Charm City's newest theater troupe is Baltimore Performance Kitchen

From his seat in a darkened theater, the 14-year-old boy told the performers and his fellow audience members something that had been bugging him for a long time.

"Adults think that kids don't know when there's a problem, but we do," he said, after watching the debut production of Baltimore Performance Kitchen, the city's newest theater troupe.

"We're not dumb," he said. "We know something is going on, even if you don't tell us. And if we don't know what is wrong, we're going to find out."

That was more than Satarah Cheeks could take. She's a mother, and she had volunteered to escort students from the Baltimore Talent Development High School to a dress rehearsal for the show "Red Flags."

"Speaking as a parent," Cheeks said, "it's not always about keeping things from children, but giving them hope. You just said that your mother doesn't care, but that's not right. She's keeping problems from you because she does care. Children shouldn't have to deal with parent problems."

The exchange provided two different perspectives, both passionately felt. And that conversation represents everything that Buck Jabaily is trying to achieve with his new theater company, which is the first troupe in Baltimore in recent memory to stage free productions.

"The Performance Kitchen is an attempt to answer a couple of big questions," says Jabaily, who co-founded Single Carrot Theatre and previously was that company's artistic director. "We want to bring more people into the theater, and we want to break down the wall between the audience and the performers."

How, Jabaily wondered, could he get people excited about theater and involve more of them in the creative process? How could audience members also become part of the show and have their own moment in the footlights?

One possible answer can be found in "Red Flags," an intriguing mix of performance art and group therapy.

As audience members enter the McCulloh Street auditorium that serves as the home for Arena Players, they're handed a red card and asked to write down their own personal "red flags," a phrase kids interpret to mean not so much warning signs as life problems.

"My family issues and my weight and money," one teen wrote.

"Not being good enough," wrote another.

And a third: "the traumatizing experience of having to constantly see my mother deal with being epileptic."

The first half of the performance featured the multimedia work of three Baker Award winners: the verse of Michelle Antoinette Nelson (whose stage name is LOVE the poet), the music and film of Bashi Rose, and Vincent Thomas' choreography.

For the last half of the event, the audience was divided into three groups, one for each performer. Nelson's group devised a phrase that characterized the effects of their red flags ("Life, pain, hope"), Rose's students expressed their feelings in a clapped rhythm, and Thomas' kids put together a movement sequence in which they dropped their problems into a box and then tossed the container away.

The 150 students left the theater jazzed. One boy performed a spontaneous dance. Another launched into a soaring rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

After the performance, Rose sat on stage and shook his head in wonder.

"Man, I didn't see that coming," he said. "This is going to be a great two weeks."

It's important to Jabaily to remove the barriers that keep audience members from attending the theater. So, from the beginning he was determined to make all performances free.

"What we're doing in many ways is an experiment," Jabaily said. "We're trying to motivate people who normally don't come to the theater. When you get together people of diverse backgrounds, the perspective that is generated can be illuminating."

But producing shows is expensive. . Though Jabaily is the company's only full-time staff member, Performance Kitchen also has three part-time employees on the payroll.

As the company's producing artistic director, he hopes to raise $200,000 for the company's inaugural season. So far, the Deutsch Foundation has contributed two grants totaling $120,000; Jabaily is still trying to find the remaining $80,000.

For now, the troupe's offices are headquartered in Jabaily's home office. Performances are being held around the city, from Arena Players to Area 405 in Station North to the Theatre Project.

Jabaily also wants the Performance Kitchen to be a home for new works. And, he's determined to showcase individual artists such as Nelson and Rose who typically must scramble to come up with suitable local performing spaces.

The Kitchen will present four shows for its inaugural season. One, a residency for a work-in-progress by MacArthur Award-winning choreographer Liz Lerman called "Sketches from 'Healing Wars," wrapped up last week.

In addition to "Red Flags," a nonverbal piece of physical theater called "The Grand Parade (of the 20th Century)" will take the stage in December, while an idiosyncratic version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" will be performed in late spring. What all four productions have in common is an attempt to redefine the relationship between the performers and the audience.

Consider Lerman, for instance. "Healing Wars," the piece she's currently working on, spans a 150-year period from the U.S. Civil War to the recent conflict in Iraq.

Lerman is developing the piece through a series of residencies in Baltimore, at Harvard University and in a small Russian town near Moscow — and it's clear that responses from this diverse group of audience members are having a profound effect on the final shape that the dance will take.

The choreographer hopes to have a finished, evening-length work that will debut in the spring of 2014.

During two open workshops at the converted church that currently is the home for Mobtown Ballroom, visitors attending Lerman's workshops traveled from room to room. Each space encompassed different dancers trapped in their individual historical moments.

In a closet-sized anteroom off the main stage, audience members crowded around George Hirsch. He was portraying a veteran recently returned from Iraq. As Hirsch twisted and stretched his limbs, his face pained, words such as "IEDs" (improvised explosive devices) and "impact" were projected.

When the piece was over, audience members walked into the ballroom to watch Ted Johnson in the role of a wounded Civil War soldier perform a solo dance to the words of a Walt Whitman poem, "The Wound-Dresser." The squares on a white wall tore the soldier's shadow into fragments.

"When we had our residency in Russia," Lerman said, "audiences seemed to like the journey nature of the performance given the subject matter, which was hard and deep and sad. One of the questions I'm resolving is how disruptive we can be.

"We're going to find out."

Baltimore Performance Kitchen

Tickets to the three remaining shows in the inaugural season are free; donations are accepted. Go to or call 443-690-4053.

"Red Flags": Runs through Nov. 4 at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St. A multimedia work that invites audiences to identify their own red flags.

"The Grand Parade (of the 20th Century)": Runs Dec. 5-16 at Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Physically inventive production by Double Edge Theatre was inspired by painter Marc Chagall.

"Romeo and Juliet": Runs June 19-30 at Area 405, 405 N. Oliver St. Professional actors mix with Station North residents in a vehicle for exploring neighborhood tensions.

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