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Ensemble theater companies blossoming in Baltimore

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They're mostly in their 20s, college grads who majored in theater or related studies. If they weren't friends before deciding to collaborate, they're friends now. They're enthusiastic multitaskers. None of them will get rich soon.

Meet the participants in Baltimore's ensemble theater scene, which is making its presence felt in much same way as the city's underground music and art scenes, with a steady output of new, eclectic, provocative fare.

"There is a critical mass of young artists all in one area at one time looking to get work done," said Mike Vandercook, co-founder of the Generous Company, which recently relocated from New York and has a monthlong festival scheduled for January. "It's an exciting time to be around Baltimore. That's why we're here."

Where there were maybe two ensemble theater groups five years ago, there are at least eight now. Most have shoestring budgets, but they all appear to be settling in for the long haul, determined to increase their financial and artistic horizons.

"It seems like it's catching fire," said Nathan Cooper, Single Carrot Theater's artistic director. His colleague, Jessica Garrett, director of public relations for the company, went one step further: "I feel we're on the cusp of something huge in Baltimore," she said.

Definitions can get a little blurred, but some common attributes help identify ensemble theaters. They are artist-run, from top to bottom. The artists decide on an overriding mission and aesthetic voice for the company, and collectively settle on works to be produced. Those works are mostly contemporary.

There may be occasional open auditions, but most casting is done primarily from among company members. The artists also do pretty much everything that needs to be done to get a show onstage. They may act in a production, run the box office or lighting for the next, direct or even write the one after that.

The troupes, which typically have six to 10 core members, may have a home theater, or they might move around the city. Whatever the location, ticket prices are invariably low. And a lot of the communicating with the public will be done via social media.

"An ensemble company makes a commitment to its members, who have a desire to be masters of their own artistic destiny," said Steve Satta, artistic director of Iron Crow Theatre. "We find projects that interest us, and we make it happen. We create our own opportunities. You don't wait for someone to put on a play that has a part for you."

The blossoming ensemble theater movement got a boost in 2007 with the arrival of Single Carrot, founded by a group of friends from the University of Colorado in Boulder who were eager to work together after graduating.

"It's a real good city to be an entrepreneur," said J. Buck Jabaily, a founding member of Single Carrot and current director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance. "Baltimore is a place where you can apply your imagination."

In short order, Single Carrot took root in a storefront theater on North Avenue and started generating considerable buzz.

"It is such an awesome sensation to be welcomed here and feel this is our home, and to see more companies popping up," said Elliott Rauh, managing director of Single Carrot. "It inspires us."

When Single Carrot sprouted, Run of the Mill Theater was just about the only other ensemble-style enterprise in town. Run of the Mill folded last summer, but other groups that emerged in the past few years remain in the picture.

The Generous Company focuses on developing and producing new work; the festival in January, held at the Theatre Project, will showcase 16 pieces in various states of development.

Among those participating in that festival will be another of Baltimore's ensemble troupes, the Annex Theatre, which recently wrapped up a production of the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht classic "The Threepenny Opera."

Iron Crow Theatre, founded to produce the work of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender artists, has quickly built a record for imaginative stagings of edgy plays. Same for the Strand Theater Company, which showcases new work created, performed, designed or directed by women; this week will see the world premiere of Alison Luterman's "Glitter and Spew."

The local ensemble scene also includes Glass Mind Theatre, Baltimore Rock Opera Society and the newly formed StillPointe Theatre Initiative. More may be out there, or will be soon.

There's an informal association, the Baltimore Network of Ensemble Theaters, based on the Network of Ensemble Theaters, which was over 150 members across the country.

"BNET is an opportunity for organizations to come together and address topics that concern all of us," Cooper said. "We can walk away with action plans and goals. We're here to support each other."

Why do ensemble theaters seem to be growing? For one thing, they provide an appealing alternative to what can be a nomadic existence, heading from company to company, even city to city, for theater work.

And why Baltimore? "It's manageable for new companies financially," said Satta, a faculty member at Towson University's theater department. "You can afford to live here."

Sarah Ford Gorman, associate artistic director of Glass Mind Theatre, is originally from this area and returned after getting her undergraduate degree at Syracuse University.

"I didn't want to go to New York," Gorman said, "stand in line with 600 people for an audition, get rejected, go to a horrible job and back home to an apartment I couldn't afford."

Glass Mind was founded in 2009 by a group that included graduates of Towson University and University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Gorman describes Glass Mind as "a family, a commune." That sort of description can be heard in other ensemble companies.

"It seems so cliched, but at Single Carrot I get to work with my best friends," Garrett said. "I spend part of my day answering box-office phone calls, then get to perform onstage together with my friends that evening, then end up afterward with Natty Bohs at someone's house. It's nice work if you can get it."

That environment differs from the conventional setup for a nonprofit performing-arts organization, which includes separate administrative and artistic staffs, as in Baltimore's professional houses, Everyman Theatre and Center Stage.

Ensemble theaters reflect "the values of Generation Y," said Everyman's artistic director, Vincent Lancisi. "It may be tied to a need for more democracy in our art, a frustration with the traditional theater structure of artistic decision-making, where it's all trickling down from the artistic director. The DIY movement is to be applauded."

At community theaters, a volunteer model richly represented in Baltimore, there still tends to be an artistic and administrative distinction. The actors are not likely to call the shots.

In an ensemble theater, "everybody is invested on both sides, embedded in everything," Jabaily said. And although people in an ensemble theater group may start out not getting paid, the goal is to offer substantial stipends as soon as possible.

Single Carrot is already on such a path. The company has increased its annual budget from $4,000 to $250,000 since 2007 — enough to fund one full-time position and several part-time.

The company's strategic plan calls for a fully salaried staff starting in fiscal year 2016. That does not necessarily mean that the artists would then join Actors' Equity, the national union that confers the official imprimatur of professional status.

"I don't believe you have to have an Equity card to be a professional," Rauh said.

Most Baltimore ensemble company members earn their living outside the theater. Occupations include teacher, musician, restaurant server, bartender, graphic designer, mural artist, museum docent and volleyball coach.

This week, Glass Mind gives the premiere of "And Underneath the Moon," written by Gorman (her day job is nanny). A couple months ago, the playwright was onstage, starring in Glass Mind's vibrant production of "Den of Thieves," a volatile work by hotshot New York playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis.

And last week, Gorman helped out with Glass Mind's open-mike night held at a pub. The open-mike idea was related to the company's overall objective. "The goal is to explore the definition of the term 'theater,'" Gorman said.

Expanding the possibilities of what it means to experience theater is a common theme among the ensemble companies.

"With every show, we want to be unearthing something new, with an audience as a witness," said Moritz, whose day job is on the Everyman Theatre production staff as a carpenter and electrician. "Baltimore is very hospitable for new work. People will come out and engage with you in a positive way. But they'll also get up and walk out. It's a quick-responding crowd."

Audiences have quite an array of options to respond to — the Equity houses, such community theater stalwarts as the Vagabond Players, the training/production hybrid Performance Workshop Theatre, etc. So far, the ensemble companies are holding their own in this market.

"Baltimore is just a great place to make more theater," Rauh said.

Ensemble theater groups are coexisting peacefully; they regularly promote each other's work. They also enjoy cordial relations with community theaters.

"We have an offer from Vagabond Players to raid their costume shop whenever we need to," Satta said. "They get that we're not what they are. We are not competing with each other. There are lots of different flavors in the theater community here."

Added Cooper: "There is enough audience to go around, but we can all work together to create more. And if one theater is thriving, there is as much chance for another to thrive."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

A sampling of Baltimore's ensembler theater companies

•Annex Theater, search "Annex Theater" on Facebook

•Baltimore Rock Opera Society, baltimorerockopera.org

•Generous Company, generouscompany.org.

•Glass Mind Theatre, glassmindtheatre.com

•Iron Crow Theatre, ironcrowtheatre.com.

•Single Carrot, singlecarrot.com

•StillPointe Theatre Initiative, stillpointeti.tumblr.com.

•Strand Theater Company, strand-theater.org.

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