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New owner discusses vision for Washington County Playhouse

October 31, 2009|By CHRIS COPLEY

Jeff Czerbinski is in that most happy of places: His personal life blurs pleasingly into his professional life.

In August, Czerbinski and his wife, Loretta, purchased the Washington County Playhouse dinner theater. Now, after acting and directing at the Playhouse and other area theaters for more than 20 years, the Czerbinskis are expressing their vision in the business side of the theater business.

In an interview earlier this week, Jeff Czerbinski described a plan for success based on a blend of artistry, good food and keeping the customer satisfied.

"Our vision is in fact to have the Washington County Playhouse become recognized as an unsurpassed value in live entertainment," he said. "If somebody says, 'You went to the Playhouse? How was it?' and they say 'Fine,' we blew it. You can get 'fine' anywhere."

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Good value

Czerbinski admitted he wasn't always a cheerleader for community theater. It can be a mixed bag - some theaters are consistently good, some are not.

One day 20 years ago, when his wife came home from work and told him she was taking him to a show at the Playhouse, he refused.

But Loretta insisted, saying she wanted to see a colleague who was in the production. So Czerbinski reluctantly went with his wife. But when the show began, he was stunned. The acting was good. The singing was good.

"We were five minutes into the show, and I wanted to buy season tickets," he said.

Hagerstown has tons of acting talent, Czerbinski said. Which shouldn't be a surprise.

"Jack Lemmon said, 'If I didn't make in movies, I'd be doing community theater.' For every actor that makes the big time, there are thousands just as good that don't," Czerbinski said. "They're in community and regional theater."

Changes

Some things at the Playhouse won't change, Czerbinski said. Traditionally, the theater has produced six shows a year - five Braodway musicals and a comedy. They're usually popular, well-known shows that appeal to local audiences.

"The Playhouse would be known for classic musicals, like 'Oklahoma.' A lot of people go not to listen to the libretto, but to tap their foot," he said.

The six-show schedule will remain, and the mix of shows will stay, mostly. But Czerbinski said he plans to include more contemporary shows in the mix - newer Broadway.

But he's going to go slow. Czerbinski wants to retain his loyal audience while gradually reaching out to newer patrons.

"If people see they like our shows, they'll say, 'That one was OK. That one was OK. That one was OK. Well, I don't know that show, but I liked the others, so I'll give it a chance,'" he said.

The other side of the dinner theater is the food. Czerbinski takes a feet-on-the-ground approach to the theater's dinners.

"No one is coming to the Playhouse for fine dining," he said. "We don't pretend to have a Culinary Institute of America chef on board. But that doesn't mean we can't season things and make them taste good."

Family affair

Czerbinski said his son, Jeff Perry Czerbinski - nicknamed Jeffrey to distinguish him from his dad - cooks the Playhouse's food. Jeffrey, who began acting when he was 7, has a long list of stage credits to his name. He is the lead in the Playhouse's current production of "Godspell."

But Czerbinski said his son also has a long list of restaurants on his resume. With a grin, Czerbinski said actors and food service have traditionally had a connection. Needing flexible schedules for their unusual working hours, many actors have supported their creative side by working in restaurants.

That tradition continues at the Playhouse, where actors serve patrons dinner and beverages before the show.

Father and son collaborate to make food for the theater's diners. They have made a point to plan food with flavor. Czerbinski said they pay attention not only to main dishes, but to sides.

"You don't think of running out of green beans, but we have," he said. "And white rice. What could be plainer? But we cook it with diced, roasted, red peppers."

Czerbinski said a dinner theater's shows are judged by details like this.

"(We want) raves about the production, the food," he said. "It's in the details, and that takes planning. I remember Ruth Gordon, who said, 'The best ad libs are those planned well in advance."

"Godspell" continues through Saturday, Nov. 7. The Washington County Playhouse's Christmas show, a revue called "That Holiday Feeling," opens Friday, Nov. 13.

For more information about shows, call 301-739-7469 or go to www.washingtoncountyplayhouse.com

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