Single Carrot Theatre, the zesty venture by a bunch of buddies from the University of Colorado who decided to cultivate a company in Baltimore, now has something it has long desired — a permanent roof over its head.
This week's inauguration of a spiffy venue at the corner of North Howard and 26th streets in the metamorphosing Remington neighborhood marks a milestone and fresh opportunity for the troupe, devoted to cutting-edge repertoire.
"It feels like the first six years were one chapter and this is a new chapter," says Genevieve de Mahy, a founding member of Single Carrot. "It's like we've grown up and gone off to college."
There's a grown-up budget to go with the change — $345,000, almost $100,000 more than last season and more than eight times the budget in the company's early years. There's a big new capital campaign, too, already halfway toward reaching its goal of raising $400,000 by the end of 2014.
All of this represents a long journey in the course of just seven years.
Single Carrot roamed from performance space to performance space in its first months before settling down at Load of Fun, an artist-filled spot on North Avenue. It was far from luxurious, but it worked — until the place was suddenly shut down in 2012 for building code violations.
Along the way, Single Carrot got wind of a $3.8 million renovation project by the Seawall Development Co. to convert an auto repair and tire shop at 2600 N. Howard St.
The theater company signed on as a tenant in the complex, which also houses Young Audiences Maryland (a six-decade-old nonprofit that facilitates arts education programs) and will be the future home of Parts and Labor, a butcher shop-restaurant planned by restaurateur Spike Gjerde.
The Single Carrot portion of the building is about 6,000 square feet, twice what the company had at Load of Fun. The theater can accommodate an audience of 99 (65 was the maximum at Load of Fun). There's also a separate rehearsal hall-classroom just off the lobby that can also be used as an intimate black-box performance space.
With high ceilings, exposed brick walls and hardwood floors, the overall ambience is decidedly inviting.
"Every time I walk in, I'm amazed," says de Mahy, 30. "I'm loving it. On Aug. 20, the floor was just rubble. You blinked, and there were walls and windows."
And lighting and rigging systems, sufficient restrooms, a green room (the traditional lounge for performers), and office space on the second floor. Not to mention temperature control, kitchen, washing machine and more comforts of home.
No wonder company members seem to have bigger smiles and brisker walks these days. Single Carrot is clearly on the move.
"It would be a very different story if we had been thrilled with being a $40,000 organization," says managing director Elliott Rauh. "But when the idea of Single Carrot started in a classroom in Boulder, Colo., we all had a desire to be something larger down the road. And at a retreat in the fall of 2009, we said we'd have a $500,000 budget by 2015. I don't think we'll actually end up there, but we love to make great leaps."
Rauh, a founding member who has acted in several Single Carrot productions over the years, is one of four full-time administrative employees; two production personnel account for another full-time equivalent position.
"Adding staff and getting paid real salaries is a big change for us," Rauh, 30, says. "One reason we were able to grow is because we hired our first full-time development director, a major cultural shift for us. Genevieve had been doing it part time, but she was also acting and directing."
For a company that started out very do-it-yourself, Single Carrot looks and acts more professional than ever. The new development director, Batya Feldman, worked at Center Stage and Everyman.
Among recent additions to the resident company are Paul Diem, who studied at Towson University and is acting chair of the theater department at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology, and actor-playwright Alix Fenhagen, who arrived with experience at New York's Subjective Theatre Company.
Several of the original "Carrots" left over the years, some to start or join other theatrical ventures in the area and abroad; one was offered the job of running the drama program at his old high school.
Although Single Carrot is not an Equity company, which would require actors to be paid according to union guidelines, there is some money for performers, more than there used to be.
"The first payment was $5," Rauh says. "Everyone donated it back to the company. Now it is $200 per production. And there is another $100 to $160 for educational programs we do."
And even as some founding members have moved on to other pursuits over the years, others from the region and beyond have quickly joined the ranks.
"All the [former] Carrots are still in the industry, making art, and they are all still close to us," Rauh says. "And there are other like-minded actors who fit into the Carrot aesthetic. They have brought in all kinds of new energy and ideas."
Helping to harvest the current crop at the theater is Kellie Mecleary, who worked at Center Stage as artistic and dramaturgy fellow before joining Single Carrot as interim artistic director in August.
"I am constantly impressed and have so much respect for the culture of this company," says Mecleary, 27. "It's a warm, humane group of people, which is a big reason why the company has continued to grow. At its core, it's about valuing one another. I can't tell you how important and how rare that is. Also, the art is good."
The company has only begun considering what the facility means in terms of programming.
"We will do season planning in late February, early March," Rauh says. "The new building allows us a lot of flexibility. We could have a performance that encompasses the rehearsal hall, the lobby and the main theater. Who knows? Are we going to produce 'Hello, Dolly' here? I don't know, but if we did, it would be Carrot-style."
Meanwhile, the first production in the new space, opening next weekend, is a piece by American playwright Will Eno very much in the Carrot tradition — "The Flu Season," which involves a mental hospital, patients in love, caregivers with issues and a pair of commentators named Prologue and Epilogue.
"It's quite complex and difficult," Mecleary says. "I think it will be a really powerful experience from the moment the audience walks through the door. The two narrators try to tell you what to make of what happens, but over the course of the play they start to question themselves."
The remainder of the season will have an Eastern European accent.
In April, the company will offer "The Memo," a satire from 1965 by the late Czech playwright and statesman Vaclav Havel about company employees required to learn a made-up language. The season wraps up in June with the U.S. premiere of "The Apocalypse Comes at 6 p.m.," a recent work by Bulgarian poet and playwright Georgi Gospodinov about a town paralyzed by an invisible sniper.
"Last season had a Latin American bent to it," says Jessica Garrett, 30, the company's director of public relations and education. "This season is more Eastern European. But it wasn't intentional. Sometimes you realize there is a theme only when you are in the season."
When Single Carrot started up, it was one of the few companies regularly presenting off-the-beaten-path works. Today there are several, many of them also founded by young, close-knit groups.
They may not all enjoy the resources or stability of Single Carrot, but such ensembles as Iron Crow Theatre, Annex Theater, Glass Mind Theatre, Strand Theater Company, Stillpointe Theatre Initiative and Baltimore Rock Opera Society have added distinctive touches to the local theatrical tapestry.
"I am of the ilk that thinks the more theater happens in the city the better," Rauh says. "It means more theatergoers. One of the great things about Baltimore is that it offers everything from awesome shows at Center Stage or Everyman to a new company just starting in the Copycat Building."
Single Carrot may even add to the mix by bringing companies from other places into its new space for limited runs. Additionally, the Carrot folks are open to collaborative projects with troupes in the area and beyond; they already have an association with 36 Monkeys, a theater company in Bulgaria.
De Mahy envisions other possibilities for the Carrots — working with a new playwright to develop a piece that would then head to off-Broadway, for example; or getting several local companies to present works by the same playwright in the same season.
The core mission will remain.
"We have always wanted to bring work that isn't being done elsewhere," de Mahy says. "And still keep it intimate and Carrot-y," Garrett adds.
For de Mahy, the building provides a whole new opportunity to expose the uninitiated to the world of the stage.
"My joy is introducing people to Single Carrot, people who are not regular theatergoers, people in their 20s and 30s like us," she says, "people whose perception of theater is that it's boring, all period costumes or big, expensive musicals. I like to turn them into regular theatergoers who will go to see things at other places, too."
That's one side of Single Carrot. Mecleary outlines another.
"I get the most excited about work that does not let audiences be just passive observers," she says, "and that's what Single Carrot is about. In participating, people are, hopefully, being changed in some way, thinking anew about the world."
If you go
"The Flu Season" has previews at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and opens 7:30 p.m. Friday with a gala. Performances continue through Feb. 15 at Single Carrot Theatre, 2600 N. Howard St. Call 443-844-9253 or go to singlecarrot.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun