What It Takes To Build A Theater Town

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What It Takes To Build A Theater Town

Published in The Hopkins Review, New Series 8.2 (Spring 2015)

For a brief spell, back in the days when the Baltimore Business Journal had an arts-and-leisure page, I was the theater critic. In 1993 the BBJ killed that page, arts and leisure being viewed, I guess, as unbusinesslike. Having lost my own business reason to keep an eye on the Baltimore theater scene, I turned my attention to other matters the next 17 years. Then, in 2010, through my journalist wife’s good graces, I was offered the chance to take up reviewing again, now for the Baltimore “page” of BroadwayWorld.com. My resulting rediscovery of Baltimore theater at that point was like Rip Van Winkle’s awakening: the place was the same but almost everything in it had changed.

Clocking Out, Clocking In

As it happened, the moment I clocked out was close to the moment Vince Lancisi clocked in. Coming out of Catholic University in Washington with a master’s degree in directing, Lancisi in 1990 envisioned bringing a repertory professional theater company to a town that didn’t have one. Baltimore, he judged, filled the bill.

As he tells the story, when he looked at Baltimore he saw one top-notch regional theater, Center Stage, plus a thriving community theater scene, and very little else that was locally produced. There were, then as now, two large houses, at that time the Morris Mechanic Theatre and the Lyric Opera House, where national touring companies of Broadway shows could alight for a week or two, but of course those shows were anything but local. And, though Lancisi does not mention it, there was one house, the Theatre Project, where avant garde productions, local, national, and international, staged brief runs. Even adding that detail, however, Lancisi was right that this state of affairs left a need the new company he had in mind could help supply. All he had to do was convince Baltimore audiences to agree that the need existed, and that the dozen or so community theaters, whatever their virtues, were no substitute for what a small professional company could offer. Lancisi dubbed his company Everyman, partly as a reference to the medieval morality play, partly to proclaim for the troupe’s aspiration to universality.

When Lancisi and I compared notes, we agreed that in the interim between the early 90s and 2010, while I was playing Rip Van Winkle and he was building Everyman, Baltimore became a theater town.

No Magic Formula, But …

Definitions first: what does one mean by the phrase “a theater town”? Clearly, there’s no easy synonym, no bright line demarcating theater towns from others, much less a magic formula for making one emerge. Nonetheless, it’s very easy to take Baltimore as a test case, and look at what’s been added over the last two decades. Without some of these additions, the label wouldn’t have fit. The additions are what make the difference, and they are worth considering.

Surely the single most striking difference between 1990 and now is that where there was once only one company staging original professional productions in its own house, there are now four, spanning an impressive spectrum.

First and foremost is the same pillar that sustained Baltimore at the beginning, Center Stage, now in its 52nd season, a typical age for a product of the regional theater movement. I have been around to witness most of Center Stage’s trajectory. At the beginning, Center Stage bore some resemblances to Everyman today: a focus on mainstream, non-musical dramas and comedies, with a good helping of classics. And there was at Center Stage, if not a regular company, a solid core of actors who regularly appeared there, some of whom stayed principally in the region for most of their careers. A couple escaped into the larger world and became national names, like Terry O’Quinn and Christine Baranski. But audiences could look to see many of the same faces from production to production, and watch pronouncedly local talent grow and become more assured.

The Equity Trap

That local flavor to Center Stage was just ending around the time Lancisi’s company arrived, with the appointment of Irene Lewis as Center Stage’s artistic director. There were two notable changes when Lewis took over from Stan Wojewodski, Jr. One change was salutary: the repertoire was altered to take into account that Baltimore is a majority-minority town. Plays by African American playwrights began to appear, and casts became more diverse. The other change looked good but wasn’t: local actors became close to unwelcome, as Center Stage’s casting took on a decidedly New York look. It became rare for programs to reflect any, or at least any recent, Center Stage experience among the on-stage talent. Basically, Center Stage became a home-away-from-home for Off-Broadway casts, a source of gigs for actors who had never been to Charm City before and most likely never would again.

Of course the fits between actors and roles became amazingly precise; when you have all the wealth of unemployed New York talent to choose from, you can make some astonishingly on-point casting decisions. But who were all these people (other than being members of Equity)? No one knew, and no one ever found out. Nor did it help that the Lewis regime coincided with the last gasp of most of the few remaining corporate headquarters in Baltimore; in the consolidation of the world’s most influential corporations, Baltimore had become a branch town. And in the Lewis era, Center Stage became a branch town too.

New Impressario in Town

The company, and the world of Baltimore theater, deserved better leadership, and received it when in 2011 the board announced an electrifying and unexpected choice: charismatic Guyanan-and-British playwright and impressario Kwame Kwei-Armah. (He will say he “stands on [Lewis’] shoulders,” and this may be more than mere politeness; still, things are different now.) Center Stage audiences knew him from his play Elmina’s Kitchen, produced there in 2005, a bitter slice-of-life from the London suburb of Hackney, turf ruled by black gangsters. He may have been an exotic addition to the scene, but he quickly signaled a serious commitment to Baltimore, networking quickly with everyone: managers of the other companies, academia, even (impressive to me for obvious reasons) the local corps of reviewers, whom he lunched and staged an open-ended dialogue with.

He also announced a policy of trying to develop local talent in a way Center Stage had not done for a while. Kwei-Armah and managing director Steve Richard launched a wide variety of new initiatives, chose a more daring selection of plays, and created a sense of excitement around the now-venerable institution that had been missing for a while. And the numbers reflected the turnaround: attendance, subscriptions, and revenues all rose.

Picking Up the Discards

Meanwhile, Everyman has been developing local talent right along. Lancisi was committed from the start to building a repertory troupe of Equity actors. In fact, his company had picked up some of the largely or totally discarded Center Stage “regulars” from before the Lewis regime, including Tana Hicken, Wil Love, and Vivienne Shub. And together Lancisi’s crew forged a somewhat lonely path to something like parity with the Center Stage colossus. In the 2013-14 season, after years of careful and provident planning, Everyman moved into new quarters in a beautifully refurbished former vaudeville house and movie theater in the heart of the old Baltimore downtown. This space was a step up in the most literal sense. I had seen, in Everyman’s old space in what is now known as the Station North Arts District, balcony scenes that had to be rendered only a few steps up from the characters “below,” because there was no way to achieve any more significant grade separation. In the opening production at the new downtown theater Everyman at last had a stage with sufficient vertical clearance to perform August Osage County (where a set’s three different floors are de rigeur).

When Everyman largely picked up Center Stage’s “discards” and added new actors to the mix, it was a small step to creating a pool of local Equity talent who were associated with more than one stage, but the traffic was flowing mostly from Center Stage to Everyman, not the other way around. There has of late been at least one instance of talent moving in the other direction, Bruce Nelson, an actor who was nurtured at Everyman and then got picked up to perform some important roles at Center Stage, including Groucho’s persona Captain Spaulding in a dramatized Animal Crackers and Vanya in Christopher Durang’s instant classic Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. But basically that effort has stalled. Most of the Center Stage casts are still unknowns in Baltimore, probably because it is hard to develop a pool of local Equity talent without a larger number of places for the members of such a pool to play. Stephen Richard, Center Stage’s Managing Director, tells me that there is now – as opposed to perhaps as recently as five years ago – “a strong Baltimore, and certainly Baltimore-Washington corps of actors.” And he says that there is at least talk at Center Stage of consciously training local actors to work at Center Stage’s level. The jury is still out on Center Stage’s seriousness about this, but it is at least the right aspiration.

Having It All

Lancisi expects change, too, but in a different way, not so much by local actors moving back and forth among local venues as by local actors “having it all,” jumping from Everyman to national stage and screen, and back again, an incubator for national talent. He cites the example of company member Eric Berryman, whose dance card was so filled up with commitments in New York and elsewhere he had to take a pass on this season altogether, but is fully expected back. Megan Anderson and Dawn Ursula, two other members of the company, had recurring roles on The Wire and continue fully engaged at Everyman. Danny Gavigan will be doing three plays with Everyman next season – and living in Los Angeles the rest of the time pursuing film work.

The forces inhibiting the local sharing of talent do not operate so powerfully out of the acting sphere, in crafts unconstricted by Equity. The local career of Joseph Ritsch is a prime instance. In addition to serving as Co-Producing Artistic Director for the REP Stage, an Equity troupe in nearby Columbia, Maryland, Ritsch has directed at Everyman and teaches and has directed at Towson University. Nor is he remotely alone. Lancisi teaches at University of Maryland Baltimore County. Center Stage and Everyman share personnel with every academic theater program and many community theaters, and Everyman provides internship opportunities for students at the Baltimore School for the Arts (and an institution that counts Jada Pinkett Smith and Tupac Shakur among its graduates is indeed a likely source of talent).

Everyone Got Fed

There are more things to share than talent. When Everyman moved downtown, as Elliott Rauh told me, everyone else in the small-theater Baltimore world “got fed.” Rauh is one of the founders and the Managing Director of the collective known as the Single Carrot Theatre (after Paul Cezanne’s comment that “[t]he day is coming when a single carrot freshly observed, will set off a revolution.”). Every other theater company in town got something from the surplus materials that Everyman was leaving behind, said Rauh. In Single Carrot’s case, the physical loot was some of Everyman’s chairs and filing cabinets. For Rauh, this was just a small example of Everyman’s generosity. Over half the Single Carrot company “has gone through Everyman’s doors and received a paycheck” for some kind of work there. More than that, as Rauh commented to me. “Vinnie is such a strong mentor for everyone.”

Weird Shit

Single Carrot’s founding legend is well-known in the Baltimore theater world, and Lancisi played a role in it. The Carrots started as a group of drama students at the University of Colorado, looking around in 2006 for a town in which to continue working together. They hit upon Baltimore in large part because they spoke to Lancisi, who was generous with his connections, and with his advice, which, succinctly, was to come to Baltimore. Acceding to that recommendation, Single Carrot immediately made a splash with small quirky productions that Rauh happily recalls “may not be what you would find at a community theater or the major institutions here,” staged in bohemian spaces that may have been cold and may have required audience members to ascend many flights of stairs, but were in areas of emerging nightlife, productions that were either from young playwrights new to the Baltimore scene or were collaborative compositions of the collective. These unusual productions quickly created what Rauh calls “a patron base,” or, more pointedly, “a population of people that loved weird shit in this city.”

In a review prompted by my first encounter with them in 2010, a play about theme parks where the planet’s ecological crisis was held at bay, and about Native Americans brought in as “local color,” I mentioned that the Carrots’ youthful energy reminded me a lot of the first crop of Not Ready for Prime Time Players on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. Like the SNL ensemble, the Single Carrot troupe were very good, very different, and no one (least of all themselves) had any idea what the limits of their talent were. But they have been figuring it out.

Turning Point in the Founding Legend

The Carrots are professionals, in that they are each paid a stipend, and many of them live on it. But a remarkable thing about their achievement is the speed with which they have been transcending the “starving artist” stereotype, against the backdrop of some notable challenges.

Most notable of these was the abrupt closure of Load of Fun, the artistically-graffitoed performance space within a disused auto dealership that Single Carrot had been using from 2007 to August 2012. When City inspectors found Load of Fun not up to code, and pulled its use and occupancy permit, everything happening in the building, including not only Single Carrot but at least one other theater company and an art gallery space, was potentially out of business. In the six years that the Carrots had been plying their trade in Baltimore, however, they had made good and powerful friends. Fred Lazarus, the president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, called Rauh and assured him the Institute would find a temporary space for the planned season to proceed. And then, Rauh and his colleagues leveraged other connections and friends to raise the funds to do in an auto repair shop what Lancisi and company had done in the disused vaudeville house: create a theater that was not a mere make-do but a gleaming trophy space. And today, when you enter the Single Carrot facility, you see beside the door a placard announcing an affiliation even more powerful in Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University. It’s an instance of what Rauh calls “cultural capital.”

Single Carrot’s new season, its eighth, is announced on its website, and the shows it promises continue to be things most of the audience has never heard of. But that lack of familiarity is not (as might be the case if Kwei-Armah tried to make Center Stage too breathtakingly original) the kiss of death. Rather it is the biggest reason why we can be pretty certain there will be a sixteenth season eventually.

Which is not to say that Center Stage is not part of the story of Single Carrot’s success. Center Stage receives hundreds of scripts a year, many of them promising but not right for the company that is formally designated “The State Theater of Maryland.” Gavin Witt, Center Stage’s Associate Artistic Director, who knows what the Carrots do, forwards many promising scripts to the Carrots.

Growing a Fringe

Ian Gallanar, Founding Director of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, which has moved to Baltimore this year after eleven years performing in the exurbs of Howard County, speaks admiringly of the Single Carrot troupe: “Single Carrot came in and they went: ‘This is how you do it,’” he says. “And because of that,” there were suddenly a lot of fringe troupes out there.

Some shy away from the “fringe” label, but it is useful. It refers to organizations that from bylaws or tax returns might look like community theaters, but somehow aren’t. Their actors and staffs are generally unpaid like the actors and staffs of community theaters. But fringe companies are informed by a kind of vision that makes the “community theater” label seem inadequate, even inaccurate. Typically they serve a particular vision or speak for a particular slice of the community only. Thus there is the Strand Theater Company (specializing in works by and about women), Iron Crow Theatre (“a queer theatre celebrating the renegade and the unorthodox, in all of us”), Glass Mind Theatre (“exploring the boundaries of the theatrical experience through interactive concepts”), and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (“LET’S PARTY!!!!”) Center Stage’s Stephen Richard observes that he does not know of any city with a vibrant theater scene of which this kind of presence is not an element. Baltimore now has it.

The Bard’s New Home

Chesapeake Shakespeare’s Gallanar immediately follows up on his “this is how you do it” observation with the caution that it is exceedingly hard for fringe companies to summon the business savvy that made Single Carrot’s transformation into an institution possible. When he talks about the business savvy it takes to institutionalize a theater company, he speaks with authority attested to by the setting in which we’re talking: the first balcony of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s new home in a former bank in downtown Baltimore.

Below us the set for the house’s third production is in rudimentary construction. We can look almost directly down because this space is deliberately configured to be highly reminiscent of the Bard’s “wooden O, with the stage thrust forward into the middle of the circle, so that it is three-quarters in-the-round, and nearly as close to the balcony and second balcony as it is to the groundlings. Above the Corinthian columns that hold up the high ceiling are highly ornate and brightly-colored squares of plasterwork. The theater is simply a knockout.

Gallanar agrees that the new theater not only permits but indeed requires a significant expansion of the repertoire. Once you have a facility that can do shows year round, you cannot just have it empty. More shows in that space is a “consummation devoutly to be wished.” Two months earlier, I had attended press night for the very first show there, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a production so good I went back and saw it again on my own nickel.

Apart from the fact that Single Carrot and Chesapeake Shakespeare have spanking new digs, they might appear to be artistic antitheses. The Single Carrot troupe look like and prize the mystique of artistic insurrectionists from the far west; Chesapeake Shakespeare, under the guidance of Managing Director Lesley Malin (whom I credit for the best Beatrice I ever saw) is heavily classically-trained. The Single Carrots’ most conventional production may have been a Vaclav Havel work in which they switched around the gender roles to make it more subversive. William Shakespeare, for all his “infinite variety,” generally remains the ultimate safe choice for theatrical programming. True, Chesapeake Shakespeare’s version of anything by Shakespeare, replete with musicians, warm-up acts, encouragement to take drinks to seats, may be what Malin calls “Shakespeare for Baltimore,” and a bit distinct from what one might experience in Washington’s two Shakespeare venues. But at the end of the day, it is still Shakespeare (and assorted other mostly classical playwrights, e.g. Wilde and Chekov this season).

Similarities

And yet the differences may be more superficial than one would expect.

Partly there is the history each company shares of wandering “in the wilderness” that preceded the triumphant entry into these two new facilities. Single Carrot’s hegira has already been described. In a similar vein, Chesapeake Shakespeare offered summer performances outdoors under the isolated ruins (reachable mainly by shuttle bus) of a 19th-century young ladies’ finishing school high above the Patapsco River, and in other seasons (when there were other seasons) peripatetically. (I once saw them do Merchant of Venice in the upper loft of a barn. While the summer shows in the ruins will continue, the barnstorming is over.)

Then too the companies share audiences that skew younger than most. This is predictable with a fringe company made up of young people, but somewhat surprising with a troupe that mainly does plays in an archaic form of our language written over four hundred years ago. It is reported, however, that Shakespeare companies everywhere do well with younger audiences, perhaps because rightly or wrongly Shakespeare is often viewed as “safe” to take young people to. As Gallanar and Malin each pointed out to me, the result of Shakespeare’s universal popularity is that most cities have at least one Shakespeare company, and there is a league of Shakespeare theaters.

And like Single Carrot, Chesapeake Shakespeare has been forced to go the non-Equity route (for the most part: there may be one or two Equity “guest contracts” now and again). In his comments to me, Vince Lancisi regretted that all the professional companies in town could not be Equity, and he hopes that someday they all will be. And there are subtle quality differences one can sense when the company is comprised exclusively of actors who have gone through the career screening that an Equity membership bespeaks. That should not obscure Baltimore’s good fortune, however, to have four professional companies, three of them repertory, each with its own impressive house. It is also Baltimore’s good fortune to have them synergizing so well (whether it be through sharing chairs or scripts or filing cabinets or simply turning up at each other’s opening nights, which to my observation is becoming something of a custom in Baltimore of late).

Amateurs in Name Only

But wait, as a commercial might say, there’s more! I would not want to suggest that the only reason Baltimore has transformed itself into a theater town is these four professional companies, nor these plus the three new theaters, nor even all of that plus the emergence of a more pronounced fringe. It is these things plus everything else, much of which is happening in the world around.

You can actually see this more clearly below the professional level. Go back and read the cast blurbs in a Baltimore community theater program from the 1980s, and then look at the blurbs in a program from the same company today or better yet one of the fringe companies. Odds are you will observe in progress the professionalization of the nominally amateur sphere. Once, the actors’ and directors’ credentials consisted mainly of other community theater roles. Today, the brief resumes are apt to reflect those roles still but also some academic training or significant professional experience. The increasing frequency of BFAs and formal training may well be the consequence of the academic programs turning out more trainees and graduates than the market can bear. (A universal lament among the theater managers I spoke to was the supreme difficulty of making a living as a theater professional.)

And in the Baltimore area, there are some academic significant players, including in Washington the programs at Catholic, George Washington, Georgetown, and American Universities, and more locally University of Maryland Baltimore County (which has its own gleaming new theater), Towson University, and Goucher College (seedbed of the previously mentioned Baltimore Rock Opera Society), not to mention Notre Dame University of Maryland and historically black Morgan State University. And at least at the musical end of the spectrum, it also reflects the new professional venues which have emerged into greater prominence in recent years: theme parks and cruise lines among them. Everyone is just getting better at the game. (And even at the professional level, Malin observed that the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company “require[s] a different kind of actor now.”)

A Golden Age of Playwriting, a Bumper Crop of Critics

And the game is getting better too. By common consensus among the people I talked with, the country is in the midst of what Lancisi call “the golden age of playwrights.” In a world that is giving us people like Lynn Nottage, Lee Blessing, Theresa Rebeck, Naomi Wallace, Kate Moira Ryan, Michael Weller, Lisa D’Amour, Bruce Norris, Doug Wright, Jason Robert Brown, Christopher Durang, Sarah Ruhl, Donald Margulies, Tracy Letts and Colman Domingo, just to name a few new playwrights recently produced in Baltimore or its immediate environs, and Amy Herzog, who will see two plays produced by Center Stage in 2015, there is so much exciting material that it is just hard to go wrong using it, and there is a vast pool of playwriting talent out there that has not even been tapped in Baltimore yet (see my reviews of the nearby Contemporary American Theater Festival in 2012 and 2014 in these pages for numerous cases in point). The juggernaut is still picking up steam.

Nor should the impact of the somewhat expanding local theatrical commentariat be ignored. Theater is a dialogue between performers and audience, as we well know, but it is also a dialogue between performers and reviewers. The Internet, though deeply implicated in the decline of the press, has in this particular probably given back more than it took away. Between my previous stint as local critic and my new one, there have emerged five on-line publications that regularly review theater locally: not only my own home, BroadwayWorld.com, but also Maryland Theatre Guide, the Baltimore Post Examiner, and two DC-based sites: DC Metro Theatre Arts, and DC Theatre Scene. The fact that these are not paper publications has facilitated broader coverage. BroadwayWorld alone, for instance, has five or six reviewers working in Baltimore at any given time, and we still do not cover everything that is happening. No physical newspaper could ever give space to so many reviewers or provide such deep coverage. Add to the online commentary the remainders of the conventional press (the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore City Paper, and one or two paper publications plus a broadcaster or two), and there is more than a sufficiency, if not yet a plethora, of reviewing voices, some quite sophisticated, poking and prodding the artistic directors and actors and directors and keeping them grounded. (Or at least so I, as one of the reviewers, would like to think.)

Growth at the Edges

Even at the extreme edges, expansion goes on. For instance, the expanding art burlesque scene, with roots in the theatrical tradition of revue as well as striptease, shares facilities, performers, and audiences with the theater fringe and the community theater. Or, at the other extreme, the Baltimore Symphony orchestra now has its own playwright-in-residence, Didi Balle. (I recently witnessed her short play about Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, presented in conjunction with a performance of the symphony itself.)

The future promises more and better. For example, plans, perhaps over-ambitious, perhaps not, have been announced for a theater incubator project on Howard street that would provide a home for five fringe-y companies: Annex Theater, EMP Collective, Effervescent Collective, Stillpointe Theatre, Acme Corporation, and Psychic Readings.

Three Generations

As Elliott Rauh summed it up, Baltimore has “great arts funding, a welcoming arts community, a big city with a small city feel, and a place where we as artists can afford to live and be artists and make the work we want to.” Baltimore has benefitted now from a generation of what Lancisi called “blood, sweat, tears, and development,” development that included the contributions of people Lancisi calls “cultural philanthropists” like the late Tana Hicken, who donated performances of The Belle of Amherst to raise money for the new theater, and held bake sales to boot.

As the joke goes, after a while you’re talking about real money. You’re talking about a foundation so broad a great many things can rest on it. And that, I think, is the not terribly secret, not terribly original explanation of Baltimore’s new “overnight” status as a theater town: it was the work of three generations at least: one to build the community theaters, one to build Center Stage, and one to build almost everything else upon that foundation. And if you were sleeping like Rip Van Winkle, you might have missed it.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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