When Tad Janes and Gené Fouché were working together with the Contemporary American Theater Festival in the '90s, they started talking about the kind of theater company they envisioned themselves being part of.
The original plan was to start an improv company in Chicago, but they realized the going would be tough with a host of similar theaters in the city, Fouché said. A trip to Frederick to visit her parents one Christmas turned out to be a fateful one.
"Tad had been living in Chicago, and he kind of fell in love with the town," Fouché said. "He is from West Virginia, and he kind of missed the mountains."
The couple decided to pursue their dream of starting a theater in Frederick, helping to form the Comedy Pigs and holding their first performance in the back room of Olde Towne Tavern, an endeavor that would lead to the formation of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in 1997.
Fifteen years later, the MET -- the first company of its kind in the Baltimore/Washington area -- is at the heart of the city's growing cultural arts scene. The theater puts on six shows a year, at least one of which is typically an original performance written and produced by ensemble members, Fouché said.
Dozens of company and audience members turned out Saturday evening at the theater to celebrate the milestone.
"It is kind of cool that in 1997, there was one theater in downtown Frederick, and now there are three," said Janes, the company's artistic director. "When we first started, I think it was a short vision, trying to find out how best to build an audience and try to do the things we wanted to do. But throughout time, we really realized what an impact it's had on the town and how we fit in town and our audiences' lives. It's pretty exciting."
Ronnie Osterman said she started taking her grandchildren to shows about eight years ago. She was so impressed with the performances that she decided to volunteer with the theater.
"I like it because it's different," Osterman said. "It's not the same old thing. They do things that are a little more risqué and a little more out there. It's also nice because it's intimate and you feel like you're part of it."
Karli Cole, who is about to enter Coastal Carolina University as a theater major, has been performing with the MET since she was in elementary school and was trained at its ensemble school, which has produced several of the theater's current actors.
"It's just really nice to work with people who are professional," Cole said. "And they do really different and edgy shows, which is something a lot of theater companies don't offer."
Fouché said the theater's longevity has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise.
"Theater is such a tough business," Fouché said. The reality is that most theater companies go under within four years. So if you make that five-year mark, you're doing pretty well. I don't know if we're stubborn or what, but we've stuck it out."
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