Rick Kerby sits on the edge of the stage talking to a fully-costumed Peter Pan, who’s sitting in the audience eating a Lean Cuisine.
The ShowKidz camp counselor, aka Peter Pan, is filling Kerby in on what he has missed that morning. She’s singing to him between bites: “Hula Hana of Kamana Whala Hula Bay.” He laughs as he turns a costume headdress made of fruit over in his hands. This is nothing out of the ordinary.
Kerby has been cooped up in his small office in the back of the theater all morning. The banter is friendly and relaxed, mimicking small talk among family members who have just sat down for dinner.
“There’s nothing like a theatrical family,” Kerby says. “You’re so bonded and emotionally attached to each other that they really are a family.” He speaks quietly, but with passion — it’s as if he’s performing a climactic monologue, but it’s genuine and from the heart.
Aside from his partner, Jonathan, and his cat, Mr. Kitty, Kerby doesn’t have any family here. He spends his days doing office work and administration for the theater and, then, starting at 6:30 p.m. he’s in rehearsals until 10 p.m.
Kerby is the artistic eye for the Manatee Players. He does all the hiring, the majority of the directing and choreographing, oversees the proceedings in the back of the house and is in charge of the artistic vision of the strictly musical theater.
Aside from the KidzCamp rehearsal’s of “Pippin,” lately, he has been working with professional actress and model Robin Givens on “Joy in the Morning,” a play she wrote, based on a book authored by her mother, and which she is now directing. Givens’ sons go to school in the area, and that’s how she found the theater.
“It’s an interesting concept that hasn’t really been explored in live theater,” he says of her play.
Several characters have older and younger selves played by different actors; they talk and relate to each other as they perform memories. Kerby says it has been fun watching Givens get up on stage to demonstrate, and it’s a unique experience for the actors to work directly with a playwright. His hope is that she will continue to work with the theater. Not to mention, “she’s the prettiest director we’ve ever seen,” he adds.
Kerby is not bad-looking, either. He’s classic-Hollywood handsome: tall with dark, wispy hair, brown eyes and broad shoulders. He has been working with Manatee Players since his move to Bradenton in 2003. It was a change of pace after having lived in Manhattan for 20 years. Kerby had visited the area many times, touring to the Van Wezel in shows such as “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
To Kerby, this area was paradise, and, despite a lack of community theater experience, it was easy for him to make the move when a friend told him about the artistic director position.
“I came as a snobby New Yorker caught in a ‘Waiting for Guffman’ episode, but was astounded by the talent in this area,” he says.
Kerby has an extensive background in performance, from singing and dancing his way across stages all over the U.S. to performing 3 a.m. shows in Las Vegas. Before he took on his current role, he was the entertainment director for the USO of Metropolitan New York and was tasked with of finding the talent.
Kerby’s presence at the Manatee Players has brought an increasing audience size with each season. But recently, The Manatee Players outgrew its riverfront britches and is in the process of building a new theater expected to open in March with a performance of “Miss Saigon.”
The space, named Manatee Performing Arts Center, will seat 380 — a big jump from the Riverfront Theatre’s 238-seat capacity. In addition to a main theater, there will be a second space that seats 100.
“It’s a lot harder to put 400 people into a theater than a 100, so we can take a little more risk with a 100-seat theater,” he says.
The new space will also contain an educational wing that Kerby feels will become the theater’s biggest area for growth.
Kerby says the execution and planning of the new space has been one of the most rewarding aspects of his job.
During the concept phase of the project, the architect asked Kerby, “If you could dream anything, what would you want this space to be?” Kerby answered and now says that 99% of those ideas were incorporated in the new place.
“It’s bigger than I dreamed it could be, so the possibilities are endless,” he says excitedly.
Kerby predicts that in another 10 years, the Manatee Players will have outgrown their space again and will need to add a third story. He expects they’ll be that successful there.
“That’s my focus — making sure we deserve that beautiful space we are in,” he says.
IF YOU GO
‘Joy in the Morning’
A presentation of a play with music and words written by actress Robin Givens.
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 2; 8 p.m. Aug. 3
Where: Manatee Players’ Riverfront Theatre, 102 12th St. W., Bradenton
Cost: Tickets are $26 to $50
For more information: Call 748-5875
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