Ask Rachel Stroud-Goodrich and Chris Goodrich how long they’ve been running Unexpected Stage, and the response is, “How old is Maisie?” Maisie is their oldest daughter. This year, the answer is 10.
Born when Maisie was an infant, Unexpected Stage celebrates 10 shortly after Maisie does.
“When she was a baby, the girl never slept,” recalled Stroud-Goodrich, who primarily serves as the small theater company’s producer/fundraiser/marketing guru, when she’s not tracking commodities and writing economic forecasts for a business publisher at her day job. “So we ended up driving around, a lot. One day we were driving around in Seneca Creek State Park to get a nice change of scenery and get the baby, hopefully, go to sleep. We passed by this hidden little stage way back in the woods.”
Goodrich picked up the story from there. “It was so intriguing to us … this little theater in the woods,” he said. Intriguing enough that they decided to put on a show. Both have theater backgrounds as working actors, and Goodrich also directs. “We did our very first season right there in Seneca Creek State Park,” Goodrich said, in that clearing in the woods. “That was the impetus to start a theater.”
A decade – and two more daughters – later, Unexpected Stage celebrates its 10th anniversary. And while the Gaithersburg-based couple no longer uses the park – too much unpredictability with the weather – the company has never settled on a single performance space. Over the years, Unexpected Stage has performed in the original Round House Theatre building in Wheaton, at an art gallery in Rockville, a church in Bethesda and at the Kennedy Center’s annual Page To Stage new play series, to name a few of the unexpected spots the company might turn up.
This month, to kick off 10, Unexpected Stage brings MacArthur Foundation “genius” grantee Samuel D. Hunter’s gentle, off-the-beaten-highway drama “The Few” to an intimate 38-seat space called the Fireside Room in the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda.
Set in 1999 amid the anxiety that gripped the nation with the turn of the millennium, “The Few” focuses on Bryan, an outsider, who founded a newspaper for truckers. Back in his small Idaho hometown after spending time away, Bryan struggles with changes his friends have made to his newspaper, which is now filled with personal ads from lovelorn truckers rather than news they could use.
One throwback in the play is a good old-fashioned answering machine, where respondents to the dating ads call in to voice mailboxes. The behind-the-scenes actors providing the voices represent an eclectic swath of the local theater community, including award-winning playwright Audrey Cefaly, former CBS Saturday morning weather reporter Ira Joe Fisher and conservatory director of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting Michael Grenham, among others. Former Broadway actor/tap dancer Baakari Wilder plays Bryan, the newspaper founder who is put-out and out-of-sorts by the shift in the industry and the changes his friends made to his paper.
Although set two decades ago under the doomsday predictions of Y2K when cellphones weren’t ubiquitous, the idea of starting a newspaper was still viable, and lonely singles placed ads in newspapers to find love rather than swiping right, both Goodrich and Stroud-Goodrich find much that remains relevant in 2019. Stroud-Goodrich points to the elevated anxiety levels plaguing the populace then and today. “I feel that way every day with the current administration,” Goodrich opined. “So yeah, the anxiety of that time feels similar.”
The play wrestles with characters’ feelings of being connected or disengaged. “It’s really about how you have an ideal of how something is supposed to go, and it doesn’t necessarily work out. Where do you go from there?” Goodrich said. “Though I haven’t started a newsletter for truckers, I can absolutely relate to the idea that if I had this vision and then life turned out differently, now what?” Kind of like starting a theater from scratch, with an infant daughter and no particular place for the company to set down roots.
Part of Unexpected Stage’s mission – aside from being variously itinerant in bringing intimate theater to Montgomery County audiences — Goodrich said, “is to give voice to the voiceless. We like to explore plays that go into the nooks and crannies of humanity. For this play, for example, we’re exploring the culture of truckers, which I have never stepped foot inside.” As the director, he calls it a “real education.” Trucking, is admittedly, far outside his realm of experience – by day, he teaches 11th grade English at Sherwood High School. “We like to explore facets of humanity that we know nothing about,” he said. “And, hopefully, expose that to a larger audience.”
“The Few,” by Samuel D. Hunter, presented by Unexpected Stage Company, is on stage through Aug. 4 in the Fireside Room of the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 6301 River Road, Bethesda. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, $10 to $29.50, call 800-838-3006 or visit www.unexpectedstage.org; for information, call 301-337-8290.