Expanding the theater scene in a smaller Maryland city
FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — Christine Mosere moved to Frederick two and a half years ago and quickly “fell in love” with the city, she said. A one-time Seattle resident, she was already planning a move back east to resettle closer to family in Towson. Originally, she imagined she’d end up back in New York City, where she first started her career in theatre.
When a job opened up at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in downtown Frederick, she took it almost on a whim. But it didn’t take long for her to adjust to life in a smaller city.
“This is just a really wonderful place,” Mosere said. “It’s small, yet big enough. And it really values the arts. I just thought, ‘This is a good fit for me.’”
One of the first things she noticed about Frederick, as the managing director for the MET, was the community’s growing population of retired residents. She also started to miss the creative freedom of producing her own shows. That initial observation, coupled with her professional ambitions, coalesced into a vision for her own local theater project. She wanted a company that would cater to the city’s older residents and bring actors of all ages together. She wanted to stage productions that were difficult to find not just locally, but around the region. She wanted to bring something new and different to Frederick.
Her solution was the Endangered Species Theatre Project, inspired by a similarly named program in Seattle (the original troupe has since relocated, and Mosere asked permission to use the name in Frederick, she said).
On one level, the label speaks to the type of performances Mosere wants to produce. Namely, forgotten plays, little-known plays, and works by playwrights whose oeuvres have largely disappeared to history. But she also wants to represent the other “endangered species” of theater: minorities and women — particularly women over 40, whose opportunities tend to disappear midway through their careers. A recent study by the Actors’ Equity Association found that white actors still receive the majority of roles across the U.S. and command higher salaries than actors of color. In regional theater, men still receive 61 percent of the contracts for principal roles, compared with the 39 percent awarded to women.
Anecdotally, Mosere knows that the roles available to older women are often smaller and less developed — and that’s when they even exist at all.
“I think there was a time when women of all ages were written three-dimensionally, but that’s harder to find in contemporary theater,” she said. “But you’ve always had your Hamlets or your Macbeths — men who get to be seen as human despite all their flaws.”
Mosere doesn’t pretend to be the “savior” of diversity in theater, she said. But she left her full-time job at the MET last spring to focus on building the project and bringing new productions to the city. She’s not alone in her ambitions. Over the past two years, a total of four new theater companies have launched in Frederick, including two whose inaugural productions will debut later this year.
There’s the Endangered Species Project, of course, and Free Range Humans, a production company focused on musical theater. More recently, Frederick natives Jacob Young and Zachary Harris — newly graduated from college — started Boundless Theatre, another company focused on musicals and contemporary plays.
Then there’s Phenomenology, which founder and CEO Jeff Keilholtz described as an “innovative production model.” The company plans to co-produce a variety of performing arts projects — particularly in theater and film — in both Frederick and New York City. The goal, Keilholtz said, is to bring productions from New York to Frederick and vice versa, creating new opportunities for artists in both cities. His second objective is to help local artists gain exposure and make connections within the New York theater scene.
That could mean paying for headshots, defraying transportation costs, or simply introducing aspiring artists to larger industry names. But the overarching purpose is to help local creatives find success.
“Look, I lived in New York for a decade and I’m back and forth there all the time,” said Keilholtz, who worked with two Off-Broadway companies and played a small role on season 6 of “The Sopranos.” ″I want to be the guy I needed when I started out.”
Creating new opportunities for local artists is also key to building a more vibrant theater scene, Keilholtz said. Elizabeth Lucas, the founder of Free Range Humans, was inspired to start the group by her own frustration over the lack of local productions catered specifically to adults. While community theater groups such as Other Voices or The Fredericktowne Players serve an important role, she said, they’re geared more towards community engagement and family-friendly performances than adults looking for a fun night out.
For Young and Harris, who got their start in theater through school productions and local community troupes, there’s also a notable lack of young, 20-something voices in the Frederick scene. They hope that Boundless — a company staffed almost exclusively by recent college graduates — will offer a fresh perspective and unique interpretation of theatrical works. For the company’s inaugural performance in March, Young and Harris selected “Spring Awakening,” a rock musical with a strong emphasis on teenage sexuality. They also plan to break boundaries in casting, emphasizing diversity and avoiding typecasting.
“I’m biracial, and that’s something I’d love to see more of,” Harris said. “A combination of seeing more black casts and stretching the diversity in casting. Just because a character has historically been played one way doesn’t mean it always has to be like that.”
Mosere and Keilholtz are also working on upcoming performances. Phenomenology has tentative plans to stage an inaugural play at the Weinberg Center later this year — part of a program the company is calling MANHATTANonPATRICK. Over the past two years, Mosere has produced several staged readings through the Endangered Species Project, including Dorothy Parker’s “The Ladies of the Corridor” — a black satire featuring a full cast of women over the age of 50 — and “Diana of Dobson’s,” another female-centered show written by the largely forgotten playwright Cicely Hamilton. But the company is launching its first full production on Feb. 15 — a take on Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” set in the late 1920s.
Shakespeare certainly isn’t a forgotten playwright, as Mosere pointed out, but he is a much-missed presence in Frederick, which hosted a Shakespeare theater festival until 2015. Mosere is currently working with Hood professor Aaron Angello to bring back the festival — or at least a few performances — this summer. All four new companies are also working together to succeed without competing. Sometimes that’s as simple as comparing schedules to make sure two openings aren’t slated for the same weekend, Mosere said. It can also mean sharing the best ways to stage performances in Frederick.
“Space has been an issue,” she said.
Both Mosere and Lucas have been creative in staging for some of their past shows, borrowing space from local churches and — in Lucas’ case — McClintock Distilling in downtown Frederick. The lack of available performance space was partly alleviated by the opening of New Spire Stages in mid-January, but there are some concerns that the black box theater won’t always stay affordable for local companies.
“I think they are committed to the Frederick groups, but there’s always that worry,” Mosere said. “Before New Spire, there was really no space. Or at least, none you could rent affordably.”
It’s no surprise, she added, that the rise in local companies coincided with the construction of the new theater. But it’s also a testament to what Mosere described as a growing hunger for high-quality performance art within the Frederick community.
“I really feel that people here love the arts,” she said. “And they don’t always want to drive down to D.C. or Baltimore. So why become another D.C. or Baltimore company? We’re trying to create a scene where artists can live and work within their own community.”
Information from: The Frederick (Md.) News-Post, http://www.fredericknewspost.com