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.
"I like the idea of flipping things on their heads," Pryor says. "Maybe take a well-known work like 'Glengarry, Glen Ross' and do it with all women. Maybe 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' but with a multiracial cast. I want to create works that people will talk about after they leave here. I also want this to be comfortable for people who may not yet feel they're ready for theater."
The future will depend on money, typically in short supply among the small companies in Baltimore. Kilburn decided to leave the Strand both to attend graduate school and to make a living elsewhere as a stage director.
"There are a lot of theaters here, but not enough paying jobs in Baltimore," Kilburn says. "I want to direct. Most of the work [as artistic director at the Strand] is managing, the money side. It has been eye-opening for me to see how much it costs to produce a show, and how little you get back."
The Strand survives largely on volunteer work. Pryor will not be paid. Neither will the newly hired managing director, Elena Kostakis, a Moscow-born actress and former executive director of the Baltimore Theater Alliance who has lived here for a decade.
"Our budget is under $30,000," Kostakis says. "We hope to grow it. We will be going after more funding and doing audience development."
Kilburn sounds happy to be turning those jobs over to the Strand's new leadership team.
"I'm not great at the grant stuff, the funding," Kilburn says. "I really think it's awesome that Elena is going to be managing director. She's going to be a great resource. And Rain has a name in Baltimore, which is always good. She's very connected."
Pryor will be using those connections in the months ahead.
"It's about building relationships," she says. "I have a great relationship with Theatre Project, Center Stage, where I teach acting classes; the theater communities in D.C., New York and Los Angeles. Theater shouldn't have a competitive nature. Theater is very communal. We're all lovey-dovey and emotional."
Pryor is counting on that feel-good attitude to help those working at the Strand feel content with the reward of applause.
"It's where your love of theater comes in," Pryor says. "I want actors who stay in training, stay sharp, come prepared and don't miss rehearsal. If the first thing an actor asks is, 'Am I getting paid?' that might not necessarily be the actor you want to work with. I want you here because you love to act."
Although Pryor and Kostakis will gradually transition into their jobs over the next few months, they are already putting ideas out there for the Strand's board of directors to consider. One possibility is offering activities during the summer, when the theater has usually been dark.
"We're talking about an Artscape production," Kostakis says, "since Artscape brings so many people to this area."
The new managing director is also looking at potential benefits of having Pryor on board.
"I would like to bring some of Rain's own shows here," she says. "It seems only fitting that we show her here. Her work is very much in line with what the theater is about."
Pryor is eyeing ways to keep the Strand hopping in between theatrical productions.
"My idea is to have live music here," she says, "burlesque and vaudeville-like stuff, an old-time atmosphere, maybe once a month. And bring in choreographers."
Although Pryor's career will continue to take her outside the area, Baltimore looks like it will be home base for a long time. Since arriving here in late 2006, she met and married Yale Partlow, a police officer; the couple have a 3-year-old, Lotus.
"Everyone thought I was crazy moving to Baltimore," Pryor says. "Now they get it. I gained a man and a kid. I'm pretty happy — without plastic surgery. And my friends, like George Carlin's daughter [Kelly], are all saying, 'When can we come to your theater?'"
The narrow, high-ceilinged Strand looks to be a good fit for Pryor.
"I love the nooks and crannies in this space," she says. "Jayme gave birth to a theater and a vision. Our responsibility is to honor that and take it to the next level."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun