New group seeks to bring people together for ‘great theater’Written by Brigitta Burks | News Editor | BBurks@toledofreepress.com
Catalyst Theatre Network, Toledo’s newest theater group, is made up of some old friends and familiar faces on the local acting scene.
Jennifer Rockwood, Matthew Gretzinger, Kate Abu-Absi, Jennifer Nagy Lake, Timothy Lake and John Paul “JP” Welch are the founding members of the group, which prides itself on being open to new members and unique productions.
“It’s about finding people in this area who want to do great theater and bringing them together,” said Gretzinger, an actor, director and part-time teacher in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of Toledo.
Rockwood, a director and the assistant dean in the College of Innovative Learning at UT, has wanted to start a theater company for a while. She and the others began solidifying their plans during a November production of “Bell, Book and Candle” at the Toledo Repertoire Theatre.
Catalyst will produce its own shows, although its members are welcome to be involved with other groups and venues. Gretzinger, for example, is directing “Hamlet” at the Rep in September.
“We don’t want theaters to compete and we don’t think it’s appropriate for people to compete or people to not be positive about what other theaters or theater groups are doing. We like the idea that you can go out and work in lots of different theaters and lots of different venues,” said Rockwood the group’s “matriarch or czarina, whichever fits.”
Catalyst’s first production is “Macbeth,” which runs Aug. 9-11 with shows at 8 p.m., and Aug. 12 at 2 p.m. in the studio theater of UT’s Center for Performing Arts. Gretzinger directs and stars and every Catalyst member except Rockwood is involved in some way.
The group expects great things from Gretzinger’s production. “[Gretzinger’s] drawn people from lots of places and that’s kind of unique. It’s not the same ol’, same ol’” Rockwood said.
Although the group hasn’t finalized a membership process, it plans on being welcoming to newcomers. After all, Welch’s very first production was the recent “Bell, Book and Candle.”
“Every cast group, every director, every person I’ve worked with on anything I’ve done in this one year has been totally welcoming,” said Welch, who works at Color Concepts, a Benjamin Moore paint retailer.
“He’s like our James Dean,” Gretzinger quipped. The rest of the group goes way back. Abu-Absi, Gretzinger and Nagy Lake, who plays Lady Macbeth, were all students of Rockwood’s more than 20 years ago and played opposite each other at UT. Timothy Lake, Jennifer’s husband and stage manager of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, was not Rockwood’s student, but he was “around,” Rockwood said.
“There are groups that click. Every cast is a family and I think there are some families that you walk away from and you’re like, ‘That was a great experience’ or ‘That was a shitty experience,’ but I think it’s kind of rare to continue to gravitate toward one another and be like, ‘What can we do next?”” Abu-Absi said of the group’s connection.
Abu-Absi, director of the Arts Living Learning Community at UT, plays Lady Macduff and a witch in “Macbeth” in addition to assistant directing. Her 10-year-old nephew also has a part in the Shakespeare tragedy.
“All of a sudden when you watch someone fall in love with [theater], it’s amazing,” said Abu-Absi, who originally got involved in a theater class as an “easy A” before falling in love herself.
The Catalyst members are big believers in the power of theater. “I still believe in my old age, that theater can change the world, one person at a time, one person’s perception at a time,” Rockwood said. “It’s live people on a live stage presenting emotions and feelings that most people hide. Actors are generous enough to give it out and you’re in the same room experiencing it and I think those are life-changing moments.”
“It can be as small as [theater] changed my world a year ago. I never did it before and it’s changed my perception and my confidence in what I can do,” Welch added.
Rockwood will direct the upcoming Catalyst production of “8,” a play about the challenges to California’s Proposition 8. “8” chronicles Perry v. Schwarzenegger (now Perry v. Brown) filed by the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER) in opposition to an amendment eliminating Californians’ same-sex marital rights.
“The trial was never publicized; people need to know what went on,” Rockwood said of the October show. The 22-person cast includes all the Catalyst members.
The company plans to lean toward edgy plays, something the members praised the Rep for also doing.
“We try to pick plays that speak to the human condition,” Rockwood said. Each member also plays to his or her own strengths. As a director, Rockwood prefers modern pieces about the art of communication while Gretzinger gravitates toward Shakespearean plays. Despite these differences, the plays each member favors have certain things in common.
“Excitement, passion … I think that’s common to the plays that [Rockwood] likes and to Shakespeare and to other plays that we might do,” Gretzinger said. “Theater can be exciting. It can give you something that movies, Internet, television can’t.”
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/CatalystTheatreNetwork.