At 5 a.m. on the day of Ovations Theatre’s dress rehearsal for its late April production of Seussical Jr., Darnell Patrick Morris crawled onto a futon in his office at the Gaithersburg youth theater. Morris, Ovations’ founder and producing artistic director, didn’t dream of driving home to Silver Spring to sleep with so much left to do. He had spent the night hanging lights and painting sets in hot pink and lime-yellow hues for the musical based on stories by Dr. Seuss.
That night had been preceded by long days of technical rehearsals at the 40-seat theater. The usual problems associated with a small staff had to be solved: The lighting designer couldn’t finish the job, so Morris had to step in. Costumes weren’t done. Morris’ phone was blowing up with texts from actors.
For this show, he had created the sets, sewn the costumes, and rehearsed and directed the actors. “It’s the usual pre-show chaos,” Morris, 35, says later that morning with his staccato laugh. “At least I got four hours of sleep.”
Productions aren’t always such solo affairs, but Morris does wear a multitude of hats at the 6-year-old theater. “I’m very opinionated,” he says. “I have definite ideas and don’t mind the hard work in getting things done.”
The for-profit theater, which Morris financed himself, offers acting instruction to students in grades three through 12, plus summer programs for college students. Before the pandemic, the Ovations programs provided instruction for about 250 students. Now, about 150 students are taking classes and participating in shows, Morris says. Casts for musicals are divided between the theater’s junior company that serves students in grades three through eight and the senior company for grades nine through 12.
Past productions include Matilda, Rent, Hair, Cabaret, Spring Awakening and Ragtime.
Yasmin Ranz-Lind, 22, recalls acting in seven Ovations productions and working as a production assistant on another show during her junior and senior years at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. “I would not be where I am today without Darnell and Ovations,” says Ranz-Lind, who is pursuing a career in drama in New York City after graduating in May from Syracuse University. “Darnell taught us techniques like breaking down a song or script that I didn’t get until college. He took a chance on me and trusted me with big roles.”
Ovations is the culmination of Morris’ love of drama, a passion initially nurtured by his first grade teacher, Sharon Thorne. Her students at Waters Landing Elementary School in Germantown were encouraged to express themselves creatively, he says. When he was in third grade, he founded a recess drama club that produced three plays each school year, all musicals he’d written. “Our teachers were very supportive—we performed for the whole grade, not just our class,” Morris says.
Morris received his first formal training at Bound for Broadway, a Rockville youth theater program that’s no longer active. Raised in Germantown in a Christian and Jewish home, he graduated from Tree of Life, a private Christian high school formerly located in Gaithersburg. He then studied acting and theater arts at Montgomery College. Estranged from his parents and distant from his four younger siblings, Morris considers the theater community to be his family.
He pivoted to producing and directing when an acting colleague observed that Morris constantly wanted to put his own spin on productions in which he performed.
Morgan Fannon, Morris’ best friend since kindergarten, was a member of his drama club in elementary school and now serves as Ovations’ managing director. The theater’s four-person staff is often supplemented by guest choreographers, directors, set designers and costumers—many with Helen Hayes Awards and Broadway credits. “We’re trying to grow fully rounded performers and expose them to great talent,” Morris says.
Ovations is in a warehouse on Industrial Drive in Gaithersburg that Morris and his friends transformed into a black box rehearsal and performance area, with a lobby named for heroic abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Framed bio-graphies of artists such as Cicely Tyson and Karen Olivo are posted on the walls.
“We’ve built a theater community,” Morris says. “Once you’re in a show with us, you’re connected for life.”
This story appears in the September/October 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.