When your role goes beyond the stage

For area’s actors, spare time means overtime

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Playing the part of a white supremacist on death row, Darius Suziedelis (left) performs a scene from the play ‘‘Coyote on a Fence” with Silver Spring resident Andy Greenleaf, who plays the part of a liberal political activist on death row. The play will be shown through April 30 at Silver Spring Stage in the Woodmoor Shopping Center.

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Silver Spring resident Don Slater adjusts a stage light before a recent rehearsal of the play.

By the time the audience gets settled in their seats Friday night, Andy Greenleaf, lead actor in Silver Spring Stage’s production of ‘‘Coyote on a Fence,” will have spent months researching and rehearsing his part.

It’s a challenging role, one that forces him and the audience into a look at a death row inmate and ‘‘the death penalty, racism and the workings of the criminal justice system,” according to the theater’s Web site.

The role, that of a liberal political activist on death row named John Brennan, required hours of research for both the character and the issue of capital punishment. But Greenleaf had more to do.

As the theater’s master carpenter, the Silver Spring resident has also spent hours designing and building the set.

Add to that a 40-hour week as a project manager with Northrop Grumman, ‘‘and it’s like working two jobs,” Greenleaf said.

The schedule may be exhausting, but the actors, directors, designers and engineers of Silver Spring Stage find the time to pursue their passion for community theater.

‘‘I guess passion is the right word,” Greenleaf said. ‘‘I start talking about it and it’s exciting and I want to share it with people. Acting on stage is a way of doing that, communicating with audiences.”

For the past 37 years, Silver Spring Stage, located in the Woodmoor Shopping Center in Four Corners, has drawn audiences with its mix of edgy and entertaining plays. It has also attracted a wealth of thespians — like Greenleaf and Silver Spring residents Brendan Murray and Don Slater — who come to polish their craft and get their creative ya-yas out.

No more fear

Acting was something Greenleaf always wanted to do, but it took an old girlfriend to get him into it — and encouragement had nothing to do with it.

‘‘I was working two jobs, 80 hours a week and basically burnt myself out of a job and relationship. I decided at that point that I needed to do something — work a little less, do something more fulfilling,” he said.

When he saw a flyer advertising acting lessons at Round House Theatre, he thought he’d give it a shot.

‘‘At the time, I told my girlfriend what I wanted to do and she said, ‘That’s stupid. What, do you think you’re going to be the next Robert De Niro or something?’ I said, ‘No, and if you don’t think I can do it, I’ll definitely do it,’” Greenleaf said.

So, he took classes at Round House with 15 others. ‘‘One of the guys in my class was fearless. ... He wasn’t great, but fearless,” Greenleaf said. ‘‘We took classes at Round House together, and I caught the fearlessness from him.”

Or at least he thought he was fearless. Not long after, Greenleaf, who lives near the Woodmoor center, decided to audition for a play at Silver Spring Stage.

‘‘I spent 15 minutes in the car saying, ‘I’m going to go in, I’m going to go in,’” he said. ‘‘For me, it was very hard even to make an entrance in the theater. I didn’t know what to expect.”

Once he got inside, ‘‘everyone was so friendly but I was so nervous I didn’t notice.” All he did was sit in his seat, hands shaking, as he waited.

‘‘I was so nervous I got my jacket and went to the door,” he said. ‘‘But as soon as I got there, they called my name.”

He read a monologue and eventually got a call back. Although he wasn’t needed for the play, ‘‘the excitement and the thrill of conquering a fear” was enough to try again.

‘‘It probably ignited an inner passion in me,” said Greenleaf, who only spent about five minutes in the car before his next audition for a role in ‘‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”

‘‘It’s all about acting, so I just act like I’ve done this before,” said Greenleaf, who eventually got the lead role. ‘‘It was nerve-wracking but a whole lot of fun. It’s so exciting to be so involved in a comedy and get to hear people react. ... I figured at that point I’m going to have to do this again.”

And he has, starring in several community theater and professional productions. As for the girlfriend, he never did see her again.

‘‘But the acting world has been good for me in terms of that,” he said. ‘‘Two falls ago, I was taking a class and met a woman who’s an actor. We hit it off and in January we got married. ... It all worked out for the best.”

Pursuing a passion

Acting has been a passion Four Corners resident Brendan Murray since childhood.

Theater was one of his minors at the University of Maryland, where he also took part in the improvisation troupe Erasable Inc., and he did community theater when he had a chance.

‘‘But I took a long break to get a master’s, get married and start a family,” said the 39-year-old. Then in 2002, he thought, ‘‘You know what, I miss this and when I get some spare time, I want to get back into it and be with people of a similar mind.”

With a young daughter, another on the way, and a full-time job as regional sales operations manager with Intelsat Global Sales Operations, he never did find the spare time, but he did find his way on stage.

‘‘We had just moved back to Silver Spring when my daughter was born ... and I remembered, ‘This is such a good, quality theater’ and it jogged my memory of how I enjoyed doing this,” Murray said. ‘‘All the shows there are really special, and they make a point of getting good scripts and good actors, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

So he auditioned for the Silver Spring Stage’s annual One-Act Festival, got a role and has been returning ever since.

In ‘‘Coyote on a Fence,” his second full-length role, Murray plays the part of Sam Fried, a journalist with the New York Times who read Brennan’s newsletter, Death Row Advocate, and has requested a series of interviews with the death row inmate. ‘‘He challenges Brennan’s insistence that capital punishment is murder,” according to the Silver Spring Stage Web site.

The role required a lot of critical thought, both in terms of who the character is and what themes the play is attempting to communicate. Getting those points across takes commitment and hard work. But when the play comes together, that commitment shows, Murray said.

‘‘I think there’s a true commitment to quality,” he said. ‘‘There’s such a strong feeling of commitment from multiple people. Everyone’s doing this on the side. They have day jobs, but you get the sense that this isn’t something they do half-baked — from the board of directors to the design and production staff to the director and actors.”

The commitment also comes from home.

‘‘It is tough. You definitely have to get buy-in from your family to let you do this a few nights a week and be unavailable on the weekends,” Murray said. ‘‘I have a very supportive wife. That helps a lot.”

A shine to the stage

In his day job, Don Slater is a contractor for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Satellite Operations in Suitland, ‘‘a pretty nifty job” that has him running the networks that are used to fly satellites.

‘‘It’s totally unlike theater,” said the 55-year-old lighting designer from Silver Spring.

Stage lighting, ‘‘a design endeavor that I understand and have a feel for,” helps him find a creative balance to his ‘‘very computer, tech-intensive” career, he said.

‘‘Theater is the other end of the spectrum,” he said. ‘‘It’s a big change of pace and, I don’t know, it’s just fun. ... It’s a different world than what I inhabit by day.”

But not a world in which he is unfamiliar.

Slater started his lighting career in 1965 at a high school outside of Philadelphia. He got more experience as a theater major at the University of Pittsburgh before working as an electrical gaffer at WQED, a public television station in Pittsburgh where he worked with a man who would later become an actor known as Michael Keaton.

While he enjoyed what he did, Slater thought it was time to get another degree and try another more lucrative career in ‘‘a real job.”

‘‘I never really did anything about [theater] until I was at a neighborhood arts committee meeting nine years ago and got talking to someone” who encouraged him, he said. ‘‘I hadn’t lit a show in 20 years. So I took out a subscription to trade rags to see what they were doing.”

He ended up lighting that show and ‘‘it came out pretty well, and people were happy with what we did,” he said. That drew interest from other people, and pretty soon he had offers and interest in doing other shows in the area.

Now he does six or seven shows a year, ‘‘which is enough to feed my habit” and keep in touch with the creative side of his brain.

‘‘It’s more abstract than set design. I can look at something and visualize how I want the thing done,” he said. ‘‘So I can sit in a rehearsal space with a mocked-up stage and see how it will be lit.”

But even with that special stage sense and decades of experience, Slater still finds challenges in community theater.

‘‘Have I solved all the problems? Absolutely not. Most shows bring a new set of challenges and this is a very interesting show,” he said. ‘‘It’s a creative artistic endeavor I really enjoy.”

If you go

‘‘Coyote on a Fence” will show at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and April 21, 22, 28 and 29, with 2 p.m. matinees April 23 and 30, at Silver Spring Stage in the Woodmoor Shopping Center, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring.

Tickets are available online atwww.boxofficetickets.com⁄ssstage or at the Silver Spring Stage box office, which opens an hour before show time. For more information, call the box office at 301-593-6036. For more information about Silver Spring Stage and its upcoming plays, visit www.ssstage.org.

About the play

Directed by Bridget Muehlberger and starring Andy Greenleaf, Darius Suziedelis, Audrey Cefaly and Brendan Murray, ‘‘Coyote on a Fence” is a drama that ‘‘confronts racism and justice when two death row inmates, liberal political activist John Brennan and white supremacist Bobby Alvin Reyburn, strike up an unusual friendship despite their conflicting views,” according to Silver Spring Stage’s Web site.