High Schoolers Go For Laughs in The Capital Fringe Fest Show “HeHee or ‘What? It’s Not Glee?’”

A local playwright, frustrated by the lack of theater opportunities for kids in schools, created his own solution.

By: Travis M. Andrews

Like any theater director, Harry Bagdasian has a band of merry players.

Unlike most directors, however, his players still have curfews. That’s because they’re members of the Comedy Academy, Inc., an organization founded by Bagdasian, a playwright and director, when his daughter, Kate Bagdasian, wanted to act but her middle school lacked a drama club. Bagdasian took over but told the principal they wouldn’t be doing prewritten plays, and they sure as heck weren’t going to be doing any drama.

The players: Erica Shortall, Miriam Finley, Conor Brennan, and Liam Brennan (back row), and Anne Chernikoff, Peter Walderhaug, Maura Russell, and Jeffrey Hacker (front row). Photograph by L. Short.

When we last checked in with Bagdasian in 2005, this group was called the Comedy Club and was housed at Silver Spring’s Colonel E. Brooke Lee Middle School, where he worked with students. Now, he’s staging a play at the 2012 Fringe Fest, cowritten by 18-year-old Liam Brennan, a seven-year veteran of the program. Most of the players in He Hee! or “What? It’s Not Glee?” come from Rockville’s Northwood High School.

Bagdasian says the switch to high school was a result of No Child Left Behind and an administrative change that took the focus away from the arts at Colonel E. Brooke Lee. “The new administration was so focused on testing, testing, testing,” he says. “As a result, we didn’t get what we needed for this program. . . . I can’t blame it on a person. It was this incredible shift in focus.”

But the switch allowed him to meet a whole new cast of players who would come to star in this year’s production. It also allowed him to continue working with some of the children, which he enjoyed since he “always saw this as an opportunity for these kids to learn.”

Helping Brennan grow from an 11-year-old rookie to a cowriter of the play was a realization of this goal. “It’s really interesting to see how Liam has evolved since I met him in seventh grade,” he says.

Along with that growth, he says the children are earning newfound self-confidence through the program, which he sees as its most important aspect. “We never turned down anyone who wanted to be involved,” he says. In fact, he says he’s had children with developmental disabilities come through the program, and the mother of one such child remarked that the program changed her child’s life.

As a bonus, some of the kids end being right at home onstage. “Some of them also learn how to write comedy successfully and learn how to perform,” Bagdasian says. “This is seventh and eighth graders writing comedies. Some of them graduate high school and can put a publication on their résumés.”

He Hee! or “What? It’s Not Glee?”, which Bagdasian explains is essentially a shorter, semi-autobiographical version of the Comedy Academy’s own story, tells the tale of a brand of misfits and outcasts learning to work together, and is intercut with several comedy skits. It also features veteran actor Jeffrey Rosen* as a teacher who agrees to moderate the comedy club. With Rosen's presence, the players range in age from 12 to 63 years old, something that surprisingly didn’t present problems.

“The fascinating thing is once they’re all together, with a goal, it’s really amazing to see how they can get along,” Bagdasian says.

He Hee! or “What? It’s Not Glee?” runs July 21, 25, and 27 at Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre. Tickets ($17 plus $7 for the one-time purchase of a Fringe pin) are available via the Capital Fringe Festival’s website.

*This post has been updated from a previous version.