Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

Single Carrot Theatre takes audiences by bus on a 'Promenade' through Baltimore neighborhoods

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

All the streets will be a stage when Single Carrot Theatre welcomes audiences aboard a bus for the world premiere of its traveling production “Promenade: Baltimore,” starting June 2.

For about 90 minutes, passengers will wear headphones, listening to a live-mix soundtrack of music, narration and interviews with local residents, while the bus weaves through several neighborhoods.

During frequent curbside stops, the theatergoers-in-transit will be able to observe through the windows diverse scenes performed on sidewalks and stoops by actors. Their dialogue won’t be heard inside the bus, but the soundtrack will provide a kind of complement to what Single Carrot describes as “poetic expressions of everyday life in Baltimore.”

“It is an experience instead of a play,” says Martin Boross, artistic director of the Hungarian theater company STEREO Akt, which created and premiered the original “Promenade” in Budapest in 2014. “It’s like a one-take movie. Everything outside the bus window becomes part of the plot.”

One of those who caught “Promenade” in the Hungarian capital three years ago was Genevieve de Mahy, artistic director and founding ensemble member of Singe Carrot.

“It was very enjoyable,” de Mahy says. “I loved how it shifted the way you look at the world outside. I thought, ‘We have to do this in Baltimore.’”

The collaboration between the two theater troupes began last October, when Boross and colleagues from STEREO Akt paid their first visit to Baltimore to explore the environs and develop ideas for a Charm City version of “Promemade.” They returned early this month to add finishing touches and start rehearsals.

“It is the first time we have re-created the piece,” Boross says. “It is a very demanding process to abandon or forget your original ideas.”

Single Carrot personnel took their Hungarian visitors on walking tours through such areas as Sandtown-Winchester, Reservoir Hill, Waverly, Charles Village, Guilford and Remington.

“We talked about borders and boundaries here, how neighborhoods butt up against each other,” de Mahy says. “And where some of those boundaries exist in a more hidden way.”

For Boross, being introduced to Baltimore was a revelation.

“I knew only very shallow things about the city before, images from ‘The Wire,’ mostly,” he says. “I was curious about it. A lot of things are very beautiful. I had never seen stoops. I saw a lot of paradoxes in the city. But while I saw the violence and poverty, I started to understand the coin has another side. I see a lot of hope and belief in these communities, too.”

Meetings with numerous neighborhood associations and businesses were held to help pave the way for the “Promenade” project. Interviews with dozens of residents were recorded for use on the soundtrack that bus riders will hear; some of those interviews also inspired scenes in the production. (Single Carrot plans to create an online platform for the public to hear the tapes.)

“In Hungary, people would not share their stories so easily as they do here,” Boross says. “That was a nice discovery for me personally.”

About 30 vignettes will be acted out along the route, some lasting a matter of seconds.

“There is a very high aspect of whimsy,” de Mahy says of “Promenade.” “What the actors are doing is not particularly deep or heavy. Somebody locking keys in a car. Spilling coffee on yourself. It’s a glimpse into their lives. It has a way of making the ordinary seem extraordinary.”

One vignette revolves around a lawn ornament flamingo, which a young man stops to take selfies with before accidentally knocking it over, triggering a fight with the object’s owner. Other folks on the sidewalk get drawn into the dispute. (During rehearsals last week, an owl statue was used as a stand-in for the flamingo, making the scene all the more distinctive.)

At another point on the route, a natty businessman chatting on his cellphone stops suddenly as he spots a suitcase in the middle of the sidewalk; his concern for safety sets off additional reactions from others on the street.

On a quiet block, there’s a brief scenario involving a man who goes into balletic motions with an umbrella. He also tries on wigs, attracting the tense assistance of a passing woman.

“Some characters come from our own observations here, and some from literature,” Boross says. “I also relied a lot on the characteristics of the actors — you obviously have to be real personalities to do this. I try to involve archetypes of the urban environment. It is important to avoid cliches.”

In crafting the activity depicted along the bus route, Boross had another goal in mind.

“A lot of the scenes are attacking stereotypes, or our [tendency] to have stereotypical views,” he says. “It’s attacking all kinds of prejudice.”

Although there isn’t a conventional linear narrative in “Promenade,” there is an underlying theme that has to do with more than what is being acted out on sidewalks as the bus follows its route.

“The bus itself represents how political transportation is in Baltimore,” de Mahy says, mentioning Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to cancel Baltimore’s proposed Red Line line rail project and the city’s impending overhaul of its bus system. “That fits nicely with this as well.”

A bus ride through parts of Baltimore also provides a reminder of the days of racial-based redlining of neighborhoods. The divides that continue in the city are part of the undercurrent in “Promenade.”

But this is still a work of theater, and it is made challenging not only by the fact that the audience is on wheels. With private homes and apartments as props, there is the little matter of access. Single Carrot folks have gone door to door to let residents know what will be happening outside their homes, and, in some cases, to seek permission to make use of front steps or porches.

“No one has turned us down,” de Mahy says. “It’s amazing.”

A potential twist in the proceedings involves people who just happen to wander past the actors while a scene is in progress.

“That can happen totally by chance,” Boross says. “Whatever reaction we get becomes part of the scenario. The actors shouldn’t resist. That would kill the illusion. In Budapest, when an actor playing an escapee got on the bus, someone walking by jumped in front of the bus to stop it. I had to tell him it was a show. He became for me an everyday hero.”

One thing Single Carrot Theatre typically does not have to think about when putting on productions is the weather. There’s always the possibility that it could rain on “Promenade,” but the company expects the show to go on regardless.

As for any other problems that might arise while transporting audiences around the city, de Mahy just smiles.

“We have liability insurance,” she says.

If you go

“Promenade: Baltimore” opens June 2 and runs to June 25. Performances are at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The bus leaves from Single Carrot Theatre, 2600 N. Howard St. Tickets are $10 to 45. Call 443-844-9253, or go to singlecarrot.com.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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