There is a gate on the 4800 block of Germantown Avenue that leads to a dirt pathway surrounded by pebbles, grass and a massive tree stump.
For hundreds of children over the past 27 years, that stump has been their stage. Whether dancing, acting or singing, members of the FreshVisions Youth Theatre have entertained their families and friends while discovering their hidden talents.
“We want them to take the skills needed for their performances and apply them to education and really, life,” said Bruce Robinson, founder of FreshVisions.
Robinson has operated the all-volunteer effort inside a makeshift barn-style theater at 4821 Germantown Ave. since 1999. For 15 years prior, the program ran as the Mitchell-Robinson Youth Theatre, an offshoot of an after-school program that Robinson hosted in between acting gigs.
Now, the children’s platform and their theater home are going into a sheriff’s sale in late November and the future of FreshVisions is in jeopardy.
“I’ve invested close to $200,000 and it’s all gone,” said Edie Chapman, director of the Germantown Theater Center and the company’s landlord since 2006. “I don’t have any more money to do the things that need to be done for this place.”
On the site is a stone Colonial house and barn, which Chapman said were 273 years old and stood as the Revolutionary War was fought around them. Below ground are caverns used as part of the Underground Railroad.
“My favorite story is that there was a field hospital across the street,” Chapman said. “They amputated this American soldier’s foot and buried it in my driveway and he’s been kicking down the front gate ever since.”
Besides basic home improvements, Chapman said, the roofs on the house and barn particularly need fixing. The house has a tin roof covered by paint, and the barn has shingles dating back to the 1930s. Both need replacements that she can’t afford.
“I really hope that the people who do take the property over do right by the people who have been working here,” Chapman said.
Once the FreshVisions Advisory Board heard about the sale earlier this summer ago, it started a petition asking the mortgage company to separate the two buildings and allow the company to continue using the barn.
Robinson is a professional actor who had performed all over the world before he took over the company. Teaching young people about the majesty of theater, he realized, was his true calling.
“We take kids from the community and give them a very solid grounding in drama and dance,” Robinson said. “I use the power of theater to change these kids’ lives.”
During the week, he works as a standardized patient at Temple University, helping train student doctors on how to diagnose people and conduct doctor-patient interactions. His income supports FreshVisions, his night-time and weekend endeavor.
The theater company accepts 25 students per term into its two programs: the FreshVisions Youth Troupe for beginners and intermediate level, and FreshVision Players for more advanced, according to its website. Classes are offered in drama and dance, along with apprenticeships in theater production. Students are charged a fee, which can be paid in installments. Some students are charged based on a sliding scale.
There are no auditions. No screening process, either. Robinson says as long as the youths bring a positive attitude, he’s happy to train them.
“I sit their parents down and say your child is going to cry with me,” Robinson said. “But it’s a good cry, the kind of cry you had when you gave birth to your child. It’s undeniable life that lasts forever.”
His mission is fueled by a quote from poet and novelist James Baldwin that he read when he was 16 years old: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders. But they never fail to imitate them.”
Says Robinson, “I teach them how to think critically and logically. We want to acknowledge our feelings, but not let them predominate our actions.”
“If you invest in these kids, it always pays off.”
Robinson has made no greater investment than in Indiya Glenn, a 19-year-old from West Philadelphia who has been attending FreshVisions for 10 years.
“When she first came here, she was almost clinically shy,” Robinson said. “Now she’s our youth director and an amazing leader.”
Glenn remembers watching a show starring her stepbrother and becoming immediately hooked. “My eyes lit up. I just knew I wanted to be on stage,” she said.
Her first role was as Woofella, the hair-obsessed star of “Scary Play,” a parody of scary movies. She fell in love with acting and from then on, got involved in any production she could get her hands on.
“The thrill is nice, it’s the excitement of doing things you never thought you could do,” said Glenn, who will study fashion design in her first semester at the Art Institute of Philadelphia this fall.
Regarding the future of FreshVisions, Glenn says she remains hopeful. “This has been my home away from home,” she said. “FreshVisions is forever. We will never stop.”
Carol Lumford, whose two daughters practically grew up in the program, echoed Glenn’s battle cry. “We’re not looking at worst-case scenario,” she said.
Lumford has been involved with FreshVisions for 25 years in a jack-of-all-trades role. With a background in secretarial support, she designs costumes and handles stage management, in addition to drafting and handing out flyers, playbills and press releases.
“Basically, our children are lost,” Lumford said. “They’ve taken a lot of the arts out of the schools. They’ve taken a lot of the sports out of the schools.”
“We’re providing a safe haven for kids, giving them an outlet for expression.”
Lumford said the highlight of her experience was chaperoning a trip in June to Washington, DC, where FreshVisions’ members performed “Marching to Freedomland – Giants of the Civil Rights Movement” at the DC Black Theater Festival.
“We commanded that stage,” Lumford said, laughing. “They’ll remember us for a long time.”
And so will Germantown, she says.
“We’re going to solicit the people who end up buying this property and give them the history of who we are, what we’ve done, and what we will continue to do,” Lumford said.