WILLIAMSVILLE—After proving what it was capable of with a series of outstanding productions of familiar American pieces of theater, a fledgling theatrical company in Williamsville is trying something new.
From Wednesday, Oct. 11, through Saturday, Oct. 14, at 7:30 p.m., in the Williamsville Hall on Dover Road in Williamsville, Vermont, The Rock River Players will present an original drama, I Used to Have a Cat, written and directed by award-winning filmmaker Robert Fritz.
I Used to Have a Cat features only two actors, Sara Vitale and Natalie Neilson, who play sisters with contrasting lifestyles and temperaments who live together.
“Sara and Natalie are two fantastic and accomplished actors,” Fritz said. “I was excited to write this new material specifically for them.”
A founding member of the Rock River Players, Fritz studied composition and theater at The Boston Conservatory of Music. As a filmmaker, Fritz studied cinematography at the Rockport Workshops, and directing with Jim Pasternak. His films have won over 90 awards from film festivals around the world. A director of numerous theater productions, Fritz has also made documentaries for industry and television and he has written and directed six feature films and one dramatic short.
He became involved with RRP as soon as he heard that a new theater group was forming in Williamsville.
Although primarily a filmmaker, theater has long been in Fritz’s blood.
“Actually I was a theater minor in college,” he admits. “But I was not an actor. Boston Conservatory, where I studied, had real actors there and I had no intention of competing. Nonetheless, you could say that I have always been stage struck.”
Spotting an actor
Shortly after joining RRP, Fritz became intrigued with the potential of one of the company’s founding members, Sara Vitale.
“When I saw Sara the first time she was wearing a hoodie, and I found her bone structure amazing,” Fritz says. “I soon began considering that it would nice to make a film with her and Natalie Neilson, who has acted in some of my movies.”
Currently serving as secretary of RRP’s board of directors, Vitale studied acting and directing in college. She continues to pursue both in various community theater groups. Past work in area theater includes playing Chelsea in On Golden Pond and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. Most recently, she was assistant director and lighting captain for the Rock River Players’ production of The Fantasticks.
Vitale’s co-star Natalie Neilson has starred as the lead in three Robert Fritz films: Twice..., Past Tense, and Chasing Rainbows. She has won several awards for her acting, including an Award of Excellence from the Accolade Competition, an Award of Excellence from The Indie Fest, and a Gold Award from the International Independent Film Festival.
Fritz soon cast Vitale and Neilson, along with another RRP founder, Stewart McDermet, in a half-hour short film, The Visit, which will premiere later this year.
“I wrote The Visit for three wonderful actors,” Fritz says. “I prefer to write for specific performers who I find to be exceptional, which is a bit like writing music for great musicians. The chemistry between Sarah and Natalie in The Visit is breathtaking. They blew me away. This is acting as good as it gets.”
Fritz decided to reunite Vitale and Neilson for an original comedy he would write for RRP. But his route finally to arrive at I Used to Have a Cat was circuitous to say the least.
Initially, Fritz merely intended to direct Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap for RRP.
“But soon I decided the drama was too English,” Fritz explains. “I am married to an English woman and do not relish the idea of Americans putting on fake English accents. Then I came up with the idea to revise Christie’s play into a New England-based drama, which I called Vermont-trap, which would take in Williamsville, Putney, and Brattleboro.”
Ultimately, this intriguing reworking of a classic mystery had to be postponed because Fritz couldn’t find the appropriate five men and three women to stage the piece.
“Then I decided to expand the film The Visit into a full-length theater piece, writing a second act for the short film I made with Sara and Natalie and Stewart,” continues Fritz. “But Stewart faced a conflict of scheduling and had to drop out of the production. Only then did I decide to write a whole new play.”
Fritz wrote I Used to Have a Cat quickly, in 6 days, and really enjoyed himself doing it.
“It is really fun to write for the stage,” he says. “It is a much different experience than writing screenplays, which I usually do. In fact, I have only written three plays. What I like about staged works is that you can be much more literary than you can when writing for film. It’s a different game.”
Fritz is also directing the play he wrote. Intriguingly, his production of I Used to Have a Cat at RRP has no set, but does use sound.
“I have decided to stage the comedy that way because while the eye sees, the ear imagines,” he said. “With sound, people can see something that is not there.”
Although, in one way or another, she has contributed to every production yet staged by RRP, Vitale found being in I Used to Have a Cat special.
“It was a very personal role for me,” she says. “Robert’s play is a wonderful piece: fabulous, edgy, intimate, serious, happy, sad, and offbeat. I Used to Have a Cat has a powerful message, and I am proud to have been part of it. I tell people that you may have been to a lot of plays, but I assure you that you have never been to one like this.”
I Used to Have a Cat is the opening play in the Rock River Players 2017-18 season. It will be followed by the Players annual cabaret in February. In May, the RRP will present two evenings of one-act comedies — including original works — following a weekend run of Marsha Norman’s ’night Mother, directed by Vitale.
Rock River Players was founded in 2015 with the specific intention of revitalizing the use of the historic Williamsville Hall.
“The hall is a vibrant performing space,“ Vitale says. “There is a 100 years of history of theater here.”
Former Leland & Gray Union High School teacher Ann C. Landenberger became the driving forcing in making a new theater organization in Williamsville a reality.
“I had been approached a couple of times by the committee to promote use of the Williamsville Hall,” Landenberger says. “At the time, I was immersed too heavily in my job at Leland & Gray. I thought it difficult to split my focus between school and a theater group.”
Landenberger has been involved with theater in one way or another since she was 6.
“You could say the stage is in my backbone,” she says. “At Brown University, I got a degree in literature only because there was no theater major then. But I tried to turn even that into a theater major by taking every drama course the school was offered.”
Landenberger moved to Vermont because she and her then-husband thought they should find a more rural area to raise their children.
“When I was offered a job at Leland & Gray, I jumped at the opportunity,” she says. “ As fate would have it, as I joined the high school, I was asked if I might consider reviving their theater program that had been defunct for 10 years. ‘Boy, would I!’ I exclaimed.”
Since then, she has presented more than 60 staged productions at Leland & Gray.
This year, Landenberger retired from teaching.
“Moving out of the classroom, I thought it would be a good time to take up Williamsville’s offer,” she says. “I guess RRP could be called a community theater. In a sense it is, but that name has a rather pedestrian feel. I prefer ‘little theater,’ a term that spun off from the regional theater movement. Like them, RRP is committed to circulating new works, and presenting new ideas to old works.”
The formation of RRP began with an open call in 2015 for its first production, that celebration of small town life and values, Our Town.
“I always wanted to do Thornton Wilder’s play, but I felt I needed to find the right place to do it in,” Landenberger says. “Williamsville turned out to be perfect. It is a beautiful village that proved to be the ideal backdrop for the play. Many people joined in putting the piece together, and in the end the production was much bigger than me. People keep coming up with good ideas. I don’t want to be the only engine running this company, and much happened seamlessly without much of my intervention.”
RRP followed up this success with a series of classic American plays, including You Can’t Take it With You, On Golden Pond, and The Fantasticks, the last a musical Landenberger had always wanted to stage.
“My mission has been to keep the lively arts alive, whether theater, opera, ballet, or any staged work.” Landenberger says with passion. “I believe that to lose live theater, we lose a visceral human connection that never can be found staring at a screen.”