All the Community’s a Stage
Live Theater Brings Entertaining Performances and Other Benefits to Local Audiences
It’s 90 minutes before showtime of Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms, members of the Fredericktowne Players are buzzing around the stage at the Jack B. Kussmaul Theater on the Frederick Community College campus. Actors are putting on their costumes and getting their microphones secured. Vocal and instrument warm-ups fill the space with varying sounds. Props and set pieces for the opening scene are being put into place, along with organizing the sets that will come later in the show. As show stage manager, 17-year-old Frederick resident Maria Laird must make sure everyone is ready and everything happens on time.“I love the adrenaline,” she says. “I love how fast-paced it is and how much you have to solve problems while you are [thinking] on your feet.”
Frederick resident Thomas Bricker plays the lead, Valentine White—his first starring role. He came to see Fredericktowne Players’ 2015 production of The Music Man and the experience propelled him to volunteer to build sets for future shows. Partway through rehearsals for Little Shop of Horrors, he moved from crew to cast member. “I was the only person who could pick [the large plant puppet] up, so they said, ‘You are now the puppeteer.’ … I had planned on just moving things and watching the show from backstage so I ended up having a very physically demanding role, but it was a ton of fun.” When he auditioned for Babes, he earned the lead role. “I’m actually terribly shy and doing theater—it is like your prescribed friends,” he says. “It takes a lot of the work and anxiety out of meeting people. I could not walk up to someone on the street and say, ‘Hello.’ That is absolutely terrifying, but doing theater you are in the same room with 20 or 30 other people for six or seven weeks and so you make some really great friendships.”
William Shakespeare’s Jacques mused in As You Like It that, “All the world’s a stage,” but with multiple theater companies and the ability to draw talent from Washington, D.C. , and Baltimore, among other areas, Frederick makes a strong case for being a must go-to spot for quality theater performances with versatile talent. “I think Frederick is becoming the destination in Maryland for” shows, says Peter Jackson, president of Fredericktowne Players. “Almost any weekend, one of the theaters is going to have something going on. We get patrons and actors as far out as Baltimore and sometimes down in Virginia and I think other theaters have probably experienced the same. … It’s not Broadway but sometimes it’s pretty darn close to something you could see on Broadway and at a fraction of the price and a lot less travel.”
When it comes to deciding what shows to produce each season, Way Off Broadway Dinner Theatre and Children’s Theatre’s executive producer and chief executive officer Bill Kiska says he looks at what his audience likes and considers plays and musicals for a wide age range. “We go by what our audience wants,” he says. “We really do. There are a lot of places that say, ‘Well, I like the show, so I’m going to do it.’ We are a business. We are doing it for entertainment. I like the people to leave here entertained. … [I love it] when someone comes and forgets everything that is going on in the world for awhile and not think about the bad things that are going on. I want them to come here and lose themselves for a few hours.”
Kiska is excited about this season’s lineup that includes Happy Days—The Musical, Pirates of Penzance and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “Not many theaters do [Chitty Chitty Bang Bang] simply because you are supposed to fly the car,” he says. “… I’m one that, when someone says to me, ‘Oh, you can’t do that on that stage,’ to me that’s like, ‘Oh, no. Don’t ever tell me that. That’s a challenge.’” He notes Way Off Broadway’s production will make the car appear to fly.
His theater adds the home-style buffet lunch/dinner component into its shows, with the actors serving as the wait staff. “The audience gets to know the actors beforehand and at intermission. It’s a whole different experience than just going to the theater, because you are meeting these guys,” Kiska says. At intermission, the actors remain in costume and stay in character. “It’s like you are immersed in it more when you go to dinner theater,” he says. “It’s a whole different experience.”
Community theater groups like Fredericktown Players, Other Voices Theatre and the Maryland Ensemble Theatre (MET) have their artistic directors and committee members search for shows including musicals, dramas and comedies. Pieces are read, discussed and narrowed down. Once selections are made, rights to each show must be purchased and the lineups of other theaters need to be checked to make sure they aren’t doing the same or similar shows. “We try to do a really diverse season,” says Susan Thornton, Other Voices’ director. “We do four main stage productions a year, so we want to try to appeal to all kinds of different age ranges not only in the audience but also in the actors we involve.” The upcoming season at Other Voices includes La Cage Aux Folles, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Secret Garden.
Christine Mosere, MET managing director, says her theater’s season aims to give thought-provoking performance to their audience. “Our patrons in Frederick, we want them to be able to get almost like a New York experience without having to go to New York, so a lot of times we will look at what is going on there off [and on] Broadway.” This season’s schedule includes Peter and the Star Catcher, Top Girls, and Family Holiday. “It is very important to us to nurture local talent and local writers, so we really try to find workshop plays and see what we can bring to our main stage after we have workshopped them” as a part of the METLab series, Mosere says.
Besides performances, the MET sponsors a 12-week in-school performance program at Lincoln and Hillcrest elementary schools. Meeting after school two to three times a week, children get to explore the live theater process, including auditioning, learning lines, getting costumes, rehearsal and putting on a show for their peers and the community. Also, the MET’s Ensemble School features a variety of classes for adults, teens and youth to learn about acting and improvisation.
In September, local theater companies, along with artists and musicians, found a new temporary outdoor performance venue when Sky Stage on South Carroll Street opened. The temporary interactive art space dates back to pre-revolutionary days. It was ravaged by an accidental fire in July 2010 when it was home to the General Engineering Co. and was hidden behind plywood until artist Heather Clark had the idea for the space’s next act.
“We are here to help make emerging arts ideas possible and help make them happen,” says Louise Kennelly, executive director of the Frederick Arts Council, which oversees the facility. Kennelly says some theater companies have expressed interest in performances at the site, most likely to begin in the spring. Sky Stage is “creating a new place for people to meet and experience the arts,” she says. The aim is to keep events free of charge or with a nominal fee. “We want as many people as possible through there.”
When deciding how much instrumentation Fredericktowne Players would feature for Babes in Arms, the production’s musical director Pete Meyers says they could have just had someone playing a piano or have a full orchestra. “We did our best to make sure that this music was true to the original score,” he says. “It calls for about 15 to 17 instruments and voices and we have a 10-person band that covers both violin and woodwinds and brass,” resulting in a very full sound.
While the cast auditions for roles, the orchestra comes together through volunteers that have time, talent and commitment. “A lot of times the instrumentalists are doing it just for the sheer love of doing it,” Meyers says. “There is something exciting and fun about being in the orchestra pit of a show. … Every single instrument is a solo the entire time. You are the only one playing that one part. The difficulty or the challenge or the fun of it is you have to play it exceptionally well. You have to do it exactly when asked to and it has to be at a balance of timing and not being too loud or too soft. It is a very small, perfect window and you have to get it right and you have to do it with everyone else. It’s more exciting and more fun to be able to build this as a part of a team instead of just giving a concert.”
Meyers, a Lake Linganore resident, says many people have to come together to put on a community theater show. “What’s interesting about theater, especially music theater, is that it really is a central forum for the creative arts,” he says. “It is a way of unifying the community. You can’t have a show without having people come see it and when people come see it, it creates an opportunity to come together. It’s a little bit more than hanging out at a corner bar or doing something else. You are creating an event that becomes a unifying [gathering] that everyone experiences. It’s not just an event where you listen to something, it’s an emotional engagement, too.”
Kiska says Frederick’s vibrant theater community brings in crowds and performers from all over the region. “There is so much talent in Frederick it is unbelievable,” he says. “When I moved down here 30 years ago from Pennsylvania, I was amazed at what takes place in Frederick with talent. Just the high schools alone, the shows that they do are spectacular for a high school and then we have so many different options for theater with the MET, [Fredericktowne Players] and shows coming into the Weinberg [Center for the Arts].”
Kennelly believes theater helps to bring communities together. “You can introduce neighbor to neighbor that might not otherwise get together,” she says. “They might not be sitting next to each other but the arts brings them out of their home and off social media and into the public sphere and you are experiencing something together.” The stage is also a vehicle for economic development because people who come to Frederick for entertainment will most likely eat at a local restaurant, buy from local shops or even stay in a hotel.
Thornton cites the importance of a dynamic arts community as a way to teach theater appreciation to children. Each year, Other Voices tours Frederick area primary and elementary schools and daycare centers, performing 30-minute shows adapted and directed by Thornton and featuring original music by local voice teacher Cathie Porter-Borden. Some of the performances include Tales from Beatrix Potter and Leo Lionni’s Frederick. “As [the children] grow up, they will be audiences as teenagers and adults and it might spark an interest in them to go into acting or maybe even costume design or something like that,” she says. “For children, they are going to be our future audiences and cast members so we want to make sure they get a chance to enjoy live theater while they are young.”