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Entertainment Arts

Baltimore's Theatre Project is still radical at 40

The headline on a 1972 article in The Baltimore Sun neatly summed up the recently formed Theatre Project: "New and radical — and free."

Today, the intimate venue on Preston Street still offers plenty of theatrical experiences that qualify as new and edgy, such as "Unveiled," a play by Rohina Malik about Muslim women post-9/11 that opens in December. Next month will see the premiere of "I Want To Be A Gay Icon," by Sarah Lynn Taylor in a production of Iron Crow Theatre, a recently formed company now using Theatre Project as a home.

Other things on the decidedly diverse schedule are just plain fun, like a production opening this week of "Rocky Horror Show" from one of Baltimore's other young companies, Factory Edge Theatre Works.

The free admission policy gave way to ticket prices in the early '80s, but it has made something of a comeback in a nostalgic tweak for Theatre Project's 40th anniversary season.

"Almost every production has at least one performance that is free, with a 'pass the hat' after the show, just like they did at the beginning," says Anne Cantler Fulwiler, Theatre Project's producing director for the past decade.

When it opened on the second floor of a handsome 1887 building that originally housed the Improved Order of Heptasophs (must be source material there for an off-beat play),Theatre Project was just about the only spot for cutting-edge work in Baltimore. Even the seating had an avant-garde feel.

"It was just a beat-up black-box room with some church pews and kneelers," says Fulwiler. "You sat where you wanted and paid what you wanted."

Theatre Project, founded by Philip Arnoult, started with backing from Antioch College. "Antioch was thinking way outside the box, and I was thinking way outside the box," Arnoult says by phone from Poland. "It was the intersection of artists morphing from the '60s into the richness of the '70s."

The venue was soon presenting such groups as Pilobolus Dance Theater and Urban Bush Women, as well as generating outreach programs such as the Baltimore Neighborhood Arts Circus.

"There was a real percolating of avant-garde theater and dance, laminated with extraordinary beginnings of new kinds of theater," Arnoult says. "And it was happening all over the country, not just the big cities. You were seeing gender-based and sexual orientation-based companies, and rural companies in Tennessee. Theatre Project became a stop on the underground railroad for those folks, providing opportunities to show that work to a very young and hip audience."

Arnoult instigated a major venture with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County called The New Theatre Festival, aimed at bringing experimental work to the area. The TNT Festival, as it was known, was a major part of the Theatre Project's activity for several of its early seasons.

Fulwiler was a teenage volunteer during the TNT years.

"I was really intrigued by theater that was so very, very different from any I'd ever seen," she says, before adding with a laugh: "OK, I hadn't seen that much theater, I'll admit. But this was really different."

Another young woman was likewise captivated — Molly Smith, now the acclaimed artistic director of Washington's Arena Stage.

"I went in the '70s to the TNT Festival for a full day of performances and saw some great companies from Europe doing dangerous, physical work," Smith says. "It was extraordinary. Philip Arnoult has the best eye for international work in the business. As a young theater artist, I was hungry for different ways of treating word, a different visual sense."

Different was the operating principal for the place. Although various financial challenges cropped up, the venue kept going. Better seating came in, as did accessibility for the disabled.

During the '90s, after Arnoult departed and Robert Mrozek was director, new plays continued to be work-shopped or premiered there, among them David Drake's "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me." Opera became a regular feature in the space as well, thanks to the Peabody Institute.

"Bobby [Mrozek] told me that Theatre Project's [appeal] was its power to work directly on the imagination without the need for elaborate sets," says Roger Brunyate, director of opera programs at Peabody. "He also said, 'We look, of course, for success, but if we have a failure, we prefer it to be a spectacular one.' The combined challenge of creative risk at a low budget was catnip to me as a producer."

Having access to Theatre Project was a boon to Peabody Chamber Opera, which continues to produce work there.

"It offers close intimacy, with the performers virtually in the laps of the audience, immediate theatricality and a kind acoustic," Brunyate says.

Theatre Project, which does not have its own company, serves as a magnet for artists seeking to introduce their work. Or launch a company.

"Single Carrot Theatre did their first work at Theatre Project," Arnoult says. "I wasn't expecting much, but I was blown away. I'm now president of the fan club."

That new ensembles devoted to cutting-edge work have emerged in Baltimore, in most cases using other venues (Single Carrot quickly established its own space), has greatly increased competition in a market where Theatre Project once dominated.

"I think that increase could not have been done in 1971 or even 1991," Arnoult says. "Having more companies in town is incredibly gratifying to me."

But Theatre Project, which has an annual budget of about $225,000, appears to be holding its own.

"It's an amazing success story," Smith says. "I'm not surprised. I'm heartened. It is a great testament to the people in Baltimore who are thirsty for new work."

The venue may have a few little drawbacks.

"If it's 85 degrees, the AC is adequate," Fulwiler says. "Anything higher, it's heavily challenged. In the winter, if it hovers around freezing, fine. If it's in the teens, I tell people to keep their coats with them. But our new landlords put a new roof on the building, and it doesn't leak onstage anymore. I used to have to arrange with Peabody where not to put instruments."

However rough around the edges, Theatre Project has reached the 40-season milestone in good shape.

"I'm glad it's still going," Arnoult says. "I still think its one of the sweetest theater spaces in Baltimore."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

Next up at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., is "Rocky Horror Show," opening at 8 p.m. Thursday with a pass-the-hat preview; performances Friday through Nov. 6 are $18.50 to $25. Call 410-537-1655 or go to theatreproject.org.

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