Staff Biographies

Jesse Merz

Artistic Director

    Jesse Merz is currently a Theatre Instructor at Butte College in Chico, California. He previously served as the Dean of Students and Leadership Teacher at Jefferson Middle College for Advanced Studies in Portland, Oregon. He has been the Artistic Director of the Columbia Gorge School of Theatre and the Columbia Gorge Repertory Theatre (NYC & OR) since 1996, which is now in residence at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. From 2013 - 2014, he was the Career Preparation II Instructor at Springdale Job Corps Center in Troutdale, Oregon. From 2012 - 2013, he was the Temporary Artistic Director and Theatre Instructor at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. From 2008 - 2012, he was the Head of the BFA in Acting program and Assistant Professor of Theatre at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, where he was Interim Assistant Chair in 2011. He also taught in the MFA in Acting program and directed for the Bonstelle Theatre Company and the Hilberry Repertory Theatre. He served as a Teaching Assistant (sole instructor) and Assistant Artistic Director of the THIRDeYE Theatre Festival at University of California, Davis between 2006 and 2008. He was the Drama Director and Theatre Teacher at David Douglas High School In Portland, Oregon from 2003 - 2006. From 2000 - 2003, he was the Producing Artistic Director of Longview Stageworks, a small Equity theatre in Longview, Washington.

    He has performed off-Broadway, in regional theatre, summer stock, feature films, on the radio and in 120 cities in 34 states on national tours. He has directed more than 70 plays, musicals, and motion picture projects in NYC, regional and educational theatres, and has produced more than 200 shows.  He has been a member of Actors' Equity since 1997 (where he was elected to the Central Regional Board and appointed to several national committees from 2009 - 2012), SAG-AFTRA since 1993, The Dramatists Guild of America, VASTA and is an associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. 

    He has taught acting at UC Davis, David Douglas, Mt. Hood Community College, Western Oregon University, CGST, and Wayne State University. During the summer of 2012, he taught acting and directed a show at the Broadway Theatre Project in Tampa, Florida. He has taught workshops or presented papers at the American College Theatre Festival, Association of Theatre in Higher Education, Mid-American Theatre Conference, the Oregon, Michigan and Washington's Thespian Conferences, SacActors, International School of St. Martin, and the University of Jordan in Amman, Jordan. He is currently at work on a book entitled The Meisner Interviews. He has worked with or studied with such Pulitzer, Oscar, Tony, Bessie, Emmy & Golden Globe winners or nominees as Lauri Peters, David Mamet, William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, Daisy Eagan, Constantine Maroulis, Joanne Woodward, Alec Baldwin, Tony Kushner, Guillermo Gómez Peña, River Phoenix, Gus Van Sant, Joe Mantegna, Sally Mayes, and others. 

    Jesse's BFA in Acting is from New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, his MAT with a drama endorsement is from George Fox University and his MFA in Dramatic Arts - Acting is from the University of California, Davis. Jesse is happily married to Laurel and is the proud papa of daughters Alana, Josephine and Charlotte. Visit for his full resume and biography.


Jan James

Executive Director

    Jan owns and runs the business with Jesse Merz, her son, who is the Artistic Director. She graduated from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!) with a Bachelors of Science degree in Sociology. After graduation she lived in the Hood River Valley for 24 years. During that time, Jan lived on an apple and pear orchard with her husband, and raised 2 children, Jesse and Jody Merz. Jan loved spending time with her children, and was involved in their many pursuits......she enjoyed watching them work on and finish their degrees in Acting and Psychology/Nursing respectively. After Jan sold her last house in the Hood River Valley, she began to look for another place in the country. When she found the property outside White Salmon, Washington, the Blue Moon Ranch was born. The idea for the Columbia Gorge School of Theatre was hatched with input from the whole family, and it was started by Jesse, Jody, and Jan.

    Jan never really knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. She always supported her family members in their various pursuits, until the idea for CGST came into being. After the family decided to start the summer camp, the heart disease she had been diagnosed with became more serious, and she was placed on the Heart Transplant waiting list. During the first summer of camp, Jan was waiting at the hospital (OHSU) for 3 1/2 months, for a life saving heart transplant. Jesse and Jody ran a small version of CGST with 10 amazing campers, and a wonderful staff. When the entire camp was at the Hood River County Fair, the pager notified Jesse and Jody that a heart was available. They left the campers in the capable hands of the rest of the staff, and rushed to Jan's side in Portland, just in time to give her some words of encouragement before she went into surgery. Jesse was helping his mom with some breathing exercises meant to relax her--she was never quite sure if those exercises were for Jesse, Jody, or herself! 

    When Jan woke up in the recovery room with a strong, healthy heart, she was already making plans for CGST. She was fortunate enough to get out of the hospital in time to see CGST's first show - Godspell. Because of the generosity of an anonymous donor family, Jan is alive and well, and able to fully enjoy our wonderful, amazing, summer theatre camp with her family! Every day she remembers the heart donor and his unbelievable, generous, inspiring family! 

    Jan has a home office, and does administrative work year round. The camp has been a tremendous inspiration to her, and she loves talking to people from around the world about this great experience for kids. The camp has changed the lives of everybody that has come in contact with it, and she is happy to tell people about how it has changed her life. Jan has finally found with she wants to be when she grows up.


Nicole Smith

Managing Director

    Nicole is a California-native currently living in Portland, Oregon. She joined the CGST family in 2011 as a Lady Counselor and has since called this place her "heart-home." Growing up, Nicole found herself in the theatre, both on and off stage, at every turn. CGST has been her dream come true as it offers her the opportunity to share her passion for the performing and fine arts with young people from across the world!  

    Nicole is a graduate of Boston University’s Department of History of Art and Architecture (2010) and the Palmdale High School Visual and Performing Arts Academy, Class of 2007 (Vice President). She has had the opportunity to work professionally in theatrical design, management and production throughout the country and world including work in Boston, MA, Los Angeles, CA London, UK and even Sarasota, FL. Some credits include stage managing the New England premier of Julien Shwab’s rogerandtom with Simple Machine Theater (Boston, MA), Cedar Street Theater’s A Little Night Music (Lancaster, CA), and directing an original one-act, Clybourne Apartments, with the Columbia Gorge School of Theater in (Portland, OR). 

    By day, Nicole is a middle school Inclusion Specialist working in Portland Public Schools and by night she is an avid rock climber, fine arts fanatic and professional puppy cuddlier. She is honored to be a part of the CGST Team and continuously looks forward to the amazing, life-changing and powerful art students create every year!


Laurel Merz

Camp Director

    Laurel Merz is a Registered Nurse with a Bachelor’s in Science in Nursing working as a school nurse through the Multnomah Educational Service District. Laurel has worked in some capacity at CGST since 2000 and loves theatre, dance, yoga and running. 

    She has traveled the world with Up With People, where she stayed in host families, participated in community service projects and performing in shows. She has been acting /singing/dancing since she was little, and still loves it.

    Laurel currently lives in Paradise, California with her 3 daughters, her husband Jesse, her mom, her father in law, 3 cats, and 2 dogs. Laurel can’t WAIT to see you all this summer where she promises to be super weird and make this the best summer yet!



Digital Director

    With 11 years of CGST under his belt, Hogan Fritz is based out of New York City where he attends Marymount Manhattan College, pursuing his Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies with minors in Journalism and Political Science. He originates from Portland, Oregon where he attended the Arts and Communication Magnet Academy focusing on Theatre and Moving Image Arts.

    As Digital Director, Hogan oversees and designs all web content and social media activity for CGST. He also previously served as a Camp Counselor for two years, being Head Counselor for one. In addition to working with the full-time staff, Hogan also currently serves as one of the Co-Chairs of the CGST Alumni Advisory Board.

    In addition to being a full-time student, Hogan currently interns in the Talent Department at "Saturday Night Live" on NBC. Previously, he has worked as a Talent & Script Intern at "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" on CBS, a Production Intern at "The Chew" on ABC, the Lead Digital Intern for the Global Fine Art Awards, and as a Press & Policy Intern at the office of U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley in Washington, D.C.. 

    In the past, he has been seen professionally in theatre and film at Oregon Children's Theater, Staged! PDX, Northwest Children's Theater and the International Youth Silent Film Festival. Portland area credits include "Duck" (Duck for President), "Brett" (13), "Man In Chair" (The Drowsy Chaperone), "Pip" (Great Expectations), "Bobby Strong" (Urinetown), "Jesus" (Godspell), "Chip" (25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), "Laurie Laurence" (Little Women), and "Jay Gatsby" (The Great Gatsby).

    Hogan places high importance on arts in the world and in education. He appreciates the years he's had at CGST and looks forward to continuing to grow the next generation of artists at the greatest camp in the world.



Technical Director

    A longtime CGST veteran, Rudy Schuepbach is thrilled to be joining camp for it's 20th Anniversary Summer as the resident Technical Director. He most recently worked as the Associate Technical Director at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon. He also has experience at UDM Theatre Company, Hilberry Theatre, Central Theatre Ensemble, Wayne State University, Central Washington University, Lower Columbia College, University of Detroit Mercy, and Hood River Valley High School.

    Additionally, Rudy has an MFA in Theatre Arts-Scenic Design from Wayne State University and an undergrad BA in Theatre Arts-Performance from Central Washington University. 



Assistant Camp Director

    As a Portland Native, Madison spent the last two years living in Chicago, Illinois studying Theatre Performance. 

    While in Chicago, Madison appeared in "Legally Blonde: The Musical", "25th Annual...Spelling Bee", "Our Town", "BBE: Family" and worked professionally as a haunt actor for haunt king, Rob Zombie in his series of Great American Nightmare Haunted Houses. In addition, Madison appeared in a professional sketch comedy group called "Curtain Call". 

    After two years in Chicago, Madison will be moving on to pursue a career in Theatre Administration at Wagner College in New York City. 

    Portland Credits include: "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" (Lucy), "RENT" (JoAnn Jefferson), "Little Women" (Amy), "Hello, Dolly!" (Ernestina). Madison spent 4 years as a camper at CGST before joining staff. 

    In addition to performance credits, Portland Directing credits include: "Water By The Spoonful" (CGST), "Milk and Honey" (CGST), "The Tony Award-Winning Musical"(CGST), "Assassin In The Castle"(CGST), and "The Boy who cried Puggle" (CGST). 

    Madison most recently worked with Broadway Rose Theatre Company in their Summer Mainstage production of "West Side Story". In addition to working with the full-time staff, Madison also currently serves as one of the Co-Chairs of the CGST Alumni Advisory Board.



Music Director

    Maria Caputo is a singer, pianist, music teacher, and theater music director. She splits her time between Manhattan and Fairfield County, CT, where she plays gigs, teaches piano lessons, and sings in some of New York's most storied halls. She is excited to return for her second year of teaching and directing at CGST.

    Recent music direction and pit orchestra credits include two productions each of Legally Blonde and Into the Woods.

    Maria is a soprano with the New York Choral Society and an inaugural member of Downtown Voices, the recently-established, New York Times-acclaimed choir out of Trinity Wall Street Church.

    Maria is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and has studied voice at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, Cuba. More information is available at


Kayla Rodriguez

Dance Director

    Kayla Rodriguez graduated cum laude from Roger Williams University with a B.A. in Dance Performance and Psychology in 2012. She was coach, captain, and choreographer of the Hawkettes Dance Team as a junior and a senior at Roger Williams University. As a dance major Kayla explored many different aspects of dance but found a niche in choreography. She choreographed a solo for both her Junior and Senior year and a group piece during her senior year.

    Presently Kayla is a professional dancer for Sonia Plumb Dance Company based in Hartford, CT. She is an Artist Instructor at Ana Grace Academy of the Arts where she teaches Pre-Ballet, Ballet, Creative Movement, Hip-Hop, World Dance and prepares and directs a show three times a year. Kayla is also a dance teacher at Dance 10 Performing Arts Center where she teachers pre-ballet, ballet, modern, pointe, youth hip-hop, and technique classes. Along with her teaching positions, Kayla is also a choreographer for events, performances, and competitions (Dance 10 Performing Arts Center). She also continues to choreograph on her own and has shown her choreography at festivals including Third Life Series (Cambridge, MA) & Identically Different Festival (Brooklyn, NY).

    Kayla has really enjoyed combining her interest in Psychology with dance. She created and teaches a Creative Movement Class once a month for children with Down syndrome through the Connecticut Down Syndrome Congress which has now been running for over two years. Kayla teaches a dance class for teenagers with special needs for the Town of Wethersfield Recreational Program once a week. She is certified in Joanne Lara’s, internationally recognized, Autism Movement Program, endorsed by Temple Grandin. Kayla, in collaboration with Sonia Plumb, was a recipient of the SPARK Grant to help fund movement classes for children with Autism that runs once a week. “Dance Classes for Children with Autism” is now running in 6 week sessions with classes being held once a week.


Heather King

Head Camp Counselor    

    Heather King is beyond thrilled to be returning to the CGST family! She has spent the last two years back in school for sign language interpreting and is ready to start combining her two greatest passions: children and arts! She is most proud of co-founding a theatre company known as World at Large Theatre.

    She was last seen in "She Loves Me" at Lakewood Center for the Arts and feels this coming year will hold many more opportunities. Peace, Love, and Applause-Hands to all!!!


John beck

Camp Counselor

    John William Beck is a bi-coastal resident of both New York and Oregon who has been a part of the CGST family since 2012! He is currently receiving his BFA in Acting from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University where he works with the Atlantic Acting School, founded by David Mamet and William H. Macy. He lives in Bushwick.

    Recent acting credits include Cloud Nine ("Betty" and "Edward," AAS), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ("George," AAS), and Assassins("John Wilkes Booth," CGST). Recent technical credits includes: Camp Kappawanna (Stage Manager, ATC), Found (Prompter, ATC), andThe Stageplay (Director, NYU).

    John looks forward to another great year of peace and love at CGST and can't wait to share what he's learned with those who taught him everything he knew!


Izzi Durham

Camp Counselor

    2016 is Izzi's eighth year at CGST. She has been acting for as long as she can remember, having performed in over thirty shows in schools, camps, and Seattle theaters. Favorite roles include Little Becky Two Shoes (Urinetown), Giuseppe Zangara (Assassins), Lear (The Memorandum), and Queen Aggravain (Once Upon a Mattress).

    A Seattle native, she now attends Pomona College, and hopes to get more involved with the theatre scene in the LA area during her time there. 

    She was a counselor-in-training for two summers, and is very excited to return to the home of peace and love as a counselor to share everything she's learned with a new generation of kids with a passion for theatre.


support staff

Various Roles

   In addition to a dedicated full-time Staff roster, CGST is supported by many volunteer and/or part-time staff members who assist with guest classes, rehearsals, production needs, and in many other capacities.

Our 2016 support staff includes:

Merv Johnstone, Camille Langston, Isaac Lee, lynne schuepbach, Julia Smith