Just when you thought there was no real hope for this planet, along comes Secret Agent Karen, determined to save the world. She just needs a little help from you. Yes, she means you. All she asks of you is a dash of heroism — in Karen's view, anyone can be a hero — and an unrestrained sense of fun.
Welcome to the playful mind of actor, teacher, director and producer Sandi Carroll, who moved to Baltimore last year from New York. She created her alter ego, Karen, in 2007 while taking a clown class. If you just cringed at that thought, Carroll has a message for you.
"I'm on a mission to rehabilitate the word 'clown,'" says Carroll, who will perform as Secret Agent Karen in her interactive multimedia show "Mission: Implausible!" opening Thursday for a three-night run at Theatre Project.
You may spot Carroll before then, perhaps doing man-on-the-street video interviews at Artscape or other spots around town, decked out in her self-crafted uniform (a cross between Girl Scout and safari guide). And don't be surprised to see her cruising along on her fiancee's distinctive motorcycle — it's a retro vehicle, complete with sidecar, called the Ural, based on a model created in 1941 for the Soviet army.
"Of course, Secret Agent Karen would ride around on that bike," Carroll, 43, says. "I couldn't have invented a better vehicle for her. It's an uncannily perfect fit."
Carroll likes to approach unsuspecting people in search of what she calls local heroes.
"It's terrifying to walk up to strangers," she says. "But groups of guys are great, because someone will say, 'He's the one you should talk to.' I ask people, 'What have you done to save the world today?' Usually, they say, 'I haven't done anything.' But we talk and, usually, something comes out, even if it's just calling your mother. We all have the potential to be the hero next door. You don't have to run into a burning building."
For Carroll, bringing attention to this broader definition of heroism is also the stuff of theater. With a deadpan wit and that eye-catching outfit, Secret Agent Karen is a comic force.
Like most actors, Carroll takes comedy seriously. Born in Illinois to Australian parents, she earned fine-arts degrees from Boston University and the University of Virginia. One of her principal mentors was Jane Nichols, who has taught at such institutions as the Yale School of Drama and the Juilliard School.
Taking a clown class with Nichols turned out to be a key event for Carroll.
"I was not funny at all," she says. "I could see in my classmates the profound effect it was having when they discovered their characters — we call it 'finding your clown,' the moment when they suddenly reveal themselves to us, share with us. I could feel my own inability to do this. I realized that until I figured this out, I was not an actor."
Carroll went on to collaborate with Nichols on various ventures and continue developing her inner clown. She immersed herself in the philosophy developed by eminent French clown teachers Jacques Lecoq and Philippe Gaulier; the latter has had a long list of notable students, including the provocative Sacha Baron Cohen.
Cohen fits the definition of the "bouffon," a term Lecoq employed to define a performer who makes fun of us, while the clown invites us to make fun of him or her.
"Part of the process of being a clown is to tell the truth and connect with an audience — and have fun," Carroll says. "I'm like Sacha Baron Cohen, but I'm not mean."
Carroll's clown character, Secret Agent Karen, delights in getting others to participate in the act. Nearly a dozen people from the audience get directly involved in the 60-minute "Mission: Implausible!" which Carroll has performed in Pittsburgh and Charlottesville, Va. This week will mark its Baltimore premiere.
The scenario, which includes a plot to assassinate Karen, provides opportunities for the audience to influence or respond to the action. Song, dance and all sorts of other activities pop up in the tongue-in-cheek production.
"One of the things that attracted me to the show is that Sandi uses social media in it," says Theatre Project producing director Chris Pfingsten, "and it's not just 'Let's tweet about the show.' It's used before, during and afterward. And [the show's only other actor] is a guy in his apartment in New York who participates by Skype."
Pfingsten says he found himself intrigued by Carroll's enthusiasm and by the concept of the show. Another thing also persuaded him to give it a try.
"She's got a great resume," he says. "Sometimes I put my faith in the pedigree of the performer."
That resume includes acting on Broadway in "Irena's Vow" with Tovah Feldshuh in 2009, and appearances in several films, among them "Rabbit Hole" starring Nicole Kidman. Carroll has co-founded and directed various ensembles, and she has taught acting and clowning at several universities and theater companies.
Earlier this year, Carroll gave a clown workshop for members of Baltimore's Single Carrot Theatre.
"She's a really exceptional and exciting artist, especially the way she uses clowning techniques in performance with traditional acting techniques," says Single Carrot artistic director Genevieve de Mahy.
"Clowning isn't always a face-makeup-and-red-nose thing. It's more an approach to performing. The main objective in clowning is finding the game in what you are doing, exploring the element of play, and developing a rapport with the audience," says de Mahy, who is working on bringing "Mission: Implausible!" back to Baltimore in the fall or winter for a run at Single Carrot.
Carroll will be doing a lot more with that element of play when she moves to State College, Pa., to start work at Pennsylvania State University's Arts & Design Research Incubator in the fall.
"I have this theory," Carroll says, "that when you get onstage, you have to be having fun, whether you're doing comedy or drama. You have to learn how to have fun and not fake it. It's painful to learn how to have fun. It's very hard work. I'm going to Penn State to collaborate with a neurologist to see what is happening with the brain and the body with the art of play, the discipline of having fun."
Meanwhile, Carroll will continue to pursue her implausible mission in Baltimore.
"On some level, I'm making fun of myself," she says. "Can theater save the world? No, it can't. But I have such a strong belief in the power of art to have a positive impact on our lives. And it's really so easy to do something positive for the world."