foundational positions held earlier in Do’zia-Earley’s career.
“I was a preschool director before,” Do’zia-Earley says. “I loved the children. I loved working with them, but I didn’t enjoy the operational aspects of that work.” Already considering a change, Do’zia-Earley was further incentivized to venture out into the world of contracting and entrepreneurship when she was approached as a prospective adoptive parent for a young man named Prince. “Life changed,” she says, reflecting on his arrival. “He wasn’t getting the attention he needed with me working full time and teaching drama classes in the evenings. I realized it was time to rethink things and reshape my career to be the best parent I could be.”
Her period of reflection gave birth to the Selah Theatre Project. The word, “Selah,” means to pause and take a breath. It’s a Hebrew word that resonated with Do’zia-Earley, both in terms of the period of life she had entered and the philosophy with which she would run the program.
“When we pause and really center ourselves in the role we hold in the production, we are asking the audience to also pause,” she explains. “We are asking them to think about what they witness and to ponder it and to start a conversation. That’s what this is all about. That’s what drama is all about. It took me some time to figure that out…Theater is a reflection of reality, and there is something powerful in watching reality mirrored on stage.”
Selah’s stage is contained within what is called a “black box theater,” a term that is used to describe a small, unadorned theater space that is designed to afford intimacy between the actors onstage and the audience. Selah’s studio theater occupies 1,100 square feet and is located at 30 East 8th Street in Front Royal, Virginia. Each year, Selah produces two original productions that regularly sell out. Additionally, Do’zia-Earley runs an outreach program in cooperation with the Warren County School System. The collective array of programming provides an opportunity for students of all ages—from preschool to high school—a chance to experience theater.
The small stage where those students experience theater has really become an oasis for those inclined to the dramatic life. Students from all counties in the Top of Virginia Region have participated in Selah programs, with many having had to drive to the D.C. Metro area to get involved in theatrical productions previously. “I’ve discovered that we need to be here,” Do’zia-Earley relays. “These students often come to call this place their ‘home,’ because it’s a place where they can really produce great work that helps them deal with the pressures of growing up. It’s a place where they form their community and they meet others who understand how they use performance to express things and discuss things and, most importantly, to understand things that are new to these emerging adults.”
That home was established in 2011 in Winchester but was relocated to Front Royal in 2013 after Do’zia-Earley recognized the county’s great need for theatrical education and programming. Selah, a fiscal nonprofit, fills that need in a way that many program participants refer to as “life changing.”
Janet Jewell says that her son has been experiencing that life changing participation for three years. “My son Ray loves it,” asserts Jewell. “As a parent, I love knowing that Tasha opens up a means of expression in many different forms, making it accessible to kids and people of all different abilities and learning styles. It’s a safe, fun, welcoming environment and you can’t help but love it.”
Selah parent Tammy Ruggiero agrees. “My daughter, Suna, says Selah is a place of good energy where she feels that people are nice to her and she feels accepted,” she says. Relaying that her daughter has “not always fit in at school” and has been subjected to bullying from time-to-time, Ruggiero indicates that she asked her daughter to focus on an activity that would lift her self-esteem. “Because she thinks so highly of La Tasha and the Selah group she decided she wanted to put her focus on acting, comedy, and storytelling. I would say Selah is a place of acceptance and development.”
Other parents indicate that the program does more than simply offer a place where young adults explore and grow. “Not only is Selah a safe place for kids to express themselves, it is a theatre where kids who are serious about the arts can receive pre-professional training and nurture their dreams,” explains Dee Sparger, whose daughters Katherine Sparger (14) and Rita Sparger (11) have been involved with the program for several years. “I love that the kids have the opportunity to be fully involved in every aspect of theatre including writing, performing, stage management, and even arts promotion. I also love that La Tasha gets the kids out in the community, both to perform and to support other theatres and artists.”
In addition to the Sparger, Ruggiero, and Jewell families, Do’zia-Earley has touched the lives of more than 600 young people, including students from the Selah program and other programs with which Do’zia-Earley has been involved. “This work speaks to my soul,” she confesses. “It’s important, and I am humbled to have been invited into the lives of so many amazing young people. I’m appreciative of the patrons who buy tickets to the shows and the sponsors who help us continue this work. The folks who support us get it. They understand that for some people, theater is as natural as breathing. It’s their way of finding themselves. It’s not a means of escaping reality; it’s a means of observing reality and finding meaning in the even the simplest of actions. That’s something to see, and I am thankful every day that I was called to this work.”