Rich Rodriguez has two passions: tennis and acting. He grew up in a tennis-loving family in California, where his father, Ralph, was such a diligent member of the Stanford University tennis team that the school named the trophy clubhouse after him.
You’d have to pay for a racket-wielding lesson with Rich Rodriguez, 42, of St. Albans, who is now assistant tennis director at the Sports and Fitness Edge in Essex Junction. But this Saturday, the former off-Broadway star gives away some of his improvisational acting secrets for free. Rodriguez is offering two classes at Celebrate St. Albans, an annual event where Franklin and Grand Isle County organizations display their services in Taylor Park from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
In its fourth year, Celebrate St. Albans gets a shot of culture this weekend with a show by the St. Albans Artists Guild, a book signing by the St. Albans Literary Guild, and the classes from Rodriguez, who is also a board director of the new St. Albans Society for the Performing Arts (SASPA).
“I would encourage people to go just for the mere fact that they get to be actors and players on the stage for a day and perform,” Rodriguez says. “And what they’ll find is that they will be able to tap into their creativity.”
Rodriguez will hold two improv sessions in the park band shell: a morning session for children (with a focus on senses and emotional expression) and an afternoon lesson for adults with theater games similar to those familiar from television’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
“Rich is full of life, and his ability to connect with people is wonderful,” says Jay Fleury, a St. Albans arts lover who launched the city’s visual, literary and performing-arts groups. “Most people will see the honesty in him and how spontaneous he is.”
When Rodriguez isn’t busy helping future Wimbledon champs master their overhand smashes, he teaches weekend acting classes for children at his Shelburne studio, Blue Water Center. He also teaches weekly improv classes called Improvilicious at Burlington’s DesignHaus. And — where does he find the time? — he co-instructs a monthly public speaking course held at Blue Water and in St. Albans that incorporates acting skills.
Rodriguez said he aims to show children and adults how to “increase their laughter capacity and have fun playing theater games.” For him, onstage playtime began in college, when he auditioned for the part of “street person” in a small show.
Since then, Rodriguez has written a play about homelessness and earned an off-Broadway name for himself. In the Big Apple, his Latin background landed him lead roles in bilingual and Spanish-language plays. He starred in A Day With My Dead Husband Hector and Latin Lives, and directed The Crossing at Chelsea Playhouse.
For two years, Rodriguez produced, directed and acted in Flying Furr, an improvisational comedy troupe. He has trained with Allen Schoer of the Actors Institute, as well as graduates of Second City and the Upright Citizens Brigade. One influence was Shira Piven, brother of “Entourage” star Jeremy. Before moving to Vermont, Rodriguez made regular visits to Burlington and “developed a small following,” he says. Eventually, he “realized that in order to take my teaching and improvisation to the next level, I would need to be around more organic elements.”
The Green Mountain state offers plenty of those. And, in Fleury’s mind, recruiting Rodriguez for the SASPA was a no-brainer. The organization’s members believe the time is ripe for St. Albans to become a new cultural center of the state. The talent is there, Fleury says, and so are the drive and hunger. Already the SASPA has planned musical fundraisers and a full-length play for 2010.
“St. Albans is the county seat, and it is only fitting that we explore the possibilities and enhance what is here,” Fleury says. “I hope within three to five years, we have a culture center where all three areas — visual, literary and performance — can be presented. It can only be accomplished if the citizens want it.”
Art in the Park takes place this Saturday, September 12, at Taylor Park in St. Albans, 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. Info, 524-1500, ext. 260.