The Devil was in the backseat of my car the other day.
I didn't know it was the Devil at the time, because he didn't come so obviously equipped with horns, a red suit and a pointy tail, but it turned out to be him and to be honest, once I realized it, it was pretty darned delightful.
Without giving too much away, the Devil is Gerardo Rodriguez, one of nearly 20 repertory actors and actresses, part of a full company (cast and crew) or more than 100, spending two months in Shepherdstown to produce the 23rd season of the Contemporary American Theater Festival.
I met "Gerry" because he was one of seven CATF cast members we picked up at the BWI train station, about a month ago, arriving from New York City; all independent, none knowing each other that day, but all established members of the theater community who would soon become a tight circle of performers, all focused on mounting five extraordinary plays in five weeks during the month of July.
About the only thing they all had in common that day was that they all knew Ed Herendeen , artistic director for CATF, who hand-picks each play's cast members -- which is a bit unusual, it turns out -- but which is another piece that sets CATF apart as a highly valued gig, especially for Actors Equity actors that, the play selection, the facilities, the playwrights, the passion and the competitive pay scale.
None in my car knew anything about Shepherdstown. They were content to sit back, chit-chat and enjoy the view past Frederick, Md.; the beauty, the traffic squeeze, and slowdown through Harpers Ferry, and the lovely rolling hills leading to Shepherdstown.
We over-shot She-Town that day to introduce our guests to the ultimate ice cream experience at Nutters in Sharpsburg, which, as you might expect, will blow away any hardened Manhattenite. All three in my car - Gerry, Kohler McKenzie and Becky Byers got the full description of restaurant options, the remarkably diverse music scene, the staggering number of coffee shops, massage therapists and yoga studios for a town this size, and strong encouragement to explore more rather than less during their stay, given the chance. They were impressed.
CATF is not summer stock. It's not a couple months off to enjoy, kick back and relax with budding theater buddies wanting to put a concentrated theater experience on a resume. This is the real deal, folks. CATF is highly competitive, recognized for exceptional quality, for its refined and educated audiences and is extremely well-regarded within the theater community. It's also a very respectable paycheck for Equity actors.
It is indeed the Big Leagues the Show, as they say which, in this instance has obvious double meaning. Gerry, Becky and Kohler all agreed that being cast at CATF is a plum piece of their evolving careers and a chance to work together with some of the best in the business.
That was obvious when the Devil showed up the next day.
It was my pleasure to sit in on several of the first-day's read-through rehearsals, including A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World, a world premiere for CATF (and the play both Gerry and Becky are in).
Everything changes when even the most introverted actor or actress comes alive on stage. Becky, who seemed almost painfully shy on the car ride to Shepherdstown, emerged in full-blown character with a piercing scream and witchy blather during the read-through of Discourse. For Gerry, it was the chillingly menacing hisssss, when he identified himself as the Devil Himself late in the first act. Everyone watching in the rehearsal hall that day saw the difference between minor league and major league theater. It's like the clear difference in the "pop" of a Major League fastball. Character development takes time and effort, but even that early in the process, these actors and actresses had come prepared; several working on nuances and some even comfortable already with their lines.
Rodriguez comes to CATF by way of the University of Texas, then Boise, Idaho where he says he got "cultured" and earned his MFA at American Repertory Theater/Moscow Art Theater School Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University and most recently has spent 12 years in the theater scene in New York City. TV credits include Law and order, One Life to Live and Jonny Zero.
CATF reminds Rodriguez of Humana Festival in Louisville, with full stage plays, but he loves the pace of CATF, the setting and the welcoming nature of Shepherd University and Shepherdstown.
McKenzie, originally from Burlington, Vt., studied theater close-by at St. Mary's in Maryland. He chose an acting career over law or politics, oddly enough, perhaps, in order to "make a difference". He's especially taken with how theater can impact people and was influenced to enter the business by several of his political science professors. He says he's been in the business and "good at it" for a long time, but acting professionally since 2006.
"There's something about regional theater that I love even more than New York theater there's always a very supportive audience; you get to go to places you've never been before and see people you've never seen, which support you plus, my understanding of here is that it's a real educated audience," he said.
McKenzie's observation is just a piece of what makes all of this so exciting, speaking as one who has only heard the stories, seen snippets and will experience CATF for the first time in July. How amazing that Shepherd University and Shepherdstown have contributed to create and sustain such a remarkable, world class centerpiece for the community. What other community of this size has something this significant and widely recognized at its core?
Can't think of a one.
I'll see you and the Devil at CATF in July.