As springtime begins on the Mountaintop and the Covid-19 crisis wanes, the Garrett County Arts Council (GCAC) is looking forward to heading back to the music venues and theatre stages. This month the spotlight falls on one of the county’s most active live theatre artisans, Michael (“Mikey”) Virts of Mountain Lake Park.
Mikey is the artistic director of Our Town Theatre (OTT) in Oakland. Founded in 1997 by the late Jane Avery, OTT has been the site for stage productions of nearly every genre. Full stage plays, musicals, comedies, readings, music groups, children’s events, open mic evenings, and so much more have taken place at OTT, nearly always featuring local talent. Mikey has been involved at OTT since its inception, serving as an actor and director, among just about every other related duty. He was just 5 when he had his stage debut, and has studied the art of theatre seriously for more than 25 years. When Avery died suddenly in September of 2018, Virts took on the role of artistic director and has served in that position since.
“Jane Avery had a profound effect on my direction toward theatre,” Mikey said. “And ‘cutting my teeth’ at Our Town Theatre gave me the opportunity to experiment and hone my abilities.”
Virts said he was also influenced by Ben Sincell, a former professor at Garrett College, who was also the first technical director at OTT. Ben encouraged Mikey to continue his theatre education.
“Ben taught me the subtle nuances of set/lighting design and how everything, as in life, is connected. He also inspired me to create theatre without much in the way of sets or budget. You just need the actor and the right light,” Virts said. “Linda McCulloch at Frostburg State University also challenged me constantly to get out of my comfort zone when directing and acting. She instilled in me the idea that nothing is ever perfect and that’s how it should be.”
Virts’ career is not necessarily related to the theatre, as he works for a consulting company in the finance and planning department. But he doesn’t shut down his stage talents completely in the office.
“There isn’t really much need for me to break out into song or dance at work. However, I rely on my acting and improv skills to run effective and ‘not so stuffy’ meetings,” he said. “And being a director has helped me to take control of situations and organize approaches to solve problems.”
The theatre artisan is not alone in his household as a stage performer. His wife Jennifer Virts is the theatre teacher at Northern Garrett High School and is an actor as well. They have collaborated many times on the OTT stage, but worked together year ago, before settling back in Garrett County. In fact, Mikey cites a project with her as one of his most satisfying stage achievements.
“My wife and I produced a play Chicago,” he said. “And that was a nice achievement and test of ability.” Being named the second ever Artistic Director of Our Town Theatre was another major achievement for Virts, although a bittersweet one. Jane Avery was a friend and longtime collaborator with him, and her death was a shock. But he was honored to take over the reins.
“I think what really keeps me going and what I always feel as an achievement in theatre is the magic of the process. You start with a bare stage and some words on paper and most often a bunch of strangers, and after a couple of weeks, you’ve created an entire universe that only exists because you say it does and folks follow you on the journey,” he said. “It is an awesome superpower.”
He and Jen plan to use that superpower soon, in fact, as they will both star in the play “Hate Mail” written by Bill Corbett and Kira Obolensky. OTT will live stream the show April 9, 10, and 11. All viewing details can be found on the OTT website, located at ourtowntheatre.org. In addition to acting together, Mikey and Jen are the parents of three young daughters.
Virts has been a member of the Garrett County Arts Council for some time, and now serves on its Board of Directors. He is also a member of the Oakland A&E District Advisory Board. He said the ability to work with other artists in these organizations is truly valuable.
“It’s been a nice place to network and work with other artists and converse about what problems and successes other organizations/artists have experienced in our vibrant arts community,” Virts said. “It is very easy to become siloed in your own work and forget that others are doing the same and there may be some nice ways to collaborate.”
Virts most recently served in the role of master of ceremonies during part of the Maryland Citizens for the Arts annual Maryland Arts Day, held in February. Because the entire event was held online, a facilitator was needed to keep the series of videos and online presentations smoothly connected. Virts served as the Western Maryland MC for the day, and his off-the-cuff performance was well received. It can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/511361332.
“We were excited to be ‘on stage’ at Maryland Arts Day,” said Kathy Beachler, GCAC executive director. “We don’t often have the opportunity to show the rest of the state how much talent we have here in Garrett County. It was great to have Mikey on camera for that, as well as some of our other local artists.”
To other artists, Virts’ recommendation for success has to do with being well-informed of one’s craft as well as the strength of one’s own abilities.
“Understand every aspect of your medium,” Virts said. “Not just technique, but also marketing your skills, money management, and understanding how your gifts can give you a fulfilled life. A lot of times artists focus solely on the craft and not how the craft can benefit them and their community. I am not talking about just making a living, but also ‘spiritual currency.’ In my case, right now at least, I don’t get paid for the theatre that I produce, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t keep myself to a high standard of work. Know your strengths but better yet know your weaknesses and how you can address them.”
The Garrett County Arts Council benefits from members such as Michael Virts, who works to produce and better his own art while offering himself as a member of our nonprofit organization and a director on the board. This sort of valuable collaboration is why the GCAC works so well! Please consider becoming a member of the GCAC today. The work of the arts council benefits all of Garrett County. For information, visit our website at garrettarts.org.
Written by Mary Sincell McEwen of the Garrett County Arts Council