The first time Rain Pryor visited the intimate Strand Theater, she knew she was in the right place.
"I thought, 'It smells like theater. I'm home,'" says the actress, comedian, writer and musician who has just been named artistic director of the Strand.
This 55-seat venue, part of the artistically bustling Station North district, was founded in 2008 by Jayme Kilburn to showcase women — performers, directors, writers, designers. Pryor, who relocated to Baltimore from Los Angeles about five years ago, only recently became acquainted with the theater, but she seems thoroughly comfortable there already.
"The first thing, for me, about considering this job was the mission," says Pryor, 42, daughter of late comedian and actor Richard Pryor. "I felt I could help with that. The voice of the woman is kind of lost in the theater world, which is still very male-dominated."
Pryor's own voice has been heard to memorable effect in a variety of ways over the years.
She created a solo show, "Fried Chicken and Latkes," about growing up with an African-American father and a Jewish mother. Pryor has toured widely with that vehicle and will perform it off-Broadway this spring.
In addition to writing the book "Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love and Loss with Richard Pryor," she has followed his footsteps into stand-up comedy — a brave act, considering his achievements in that field.
"He was so loved in the comedic world," Pryor said. "He's still called the King of Comedy by people in the field. My job is to respect his legacy as much as possible. I know some people are thinking, 'You're no Richard Pryor.' But I am not afraid of not doing well. And my comedy is so different from his."
As an actress, Pryor's credits include regular roles on the ABC-TV series "Head of the Class" and the Showtime series "Rude Awakening." An accomplished jazz and blues singer, Pryor portrayed vocal legends Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald in productions in England. Other theater work includes a Los Angeles staging of "The Vagina Monologues."
Pryor recently finished work on the film "Game Change," shot partly in Baltimore, about the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee.
"Sarah Palin is going to be so ticked off to see that her makeup artist is being played by a black Jewish girl," Pryor says with a laugh. "I pass for a white girl. Now that's acting."
Another facet of Pryor's talent will be on display in June, when she directs the final production of the Strand's 2011-2012 season, the Baltimore premiere of Lisa Kron's Tony-nominated "Well."
"I just love theater," Pryor says. "I live and breathe theater. And I don't want to go to Los Angeles and work anymore. This is my home. I think Baltimore has such great opportunities in theater. We can compete with New York. Why not?"
The theater scene here has blossomed steadily over the past decade or so, adding to the city's Equity houses, Center Stage and Everyman Theatre; the several community theater companies; and the longtime presenter of contemporary work, the Theatre Project.
Now several modest-size companies, among them Single Carrot and Iron Crow, regularly add spice to the local scene with cutting-edge fare, and more are on the horizon. The Strand has been a significant player in this development.
"When older women come up to me and thank me for opening a theater that puts the focus on women," Kilburn says, "it feels that we're doing the right thing. But it's very hard. There is a lot of competition among the smaller theaters in Baltimore. But I'm glad the Strand is still around after four years and that we're getting patrons who identify with this theater."
The last production Kilburn will direct at the Strand opened this weekend — "That Pretty Pretty (or, The Rape Play)," by experimental playwright Sheila Callaghan. This mature-audience show about "radical feminist ex-strippers" and their "murderous rampage" is typical of the avant-garde repertoire the company has featured.
Pryor plans to build on that record.
"I want to do works that are challenging, irreverent, emotional," she says. "Works by women, or where there is a woman's touch. I really want to bring in a diverse voice, too. There is strong work by women of color, and I want to bring that here. But we are not excluding men at all."
The new artistic director also sees room for established plays to be done at the Strand, but approached from a new angle.