Nearly a decade ago, Michael Patrick Flanagan Smith, a Frederick-born playwright, actor and musician who called Baltimore home for several years, began digging into the life of Woody Guthrie. The fruits of that exploration are now onstage in New York.
"Woody Guthrie Dreams" opened a three-week run Thursday off-off Broadway at the Theater for the New City.
It remains to be seen if the play has the legs to move later to off-Broadway or maybe even the Great White Way itself.
"I'd be lying if I said it doesn't cross my mind sometimes," Smith said with a slight laugh by phone from New York. "But I'm just focused on the day-to-day. It has been a rough road to get this far."
Smith originally envisioned a one-man play about Guthrie, who raised his voice in song, especially on behalf of the disadvantaged and disheartened during the Depression, and left an indelible mark on American folk music.
"Then I realized the vitality of all the other guys in Woody's life, like Leadbelly, Cisco Houston and Pete Seeger," said Smith, 35. "They could each have their own plays. So I wanted it to be epic, a bigger statement that had historical information and a cosmic thread."
With the extra characters and expanded focus, the work was first presented at the Creative Alliance in 2004 under the title "Woody Guthrie Dreams Before Dying." It sold out and returned to that space a few months later for a three-week engagement.
Smith, who earned a degree in theater at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was involved in other pursuits at the time. He founded and directed the Living Room Company (it produced events in off-beat locations from 1999 until 2005), for example, and collaborated on shows for Fluid Movement and Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey.
But he decided to leave Baltimore not long after his Guthrie play had its second run at the Creative Alliance.
"I moved to New York, frankly, to get this play done here," Smith said.
The effort took time as well as money.
"We held benefits, we called on friends and family, and we used [the online donation site] Kickstarter," said Caleb Stine, a Baltimore-based musician who has the role of Houston in the show. "The people involved in this number in the hundreds, when you count those who gave $25 on Kickstarter. That's so powerful."
Smith said that about $30,000 was raised for the production. The performers are working for "modest stipends."
There are other Baltimore connections among the actors, including Benjamin Jaeger-Thomas and Jennifer Restivo, also UMBC alumni who are now based in New York. And Sarah Seely, who founded and directed a dance troupe called movement/addiction in Baltimore before relocating to New York, provided the choreography for "Woody Guthrie Dreams."
"We've all been busting ourselves," Stine said. "Everyone is giving 150 percent, wearing multiple hats, down to hanging the lights. It has been a blast to see it all unfold, to know we have this incredible ensemble, to assemble this many talented people who are so selfless. I've never experienced anything like this."
The Colorado-born Stine, recipient of a "b-grant" as part of the 2011 Baker Artist Awards for Baltimore-area artists, brings an appropriate perspective to Smith's play.
"I arrived in Baltimore 11 years ago after a Woody Guthrie-ish road trip," he said. "I spent three months trying to trace the steps of Jack Kerouac but mostly found K-Mart. Baltimore was the first place I stopped where I got a whiff of the old America."
Not long after settling in Charm City, Stine and Smith became friends and musical colleagues. They collaborated on the arrangements for the nearly two dozen songs, some of them little known, performed in "Woody Guthrie Dreams."
"The first time I saw Mike's show [at Creative Alliance], it just blew me away," Stine said. "Last fall, Mike got the script into some hands for a dramatic reading at the Theater for the New City. When he asked me to come up and read the part of Cisco, I thought, cool. It was a totally powerful performance. There was standing room only, and people stayed around and sang songs with the cast after."
That reading paved the way for the full-fledged production now onstage in an East Village venue with a history of presenting politically charged works.
"This theater is pretty rough-and-tumble," Smith said.
That makes it a doubly fitting spot to relive the life of a singer and songwriter who had his share of rough-and-tumble moments on the way to becoming an American icon. Guthrie's colorful life unfolds in the play via flashback.
"I did so much research for this, but, for a long time, I had no idea where to start the play," Smith said. "At one point, I considered writing a play about not being able to write a play about Woody Guthrie."
Eventually, Smith seized on Guthrie's final years.
"What struck me was something that people don't know in detail, that Woody was bedridden for over a decade before he died," the playwright said. "I thought, 'What is this man of action going to do if he's stuck in bed?' The only thing he can do is dream. That unlocked it for me."
That bed was in a New Jersey psychiatric hospital, where Guthrie was committed when his behavior became erratic, brought on by a genetic disorder called Huntington's disease. He died in 1967 at the age of 55, leaving behind a collection of folk songs that helped to define the country, most indelibly in "This Land Is Your Land," Guthrie's pointed response to what he considered the overly sentimental "God Bless America."
In Smith's play, Guthrie's dreams take him back to the days of the Dust Bowl and political activism, adventures in the merchant marine during World War II, marriages, and associations with other great folk musicians.
Smith's passion for the subject started when he was in his 20s.
"I was a big Bob Dylan fan, and it was from Dylan that I first heard about Woody Guthrie," Smith said. "I heard the famous recordings Guthrie made for the Library of Congress. A friend gave me a copy of 'Bound for Glory' [Guthrie's autobiography]. I had mixed feelings about it. But then I heard the 'Mermaid Avenue' album put out by Billy Bragg and Wilco, with new music for lyrics Woody never got to record. The breadth of material was so rich."
Determined to learn more about the man who had such a lasting influence, Smith voraciously read Guthrie-related material and interviewed several people who knew him, including Guthrie's daughter, Nora.
"Woody wasn't popular, in any sense of that word today, when he was alive," Smith said. "He was not considered famous. The legacy has endured because his wife and a small group of friends really believed he was an important figure. Woody captured a very, very American kind of archetype, but at the same time he feels rooted in something much more ancient. There's an almost mythological dimension to him."
Stine, a songwriter and guitarist, likewise finds the man and the myth inspiring.
"When I was a kid, I heard about Woody through Dylan," Stine said. "I've soaked Woody in for a long time. He's our patron saint, the place where you start if you're going to be a folk-influenced songwriter."
Stine admires the way Smith uncovers the good and the bad of that patron saint.
"A lot of people just think, 'Woody Guthrie. Oh, he's that folk-hero songwriter dude who wrote 'This Land is Your Land' and 'The Car Song,'" Stine said. "What this play touches on is that he was really a highly challenging genius and lived a very messy life. He could be very difficult to the people around him. But he had this compulsion to create, and his message was that, in order to live, human beings need to knock down the structures put over them that are not humane."
For the past several weeks, the cast of "Woody Guthrie Dreams" has formed a strong bond.
"We spent [Hurricane] Irene waiting out the storm in Brooklyn, cooking and singing songs," Stine said. "It was a very Guthrie-esque, hippie-ish communal thing."
After the show wraps up at the Theater for the New City on Oct. 1 — "Whole batches of people are coming up from Baltimore to see it," Stine said — he expects to head back home.
"I can't afford to live in New York," he said. "I've exhausted my savings account. And I've got a new batch of songs I need to put out on an album."
As for Smith, who has a day job at a publishing company, he plans to remain in New York, despite what he described as "ambivalent feelings" about the city.
"I do miss Baltimore," the playwright said. "I still get a lot of juice whenever I'm there. There are so many different kinds of characters there. I don't feel I get that in New York. The bars in Brooklyn and [Manhattan] feel exactly the same, so middle-class. Not like the '1919' bar in Fells Point, where you see a pretty wide swath of people there, a lot of John Waters-weirdness."
Smith hasn't settled on his next theatrical project, but it might also deal with Americana.
"I do have some ideas I'm kicking around," he said. "I'm interested in writing a play about the Founding Fathers."
If you go
'Woody Guthrie Dreams' runs through Oct. 1 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., New York. Call 212-254-1109 or go to theaterforthenewcity.net.