I have never interviewed a person for Maryland Theatre Guide that I have known longer than Patti Restivo or as well. Ms. Restivo and I met over three decades ago when we worked together on plays for the now defunct Columbia Community Players. Restivo was at first, primarily an actor, and subsequently, a director for the group. She also sat on the Board at times. When I came back to the Delmarva area after living over a dozen years in Pennsylvania, Patti was no longer as involved with CCP but had strong ties to Laurel Mill Playhouse and worked occasionally for 2nd Star Productions in the Bowie area. While circumstances forced me to take a temporary leave of absence from an active role in the theatre, Patti began reviewing plays for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, including the Laurel Leader, Howard County Times, and Columbia Flier, in addition to her regular job at the Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland and obtaining her Master of Arts Degree from University of Baltimore.
Patti and I have worked on several productions together with CCP, APL Drama Club, and Laurel Mill Playhouse. It was with her help and encouragement that I was able to get back into local theatre after I retired from my full-time job several years ago. She recommended me for my first position as a reviewer which lead to my position now with Maryland Theatre Guide, and it is only fitting that I am now interviewing her. She remains a force in local theatre and the arts, in general, in Howard County and in Laurel. She also remains a close and supportive friend.
Patti Restivo is an actor, director, writer, and theatre hound who’s tread on and around the boards about town for more than 35 years. She has devoted much of her creative energy in the last decade to writing show reviews and feature stories for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. A regular reviewer at regional and nonprofit theatres performing on the outskirts of Baltimore, Annapolis, and D.C., she made a rare appearance onstage last fall in John Patrick’s “Girls of the Garden Club” at her hometown’s Laurel Mill Playhouse. Patti also recently wrote, produced and directed a short film, “The In Between,” which is currently in post-production.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and moved with my family to Maryland when I was six years old. It would be decades before I realized my passions for education and theatre and how well situated, I was to pursue them here.
I was a young wife and mother in the early 1980s when a coworker recruited me to help with props for the Columbia Community Players. After watching “Blithe Spirit” from backstage, I dove headlong into the next production as Agnes in Michael Cristofer’s “The Shadow Box.” John Harding called me “fresh and winning” in his review, and my first theatre pals dubbed me a “late bloomer.”
Almost 40 years later, I have reviewed college, regional, nonprofit, and writers’ theatre. I enjoy friendships with the awesome artists that I’ve met during the scores of shows I’ve acted in or directed locally. Every aspect of my life has intertwined with theatre. I got so tired of composing long bios when I performed that I started simply writing, “Patti Restivo loves theatre,” because that really said it all as far as I was concerned.
The year I finished grad school, I edited and designed a short book about acting techniques written by a mentor who’d directed me in various shows in Arbutus, Catonsville, Millersville, and Bowie. It includes a poem I wrote, entitled “This Thing We Do,” that the author/director often read to his casts on opening night.
Before retiring from my day job at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab several years ago, I directed the APL Drama Club’s first show (after hours) and then Hugh Whitemore’s “Breaking the Code” for Allies in the Workplace, a Human Resources group. It’s felt like odd déjà vu to review recent Drama Club productions for the Howard County Times there since.
A few years ago, I won an MDDC Press Association award for my Laurel Leader review of the world premiere of Claudia Barnett’s “Witches Vanish” at Venus Theatre.
Do you prefer acting to directing or the other way around and why?
That depends on the project as I love doing both. I act and direct when I want to for a variety of reasons, but not because I want to “be” or say I’m an actor or director. There is always something new to discover and human connections to make whatever I happen to be doing on a show. That, and supporting local theatre (good or bad, reviews sell seats), is also the reason I review.
Reviewing has kept me mostly off stage in recent years, but I’ve dabbled in short filmmaking and enjoy creative nonfiction writing (particularly local history), graphic design, and painting. Before I got too busy doing freelance review work, I wrote a theatre and performance art blog entitled “Fanfare” (which is still out there and which I’m considering reviving).
What was your favorite role and why?
My favorite role will always be the current one for obvious reasons. Early on though, Babe in “Crimes of the Heart” for the Arbutus Theatrical Company was great fun as was playing the elderly Betty Meeks in Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner” at 2nd Star Productions. There, I discovered stretching out of my ingenue age range into character acting to be immensely satisfying.
But back to my theatre roots when I played Agnes in “The Shadow Box” at CCP. my first closing performance — attended by a Howard County Hospice group —is what hooked me. After the house cleared, I slipped out of the after-show reception to take a last look at the set that had been our world. To my surprise, a young man followed and asked me how I handled such a demanding role in my debut performance. I told him I’d cared for my own mother when she was deathly ill, but unlike my stage mother in the play, she recovered. He confided that the miracle didn’t happen for him — his mother had recently passed — and then thanked me for expressing his struggle with grief so beautifully.
I never saw this person again nor even asked his name, but I’ll always remember the emotion in those gentle blue eyes and how humble I felt to be mimicking real life. My eyes still fill when I think about standing alone with him in that moment. And touching just one person in any audience by making them cry or laugh out loud has always been enough for me. It’s what I aim for.
Also there was also the poetic staged reading of “John Brown’s Body” that I produced and performed in at an authentic Civil War building in Lawyer’s Hill, Elkridge, for the Howard County Sesquicentennial Arts Celebration in 2001. A dear, now deceased friend who called me “Patti-Patti” accompanied us with beautiful banjo music, and the tech and lighting effects were intentionally minimal and symbolic. It felt like the little community hall with no running water was haunted that weekend by the real spirits we were portraying — they watched as we performed.
What was the play you most enjoyed directing and why?
I’ve loved them all, but Ayn Rand’s “Night of January 16th” at Slayton House in Columbia some 30 years ago was a blast. The “trial” featured my largest cast and most of my theatre friends. Platforms connected the proscenium stage to the floor to complete our courtroom where the audience (and the witnesses after they testified) were seated. During intermission, the characters who had yet to testify sat in full view through the glass doors of a gallery room off the main lobby.
Two popular DJs from 98 Rock Radio accepted my invitation to attend the closing night performance and, at play’s end, polled the audience about their verdict on whether the young blonde on trial was guilty of murder. Meanwhile, a jury comprised of audience members (the foreman was the only actor) were sequestered in the green room deciding her fate.
Almost 150 people in the sold-out house “mock”-rioted after the (first) guilty verdict was returned at that last performance. It was a wild and exciting night! And though closing nights typically are to an extent, this one stands out ‘til this day.
You were rehearsing a play with Laurel Mill Playhouse when the theatres closed. What do you think the impact will be from this pandemic on regional, non-professional, and non-profit theatres like Laurel Mill?
Well, I’m waiting, like everyone else, to live through this pandemic. But, groups like the Pandemic Players are doing great fundraising works via social media to support local theatres during the shutdown and to provide opportunities for folks to stay active and connected, and I’ve seen the Arts Collective at HCC do improv online.
The entire theatre community has gone virtual to stay relevant. Many theatres are streaming videos of their past shows. However, I hope to see live performances resume soon. Since social distancing requirements will present new challenges, outdoor venues may be the most feasible and likely the safest.
I’ve enjoyed reviewing wonderful outdoor performances in the past, especially Chesapeake Shakespeare Company shows at the Patuxent Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City. About ten years ago, when CSC performed Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” the Stage Manager character led the audience through the park ruins like extras on a movie set. That was a lovely and memorable review experience.
Theatre folks are the most creative people I know. I have faith that they’ll continue to come up with new ways to rehearse, perform and sustain their art through this dangerous time.