At a theater in Southwest Washington Thursday night, Rep. Chris Van Hollen talked about his most recent acting gig.
"Since I sit next to Paul Ryan all day I know all of his lines. So I was invited to be Paul Ryan in the practice debates up in Delaware," the Maryland Democrat told a group gathered at Arena Stage. "So I spent five days in Delaware. I can tell you, I don’t have the accent down, but I have the lines down." Van Hollen was able to study for his role in the run-up to the 2012 vice presidential debate by sitting next to the Wisconsin Republican on the Budget Committee. But, he joked, he was not as skilled in other performances.
"As my wife Katherine said, ‘I don’t know why you’re getting the American Voice Award because you can’t sing at all,'" Van Hollen said.
But the American Voice Award is not bestowed upon a lawmaker who can carry a tune, but rather an official who supports the arts and arts education.
Greta Hays, a spokeswoman for Arena Stage, wrote in an email that Van Hollen earned the award because he has supported the National Endowment for the Humanities, the congressional art competition, and other community arts projects.
Van Hollen received the award at a dinner before the opening night of "Oliver!" For the lawmaker, who is also running for a Senate seat, arts and theater can have a major impact on communities.
“I believe we need to make the arts available to everybody in the community," Van Hollen told HOH after the dinner. "And I do believe that if you look around the country and you look at places that are dynamic and have vitality, they're places that appreciate the arts. We just need to make sure that the benefit of those experiences get to as many people as possible.”
Van Hollen said he had a few other personal connections to the evening. His family would often come to performances at Arena Stage when he was young, and, once upon a time, he was part of the ensemble of a summer camp production of "Oliver!," joking he was "part of the furniture."
But his camp's production was likely very different than the production launched in the theater Thursday. The Arena Stage production is set in modern-day London, rather than the 19th century.
The modern feel was evident throughout the production, from the costumes and use of smartphones on stage, to choreography and contemporary beats infused in the music. Director Molly Smith said the new setting was a conscious choice to highlight the economic inequalities that persist today.
Van Hollen and his wife couldn't stay for the performance, but said they were looking forward to bringing their kids to the musical over the holidays.
"I think it's really important that it’s set in contemporary times," Van Hollen told HOH. "Because it’s so easy to say, ‘That was yesterday,’ but we have all these ongoing problems and challenges today."
Though Van Hollen wasn't at the Thursday performance, he will surely be welcomed back.
As Smith told him after his speech, borrowing a line from the musical, "Consider yourself at home."
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