Don Wiswell - A portrait of the artist by his friends

March 26, 1997

When I heard that Don Wiswell had been named managing director of The Maryland Theatre, I called to congratulate him and set up an interview I hoped would shed some light on his artistic vision and background. Among other things, what I hoped to find out about Wiswell, best known locally for his work with the Washington County Playhouse, was how he got interested in the theater as a young man.

Was it performing in a school play, or seeing a professional production on stage? Who are his favorite performers and what shows has he acted in? And on the more serious side, how do you persuade people who can rent a video for $3 a night that there's a good reason to pay three times that much to see a live production?

Stories written in 1986 when he took over the Washington County Playhouse with Bruce Levin said that Wiswell, a Laurel, Md. native, had majored in theater at Georgetown and Towson State universities and had been active in restaurant and theater operation for the past 17 years. He had also been active in more than 75 productions on more than 250 stages across the U.S.


This was interesting stuff. But unfortunately, the theater's board, for reasons they did not explain, had Wiswell call me back with word that the staff would not be doing interviews at this time. A bit incomprehensible, like their fumbling away of a $15,000 grant from the Washington County Gaming Commission, but not an insurmountable obstacle.

Before he was associated with the theater here, Wiswell owned the Keynote Dinner Theater in Frederick. Armed with a dozen names of his former associates there, I went looking for some insight into whether this guy has the background and the moxie to restore the polish to what has been called "the crown jewel of downtown Hagerstown."

Not everyone was eager to talk. Some told me that the Weinberg Center in Frederick is going through a crisis of its own - squabbles between its director and others - and the artistic community has gotten a little bit leery about talking to the press. Fair enough. I've been working on the other side of the mountain for 24 years, so why should they open up to someone they don't know?

Fortunately, I did find two former Wiswell colleagues who were willing to talk to me. They're Bill and Karen Stitely, who acted in many productions at the Keynote, and shared memories of what, for them, were obviously some very good times.

Karen, who said she acted in Keynote's first and last production, said that Wiswell turned what had been a rundown, empty seafood house into a profitable dinner theater with a big subscriber base with hard work, a passion for quality productions and a knack for making customers feel they were part of the family.

Because there was no zoning for dinner theaters, she said, he first had to work with the county commissioners there to develop that. Once open, he worked on developing his customer base.

"He worked with tour groups very well and got to know every single person's name as a subscriber, and he made it a very fun atmosphere," she said.

"One thing he did that the actors didn't always agree with, is that he had us come out to the lobby and shake hands with the people after the performances. In that way, it became a very accessible theater experience," she said.

In a later interview, Bill Stitely explained that some actors feel that they should maintain the illusion, so to speak, by not coming into the audience in character.

But even though Wiswell realized that bending that tradition was good business, the Stitelys said there was no skimping on quality in the productions themselves.

"He always had a clear focus of the play or the musical, and he was very strong on characterization, which you would know if you had seen him as Ben Franklin in "1776" or the sheriff in "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," she said.

Bill Stitely agreed that Wiswell's strong suit was working with the public. His approach to people who attended was "very personal. They were special guests and were made to feel very special."

Wiswell had a nice touch with actors as well, he said.

"Usually it was the little things with me. He would tell me to do something, and then say, `Turn a quarter of a turn so the audience gets to see you do this,' " he said.

"He was very comfortable to perform with on stage. If you ever got lost he could cover you and help you get back to where you wanted to be," he said.

Now let's see if I can sum up their comments: Wiswell is a good businessman who knows how to work with the public, other businesspeople and with performers. From the Stitleys' description of him, he's got the stuff to succeed at the Maryland Theatre. Board members, if they're smart, will get out of the way and let him do just that.

One of Maryland Symphony Orchestra Maestro Barry Tuckwell's regrets, as he begins work on his final season as musical director, is that MSO hadn't formed a chorus of its own. Not to worry, it's been done. Acting on a tip from Cynthia Oates, a local public relations person best known for her work with Independent Cement, my wife and I attended the Hagerstown Choral Arts Society performance last Saturday at the First Christian Church in Hagerstown.

HCA packed the place, with a mixture of music that was by turns inspiring, amusing and beautiful. See them if you get a chance.

Bob Maginnis is the editor of the Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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