A veteran of the Off-Broadway scene in New York City, Jeff Keilholtz knew the grind of traveling back and forth from Frederick for work.
It’s what inspired him to launch Phenomenology — what he describes as an “innovative production model” — in 2018.
The purpose of the program, Keilholtz said, is to connect high-potential artists around Frederick to new performing arts opportunities and industry contacts. In January, he announced the MANHATTANonPATRICK project, a production that would bring in talent from New York City and create jobs for local performers. And today, Keilholtz officially confirmed the details of the project, which will debut this September at the Weinberg Center for the Arts.
The inaugural performance will be a staged reading of the play “Second Derivative,” written by Keilholtz and workshopped with The Actors Company Theatre in New York City and the Oscar-winning screenwriter Alexander Dinelaris. The play, Keilholtz said, is a crime drama set in Baltimore on the eve of an election for Maryland’s attorney general. The leading candidate pulled ahead after surviving an assassination attempt, but the majority of the plot revolves around a skilled campaign attorney who finds herself questioned by a skeptical police detective over the events of that day.
“She ends up, over the course of the play, kind of fighting for her own life,” said Keilholtz, who worked on the script for years before deciding to debut the show in Frederick.
He’s taking one of the roles along with Bru Ajueyitsi and Amanda Shafer, two regional actors with credits in Maryland and Washington D.C. But the title role — the seasoned campaign attorney — will go to Jamie-Lynn Sigler, a Broadway actress best known for her roles on the HBO series “Entourage” and “The Sopranos.” To direct the project, Keilholtz is bringing in Ashlie Atkinson, another Off Broadway veteran who recently starred as Connie Kendrickson in Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning film “BlacKkKlansman.”
“Basically, we’re trying to go out of our way to create an elevated platform for high-potential artists in the area,” Keilholtz said. “Which is why it helps to bring in people like Jamie-Lynn and Ashlie. We’re a theater company working at a local level, but if you want something bigger, you have to find that second layer of access.”
Atkinson can remember reading for the script at an earlier workshop two years ago. She decided that she wouldn’t be a good fit for the main character, but the complexity of the project — and what she described as an “airtight foundation” — interested her in the prospect of directing.
Like Keilholtz, she didn’t want to spoil too many details of the play. But what made the work enticing, she said, was the tension between four characters who spend most of the play in the same room. With limited staging and a selective cast, the production manages to comment on large social issues confronting communities across America.
“I think there are a lot of tensions between haves and have-nots,” Atkinson said. “ Tensions between who do our politicians protect and who do they exploit, who do our police protect, who do they exploit. And what I loved most about the play was that the bones are so good. Any way that an actor could choose to wield their power — whether to manipulate other characters or be manipulated by other characters — is really up to the actor. So, to imagine what the cast will do with it — it’s really exciting.”
“Second Derivative” will only run for one night, but Keilholtz eventually hopes to make MANHATTANonPATRICK a biannual program with several different shows for emerging works. His long-term goal is to create a kind of performing arts “corridor” between Frederick and New York City, trading talent back and forth for projects in both locations. Keilholtz wants Frederick to be an incubator for all sorts of productions — not just theater, but dance, music and even comedy.
“We’re not even limiting ourselves to onstage talent,” he added. “There are local technicians we’ve been working with. Right now, I’m working with a super-talented set designer. The purpose of Phenomenology is to raise the quality of life for everyone.”
He’s also working to make the Frederick performances as high-profile as possible. “Second Derivative” will be staged at the Weinberg, better known for big-name acts like Bob Woodward and Louie Anderson. It’s an unusual venture for the Frederick landmark, said executive theater manager John Healey — which is what makes it so exciting.
“This is new and different for us,” he said. “That’s the intriguing thing.”
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters.