Round House Theatre's Jerry Whiddon plans to step down as producing artistic director by next June, the close of his 20th season at the company's helm.
He informed the theater's board of trustees of his decision last week. Board President Donald H. Boardman says it will soon hire a firm to conduct a national search for a replacement. "We hope and expect that he'll still have an ongoing relationship with us in terms of acting and directing," he says.
Whiddon, 56, says he plans to continue working in theater but will also help his wife, Jean, build her marketing firm. "I guess it's organically grown over the last five years," he says of his decision to step down.
He waited until the troupe's expansion plans, including a 400-seat venue in Bethesda and smaller "black box" space in downtown Silver Spring, were realized. Round House also reached its $6.6 million capital campaign goal May 1, Boardman says.
"It's a time of change," Whiddon says, and new artistic leadership will be good for the theater. "I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't believe that this organization is in as strong a position . . . as it's ever been."
Boardman says Whiddon's replacement may be someone who remains behind the scenes producing and directing, or someone who, like Whiddon, is best known to subscribers for his performances. "It's too easy to say we want to clone Jerry, and that's just not going to happen," he says. "We're still in transition, we're still growing into our spaces."
Whiddon first became associated with Round House's precursor, Street 70, in 1970, when it was a little street theater program begun by the Rockville city government. The Montgomery County recreation department took it over in 1973; it morphed into Round House Theatre in 1978 at the department's Wheaton headquarters. Whiddon decamped to New York, though he acted at Round House. He returned to become artistic director in 1985.
Highlights of his years at Round House, Whiddon says, include directing "Our Town" with Pat Carroll and "Three Days of Rain," appearing in "An Almost Holy Picture" and "The Weir" and, most recently, "jumping around showing my butt to the audience" in "Wintertime." "That was a passage for me," he jokes.
The company has won the Helen Hayes Award for outstanding resident play in three of the past four years (for "The Drawer Boy," "Home" and "The Glass Menagerie," co-produced with Everyman Theatre). The year it didn't win in that category, it took outstanding new play honors for "Shakespeare, Moses, and Joe Papp."
"Artistically, we are not just holding our own. I think we're growing," Whiddon says.
Jane Beard, a Round House company member who has acted with and been directed by Whiddon since 1987, praises his humility as an artist. "There are directors who think that their concept is the important part in the play," she says, "but he puts himself behind the work all the time . . . he respects the artist, but he also respects the play."
Acting with Whiddon is "like flying," Beard says. "There are some actors who are fun to watch because they're flashy, but they don't care too much who's onstage with them. But with Jerry it really matters who's doing the work with him . . . he wants you to play with him."
Whiddon's philosophy about "the importance of the artist in the community" has been central to Beard's life in the theater as well.
"When I was younger, it sounded to me like, oh yeah, yeah. Now I have kids and dogs and PTA meetings and I'm an actor and I do live in the community. . . . I hear from people that this play made a difference, or that play made a difference," she says. "You feel the impact of the work. . . . It matters that I'm part of the community and I would not have had that but for him."
A Mexican 'Odyssey'
Once again, playwright Mary Hall Surface and composer David Maddox are mining their favorite myths and wonder tales and transforming them into musical theater for family audiences. Their latest effort, "The Odyssey of Telemaca," will be presented by Theater of the First Amendment on Friday through Sunday at George Mason University's Center for the Arts Concert Hall.
Surface and Maddox base their new work on the story of Odysseus's son Telemachus, who stays home while his father goes off to Troy and tries to defend his mother against unwanted suitors. The musical, Surface says, addresses the question of "what would it be like to be the child of a hero who is left behind by that hero, and the expectations that you would put on yourself to fill the hero's shoes."
But their Telemaca is a Mexican peasant girl in the late 19th century, in the days of Zapata. Her father is a heroic campesino who fights to keep the local landowner from gobbling up the peasants' land. Telemaca's world is full of magic -- the coyote trickster who turns men into piglike creatures, and a child-stealing spirit. Actors embody these in whimsical costumes and by operating huge puppets.
Maddox, who plays guitar and conducts the show's small orchestra, says his music is "Mexican-ish," using many waltz and two-step rhythms. "I think 'Telemaca' has some of David's most beautiful songs," says Surface, who has collaborated with him on "Sing Down the Moon," "Perseus Bayou" and "Mississippi Pinocchio."
"All of our plays have been rooted in actual journeys of an individual trying to figure out who they are and 'how do I fit into the world,' " Surface says. Maddox adds, "A fairy tale character is on a personal journey only," but in "Telemaca," the hero has to "come back and do something for the society at large."
* The Shakespeare Theatre wants everyone to know that the cicadas have been pretty quiet around the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, where the company is presenting free performances of "Much Ado About Nothing" through June 6. The actors are miked, too. Call 202-334-5790 or visit www.shakespearedc.org.
* Theater J is holding a benefit on Monday titled "American Jewish Idol," with judges including actor Greg Germann ("Ally McBeal") and WTOP's Mark Plotkin. Nick Olcott wrote and directed the show. Tickets start at $100. Call 202-777-3229.