It took Kristofer Geddie years of pounding the pavement as an actor in New York City to realize his stage wasn’t on Broadway, off Broadway or even in New York.
It was in Venice, inside a building that used to be the gymnasium for the Kentucky Military Institute, at a community theater that was so hard-pressed to find a local black actor to play the part of Coalhouse in “Ragtime,” it had to do something it rarely does — hire outside talent.
“I never in a million years thought that I would be here,” Geddie says, surveying the quiet second-story lounge in the Venice Theatre. “Yet, here I am.”
When he arrived in September 2010 for “Ragtime” rehearsals, he had just wrapped a NASCAR comedy in North Carolina and was thinking about pursuing a graduate degree in arts administration.
Fed up with the commercialization of New York theater, Geddie, 35, was itching to make a change — a change in his own career and a change in the industry.
“In New York, it’s all about the all-mighty dollar,” Geddie says. “This is why we see less-than-stellar shows on Broadway. Producers need to make seven figures a week to keep a show open and please the masses. They think with their wallets and not with their hearts.”
He found the heart he was looking for at the Venice Theatre.
The positive energy of the cast and crew of “Ragtime” brought him back to his roots. In the company of a mostly volunteer cast, Geddie was reminded of why he wanted to be a performer.
Actors would arrive for evening rehearsals still dressed in their work uniforms or business attire. Geddie would often catch them nibbling out of takeout boxes because they had yet to eat dinner.
“These people work eight-hour shifts then drive to the theater for rehearsal,” Geddie says. “To them, it was more than just a gig. They were here because they loved it. It was really quite refreshing.”
He wasn’t the only one who felt refreshed.
Executive/Artistic Director Murray Chase was just as invigorated by Geddie’s presence.
“He was the most-liked person in the ‘Ragtime’ cast,” Chase says. “He brought the show to a higher level. He was the guy who made sure we got it. He made sure outside rehearsals were scheduled. He helped people when it was needed. He was a steadying influence.”
The actor not only came with countless stage credits, he exhibited leadership qualities at a time when Chase was looking for someone to implement a diversity program.
When “Ragtime” wrapped, he asked the actor to stay on for the run of “Falsettos.” When “Falsettos” wrapped, he applied for a grant to cover the cost of Geddie’s salary, should he be interested in becoming the theater’s full-time diversity director.
“He was the perfect person for the job,” Chase says. “He’s fearless. He has management experience, and he can see the broader picture.”
In April 2011, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice awarded Venice Theatre a $30,000 grant to hire Geddie as its director of diversity.
As far as Geddie is aware, he’s the only person in Sarasota County with this position at a theater. He’s also the only African-American on staff at the Venice Theatre, which explains why people recognize him everywhere he goes, notoriety he rarely experienced during his 10 years in New York City.
“People are so much more receptive here,” he says. “People I don’t even know are coming up to me to show their support. They’re like, ‘Hey, we know what you’re up to and it’s cool with us.’”
A soft-spoken native of Fayetteville, N.C., Geddie grew up in what he describes as an “artsy, no-sports” family.
A trumpet player and choir singer, his earliest memories are of going to the theater with his parents and two sisters.
“I remember I was terrified the first time I saw ‘Hello, Dolly,’” Geddie says. “The train was so loud, I felt like it was coming after me. I was maybe 3 or 4 years old, too young to realize what I was hearing was a sound effect.”
By the time he saw “The Great White Hope” as a curious middle-school student, he was hip to the magic of sound effects and, consequently, hooked on theater.
“I always wanted to be a performer,” Geddie says. “And then I got to college and decided I needed to know how it all worked.”
In 1998, he graduated from Mars Hill College with a bachelor’s degree in musical theater and a concentration in arts administration.
His first job was brief, but fiery: a short-lived run in the “Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue” at Universal Studios.
His recollection of the experience is clouded by smoke — literally. In summer 1998, wildfires scorched large portions of Central Florida, driving Geddie back home to North Carolina.
“I vowed I’d never come back to Florida,” he laughs. “I’ve since had to swallow my words.”
Last month, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation renewed the organization’s diversity grant, in essence buying Geddie another year in Venice.
Says the actor: “Florida has been good to me.”
His work with the Venice Theatre has really only just begun.
In addition to networking with leaders in African-American communities, Geddie spent the season developing outreach programs for area schools that were focused on the theater’s productions of “Big River” and “The Phantom Tollbooth.”
He also helped facilitate an internship partnership with Berea College in Kentucky and select repertoire for next season, including “Crowns,” a play about African-American women in church hats that Geddie is slated to direct.
“I’m not here to force anything or change the theater’s mission statement,” he says. “I’m just trying to make people more aware. It’s going to take time … and trust.”
CELEBRATING DIVERSITY ON STAGE
Kristofer Geddie lists his favorite open-minded plays and musicals.
‘Ragtime’ – “It’s really about the coming together of America at the turn of the last century. It’s about that melting-pot era, when the music of ragtime was a symbol of changes in America.”
‘Intimate Apparel’ – “It’s a love story set in the early 1900s that sweeps across different classes.”
‘Hairspray’ – “It teaches us that despite our racial and social differences, we’re really all the same.”
‘Angels in America’ – “It takes the AIDS epidemic and puts a face on it. We see that these people are human and loved.”