When there’s a need, there’s often a response. That was the case when a group of individuals in the Germantown area realized that locals were lacking a theater company that would stage dramatic productions.
In 2010, they founded a theater, and called it UpCounty. “The one nearby community theater, Damascus Theater Company, produces musicals, and there are no community or professional theaters in Germantown itself,” said Jeffrey Smith, a founding member of UpCounty who serves as its treasurer. “Our mission is to provide opportunities for the community of Germantown and the surrounding areas to participate in the transformative power of live theater.”
Germantown’s Seneca Valley High School (SVHS), which does put on theatrical productions, gave UpCounty a little help and encouragement. The theater continues to have a “close working relationship” with SVHS Director Joanna Chilcoat, Smith said. They promote each other’s shows and share props and set pieces as well as set construction expertise. Many Seneca Valley students have acted in UpCounty plays, or been part of the backstage crew–stage managing and running sound and lights.
UpCounty’s first production, which took place a year after its founding (January 2011), was A. R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room,” a comedy of manners. Among their productions during the past seven years have been Gurney’s drama “Love Letters” (August 2014), John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “Doubt: A Parable” (2011) and David Rogers’ tragic drama, “Flowers for Algernon” (August 2014).
John Cariani’s “Love/Sick,” the current production, is a collection of nine vignettes that the script cover describes as both “slightly twisted” and “completely hilarious.” “It’s a darker cousin to Cariani’s other (maybe better-known) play, “Almost Maine,” said Michael Abendshein, who is co-directing the production with James Geraden Ward. “But within the play, some vignettes are darker than others, and some are lighter.”
All are set in what is described in an “alternate suburban universe” and concern “the ups and downs of romance, about how things can be going great, and in an instant, turn sour,” Abendshein added.
Cariani benefited, as it were, from a limitation that often afflicts theaters, community and otherwise. Originally, UpCounty was planning to present Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” but an area Equity theater already had the rights. The board and co-directors decided “Love/Sick” would make a “great” substitute, said Smith.
Typically, the group presents two shows a year, one in summer, the other, in winter. They are small dramatic productions of straight (non-musical) plays. Board members solicit proposals from local directors, or select a script themselves and proceed to find a director. “The board reviews a script and then votes on it–using our mission statement as a guiding principle,” said Smith.
One appeal for actors and tech people involved in UpCounty is the familial atmosphere. SVHS alumnus Geraden Ward became acquainted with the theater when a friend invited him to audition for the show, Geoffrey Nauffts’ “Next Fall” (August 2015). “I really enjoy a theater that fosters an environment where actors can enjoy themselves,” Ward said. “The board doesn’t put pressure. A lot of us have other jobs. The board knows we’re here to have a good time, so [they allow us to] have fun.”
Abendshein agreed: “UpCounty is a very good community of actors and artists. It feels smaller than other community theaters. It’s a close-knit group.”
The comfortable atmosphere is enhanced by fact that many of company members knew each other prior to participating. But co-directors Ward and Abendshein did not, and are “getting to know each other through the process,” Ward said.
Ward’s comfort level with UpCounty is so great that he was willing to go backwards, in a sense, as he had fully directed or music-directed shows in high school and college. “Co-directing makes me learn to trust and let go, without constantly needing to micromanage,” Ward said. “It’s great to have a give-and-take. I learn from the actors as they learn from me.”
When the co-directors started working on the show, each had specific vignettes in mind he wanted to stage. “So, we divided them up that way,” Abendshein said. “I decided to direct five of them, and Geraden took the other four.”
For Abendshein, their co-directing finds them “pretty much on the same page. We watch each other’s vignettes and make suggestions to make things better. We work together.”
UpCounty has an active board, some of whose members act or serve the theater in other ways. Joni Donlon joined the board right after the theater’s first production. “It was a wonderful coincidence that I was looking to get back to the theater at the same time UpCounty was putting together its inaugural show,” Donlon said. As an actor in “Love/Sick,” she noted that her scene reflects “a story that any couple with children has probably experienced at one time or another.”
Kelly Peters, who is new to the board, serves as its secretary and has a role in “Love/Sick.” “My first production as an actor was in ‘Almost, Maine’ in 2014,” she said. “I’ve also been involved in set design, lighting and sound.”
Peters is enthusiastic about “Love/Sick.” “I love the arc of this play, where each situation leads into the final scene, tying the entire show together,” she said. “As we get closer to show time, the cast comes together and finally gets to see some of the scenes we hadn’t seen yet. We really feed off that energy.”
BlackRock Center for the Arts is UpCounty’s current venue for its productions. While the arts center may not be the group’s forever home, for now, “we have a very good relationship,” Smith said. Even if the theater company moves on, the company is committed to staying true to its Germantown roots.
UpCounty’s “Love/Sick” is onstage from Aug. 18 to 26 at BlackRock Center for the Arts,12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. Shows start at 8 p.m. Fridays, Aug. 18 and 25, and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, Aug. 19 and 26. For tickets, $18, call 301-582-2260 or visit www.upcountytheatre.org.