Capitol Steps star stages a welcome intervention

April 14, 2006 | By Jennifer Nycz-Conner

Bill Strauss has never questioned the power of education or the theater. The guy spent eight years at Harvard, earning three degrees there. And he founded the Capitol Steps, the performing group known for, among other things, its ability to get the most buttoned-up of the Beltway to laugh at themselves.

But it took the tragedy at Columbine, Colo., a conversation with a local student and a high school convocation speech to show Strauss the power of combining the two.

Strauss, who’d written 10 books on generational history, was invited to be on a C-SPAN show about youth violence after the shootings. Backstage, he struck up a conversation with another guest, a Fairfax high school student who shared his love of the theater. The student mentioned she wanted to be a high school theater critic, but couldn’t review her school’s shows because she was in them. That gave Strauss an idea: Why not have students from different schools review one another’s work?

The final piece of the “ah ha” moment came when Strauss was delivering a high school convocation speech. Almost all the awards presented went to athletes. Recognition for theater students was negligible.

Strauss started working with Fairfax theater teacher Judy Bowns to create the Cappies, a program to engage high school students in the art of the theater criticism, then publish their works in papers such as The Washington Post and The Cincinnati Enquirer. There are 15 programs in the United States and Canada. The top winners in each participate in new shows at the Kennedy Center Theater Lab.

Do all the eye-rolling you want about this generation. The generational historian in Strauss says that we ain’t seen nothing yet.

“The millennial generation resembles the G.I. generation,” he says. “There’s something very powerful building with this generation in terms of its voice and its style.”

Strauss sees it struggling with the frustrations of past misunderstood generations.

“So much that’s out in the pop culture is not theirs,” he says. “We’re in a bit of a culture war, like the early ‘80s and early ‘60s.”

The Cappies puts an amplifier on an already vocal generation. “This is what the millennial generation does,” he says. “And they do it very well.”

Strauss found his voice through politics, which lead him to stage. The McLean resident, who worked in the executive and legislative branches, was at a party with some of his colleagues from Illinois Republican Sen. Charles Percy’s office in 1981 when the musically inclined started writing political parodies. Those ditties formed the basis of a Christmas show, which evolved into the Capitol Steps.

Strauss became known for his portrayal of then-President Ronald Reagan, even though he worked in a Republican office.

“It was actually a much more genial time in politics,” he says. You fought hard for your issues, “but after hours, you were friends.”

Originally a hobby, the troupe went professional thanks to Paul Simon. That would be the senator, not the singer. Simon won Percy’s seat in 1984.

The Cappies program is all volunteer run and time intensive, but Strauss seems to gain, not expend, energy from working with it.

That energy is matched by, and fueled by, his admiration for the young actors in the program. The Cappies is supported by an enormous Web infrastructure designed by two “brilliant” students from Arlington’s Thomas Jefferson High School now at Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Between coaching students on their creation of an original musical, attending Cappies shows and galas, performing with the Capitol Steps and working on his latest book, Strauss admits that he’s working “pretty close to all the time.”

But then again, tending to passions doesn’t feel much like work, he says. “Working means going to Cappies shows. It means going to Capitol Steps. It’s good stuff.”

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