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THE PICTURE'S THE THING Behind the scenes with Center Stage's production photographer

It's just past 8 on a Tuesday night. The lights in Center Stage's Pearlstone Theater go to dim, then black. Theater staffers are scattered throughout the largely empty house. Artistic director Irene Lewis and various technical personnel sit behind temporary tables mounted on seats and covered with notes, laptop computers, coffee mugs and soda cans.

For the cast and crew of "The Cherry Orchard," the dress rehearsal of the season-opening production is about to begin.

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But for Richard Anderson, this is no dress rehearsal. Wearing jeans, a Tour de France T-shirt and three cameras -- one slung over each shoulder and a third around his neck -- he stands, shifting from foot to foot, at the edge of the stage.

Before he walked into the Pearlstone on this particular night, he had no idea what "The Cherry Orchard's" set or lighting would be like. By the time he leaves, he will have shot nearly 500 photographs -- 11 rolls of black and white film and two rolls of color -- fully documenting the production.

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A local commercial photographer with a national and international clientele, Anderson has been taking Center Stage's production photos for 20 seasons -- ever since the Baltimore theater moved to its Calvert Street location. In recognition of this, the theater has mounted a retrospective exhibit of a dozen of his favorite shots (on display on the mezzanine throughout the season whenever the theater is open). A calendar featuring XTC these shots is on sale for the holidays.

Shooting a nonstop rehearsal with minimal advance preparation is one of the things Anderson relishes about his work for Center Stage. "It's sort of like photographing life. You don't have any dress rehearsals in life, either," he says.

Twelve hours after the dress rehearsal ends, Anderson, Lewis and Linda Geeson, Center Stage's director of communications, sit around a table on the mezzanine going over the shots. "He has acquired a feel for the dramatic moment," says Lewis. "Our eyes have rarely ever not been the same on what is a great shot."

That night, managing director Peter W. Culman reports, six or seven cast members studied their portraits, hanging framed on the wall opposite the bar. "They all said, 'Boy, Richard not only gets me, but he gets the sense of the character, of the person I'm trying to convey as I act,' " Culman says. "It's an uncanny gift that he has."

A Baltimore native who grew up in Arcadia, in northern Baltimore County, Anderson, 44, became interested in photography as an undergraduate at Western Maryland College. "Sargent Shriver was running for president and came to the campus. So did a couple of Life magazine photographers in a white Porsche," the photographer recalls. "I said, 'That's the life for me!' "

Anderson was an associate photographer for Ashton-Worthington Inc., a local design firm, when he began photographing plays at Center Stage. "Tartuffe," which marked the theater's Calvert Street debut, also marked his debut as a professional theater photographer.

For the past eight years he has been in business for himself, and though he has also worked for the Shakespeare Theatre and Studio Theatre in Washington, the bulk of his business consists of medical and architectural photography and annual reports. His standard fee is $1,400 a day.

Unlike his theater work, many of his other jobs consist of setup shots. He realizes some theaters do this as well, but he is convinced that photographing a running performance is the best way to capture the immediacy of the dramatic experience.

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Former Center Stage artistic director Stan Wojewodski Jr. agrees, praising Anderson's "ability to see a moment coming and be ready for it . . .

"It's kind of like the eye of a skeet shooter. You don't shoot at where the clay pigeon is, because in a moment that's where the pigeon was. You have to shoot where the pigeon is going to be," says Wojewodski, now dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. "The thing that separates a truly gifted photographer is someone who has that eye."

And how gifted do theatergoers feel Anderson is? One testament is that his pictures have been the most sought-after auction items at the past two Center Stage fund-raising galas, where 20 shots have fetched a total of more than $5,000. Further proof of the photos' popularity is that they have been known to disappear from the theater's walls. (Center Stage now has a more secure mounting system in place.)

J. WYNN ROUSUCK is The Sun's theater critic.


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