If you look above the door to the BSA Theatre Department office, you see two names on a plaque: Rolf Schmitt and Ann Mladinov. It wasn’t their intention to have their name on a plaque, or to be major donors to the school. A series of coincidences and a lot of time, energy, and love led to that result.
Since 2006, Schmitt and Mladinov have sponsored the UK International Exchange Program, which allows BSA’s senior acting majors to travel to London for 8-10 days at the end of their senior year, stay with host families, and rehearse and perform a full-scale play or musical with a group of their British counterparts. For the past six years, BSA’s partner program in England, Showdown Theatre Arts, has been bringing a similar size group of its own students to Baltimore for a week in the fall to attend classes, perform a combined US-UK cabaret at Germano’s, and begin working together on their spring production
Over the years, the exchange has provided the students the opportunity to present serious and challenging works; to travel outside the country, in many cases for the first time; to experience the similarities and differences between two cultures; and to gain a sense of themselves in the larger world as they prepare for their next step to college and careers.
“Performing in another country is a moment that is immeasurably necessary for the confidence of a performer,” said Alana Raquel Bowers, who participated in the exchange in 2012. “One is able to say, ‘I did it here (London), so I can do it anywhere.’ This is crucial for moments in life where you feel small, unworthy, untalented, and useless.”
After accompanying the students every year on the UK trips, Mladinov echoes that sentiment. “The program creates an amazing bridge for the students, between cultures and between high school and their future professionally and personally.”
It all began because Schmitt and Mladinov were determined to help their son’s BSA class take a special opportunity when it became available, stretching their own resources and working with other parents to make the first trip possible.
Rolf and Ann saw the play Stags and Hens presented at Baltimore Theatre Project by Songtime Theatre Arts, then a British theatre training program. They did not know the BSA Senior Acting Ensemble, including their son Owen, was also scheduled to see the performance and have an acting workshop with the Songtime cast. It was an electric experience for both groups, Mladinov says. Seeing how much the students from the two countries were learning from working and talking with each other, the British group invited BSA to bring its students to the UK in the spring to do a show together.
This kind of collaboration and timeline was unheard of—for students who had never even seen each other to be able to meet, rehearse, and perform a full show with only one week of rehearsal time.
The Theatre Department was very excited about the possibility, but the foundation was focused on a major capital campaign and couldn’t find the funding.
Inspired by times that Ann had offered to fund a project she believed in when no one else was coming forward, Rolf remembers thinking: “This class has been doing great work and now they have an invitation to go to London to work with an English group and perform together. That’s a chance that shouldn’t be missed. I will step up.”
Schmitt volunteered to cover the airfares for the entire group, if the students’ parents could cover the on-the-ground expenses.
So, 15 BSA seniors flew to London and presented The Laramie Project with their Songtime counterparts in May 2006. The BSA and UK students talked throughout the 10 days in England about how much they were seeing and learning – the different styles of working, the way they all bonded as a cast, their awe at being able to put together a powerful and polished production in such a short time. It had made an impact.
There were many tears on all sides when the time came to fly home. On the flight back to Baltimore, Ann and Rolf decided that 2006 simply couldn’t be the last time BSA students had that opportunity.
“Once we saw what it could mean, how could we not want to let the next year’s class have that experience? The students put in four years of work and then they are literally transported to a different continent and culture to try out what they’ve learned. They do a really professional level of production, and itt gives them confidence and a sense of what they can do in the future,” Mladinov said. And so they came back the next year to the parents of the 2007 class with the same offer.
From the beginning, the principle has been that everyone in the ensemble gets to make the trip, regardless of income or ability to pay. Only illness, failing grades, or discipline issues would keep a student from participating. Ann says, “If they are members of the class and in good standing, we are committed to getting them to London.”
Many of the students have told Mladinov and Schmitt they never thought they would get the opportunity to leave the country. And now that they have, it feels as if the whole world is open to them.
“It means so much and when you think of it, the cost is about what some people spend to take their family to Europe for a week, or rent a house at the beach for vacation,” said Mladinov. For $17,000, they are able to get the entire senior ensemble to England.
From the first year, many students have said they hope one day to be able to give back the way Schmitt and Mladinov have.
“What is more important for adults to do than be models of what we hope other people will do?” said Mladinov.
The exchange changed the course of the life of BSA alumnus Kaya Potler (Theatre 2012). Potler continues to come to the school to meet the British students every fall, and even worked behind the scenes on the BSA-UK production of Hairspray while he was on a junior semester abroad in England. Potler, who graduated from Towson University in 2016, is planning to return to the UK to assist with the 2017 BSA-Showdown production in the spring. Carli Jones, founder and principal of Showdown and the force behind the two-way exchange from the UK side, has assured him he will always have a place there to do shows, teach, or just help out.
“This exchange created a family that keeps on growing,” Potler said. “I have no words to express my gratitude toward Ann and Rolf. They have given anyone who participates in the exchange a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to form lifetime bonds through theatre. I would, honestly, not be the person I am today without them. The experience has molded me into the performer and person I am today, and I am eternally grateful.”
The support that Ann and Rolf give to the students individually and as a group helps carry them through what could be the most challenging week of their high school years. They have an unwavering belief in the students. “They believe in me more than I do!” said one student.
The program has evolved over the years. Showdown Theatre Arts is the current UK partner, and in 2008, the program was extended to the senior Theatre Production students. Ann now coordinates the plans for two trips: the acting ensemble trip to London and the production students’ trip to the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. More than 200 students have participated in the international exchange trips and contributed their work and their thanks. Several of the “veterans” have continued to work as mentor actors in the BSA-Showdown program, or joined in their own productions. The benefits keep multiplying.
Ann continues to coordinate all the logistics on the U.S. side as a volunteer. She is the only one who has been part of all 12 UK exchange trips. She says, “We are so glad to be able to work with BSA, the students, the teachers, the parents, and our partners at Showdown. We hope the program can continue for the theatre students and be echoed in similar programs for other departments. The value of this kind of exchange is matchless. It really does change lives.”