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Drama on the move

Aboard the North Avenue bus — The woman in the khaki cutoffs with the close-cropped hair might not have expected her "American Idol" moment to occur while she was riding the Number 13 bus. But if that was the venue chosen by Providence, she was determined not to miss her chance.

"You should put me in your play," she told the pair of twenty-somethings seated across from her as they bent over a laptop, conferring seriously. She'd never met Ira Gamerman and Jayme Kilburn before they happened to share the same ride. But, once she learned that the pair were crafting a theater piece inspired by life aboard the Number 13, she couldn't resist.

"I can cry on cue," the woman said. "And, I can sing."

With that, she launched into her favorite gospel tune. "God is everywhere," the woman sang, not caring if the whole bus heard her. "Forever he'll be there …"

After the notes trailed off, Kilburn told her new friend, "Well, you could be a star." The woman smiled, but she got off the bus without telling anyone from the troupe her name.

Everyone knew that the impromptu "audition" was just for fun, but it was a crystallizing moment for the dozen playwrights and directors from Run of the Mill Theater who are taking part in a theatrical experiment.

From the moment they climbed the steps of the big white motorized coach, the thespians were keenly aware that they faced a daunting challenge: They had less than 24 hours to write, memorize, rehearse and produce six short plays inspired by their trip. The result of all their frantic dramatizing, called "The North Avenue Plays" would be performed before an audience as part of Artscape.

But Kilburn, Gamerman and the others never expected to become part of a production themselves, aboard the rolling theater that is daily life aboard the Number 13.

As playwright Sharon Goldner put it: "Baltimore has some very colorful people. Who needs reality TV? You can just ride the bus instead."

"The North Avenue Plays" are part of a tradition of creating full-fledged shows in just one day that began in New York in 1995 as a benefit for the Working Playground, a nonprofit group that teaches art in schools. Over time, the casts of the plays began to include such A-list stars as Chris Rock, Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, and Julianna Margulies.

Since 2001, the plays have been performed annually on Broadway, and the exercise has also spread to college campuses nationwide.

David Mitchell, the artistic director of Run of the Mill, decided to stage his version of the project on a bus "because it presents our playwrights with people they wouldn't normally meet. Most of the people in our group aren't bus riders. And you can't get any more engaged with the community than riding down North Avenue on the Number 13 bus."

The seven miles between Canton Crossing and Coppin State University encompass neighborhoods of both conspicuous consumption and equally conspicuous deprivation.

The bus wheels past the waterfront, with its gleaming sailboats and million-dollar condominiums, and then crosses through blocks of boarded-up rowhouses, stopping at corners where few will linger after dark. In a parking lot near Wolfe Street and North Avenue, two squads idled side by side and nose to tail, like a pair of horses in a meadow swishing flies off each other's backs.

"North Avenue is one of those streets where, when you're on it, you're trying to get somewhere else," said director Wambui Richardson, one of Run of the Mill's few regular bus riders. "It's economically depressed. It's not a destination. You're riding this bus to catch another bus to get you out of here."

Nonetheless, the atmosphere aboard the Number 13 was almost festive, despite the heat (97 degrees), the riding conditions (jammed) and the state of the air-conditioning (trying hard, but not accomplishing much.) Riders leaned across the aisle and switched seats to gossip, laugh and flirt.

One woman pulled out a prohibited cigarette, allowed it to dangle between two fingers of her right hand, and smirked. At the very last moment before she jumped off at her stop, she lit up, inhaled and blew out a large, exuberantly naughty mouthful of smoke at the faces of her fellow passengers.

A few stops later, a thin man whose beard and glasses emphasized the triangular shape of his face boarded the bus with a bulging brown cloth bag. He stood right in the middle of the aisle at the front of the bus and called out:

"I got them CDs for you. CDs everybody, CDs."

When he got no takers from among the front-riding passengers, the man moved to the rear of the bus, where he repeated his pitch — again unsuccessfully.

"There's a lot of life on this bus," playwright Rosemary Frisino Toohey observed. "I wonder if they know everybody if they ride every day at the same time. Or are they talking this openly to strangers?"

The riders were obviously curious about the interlopers from the theater, who typed furiously into their laptops, wearing the blank-eyed, thousand-yard stare commonly displayed by inmates on death row and writers on deadline.

Some riders seemed alarmed by the strangers' intense and non-smiling focus. When Mitchell and some other troupe members pulled out their cameras to document the creative process, two men – one wearing a black T-shirt, and another, a white — recoiled deep into their seats and raised their arms to cover their faces.

"They're writing down what we say," one of them said.

"That's just crazy," said the other. "I don't know where these" — and here, he referred to the writers with a term that can't be printed in a family newspaper — "are coming from. I don't know if they are informers."

Once the play project was explained, the pair visibly relaxed. When they finally exited the bus, one man went out of his way to bid the group farewell, saying, "You all have a nice evening, now."

Rider Artemus Moses, 42, of Baltimore, who witnessed the whole exchange, laughed delightedly. "I've never seen anything like this," he said. "No disrespect, but where we come from, when we see someone eavesdropping and snapping pictures, we want to know what's going on."

As it happened, Moses' excellent question — what is going on? — wouldn't get answered in full until 10 p.m. Friday, after all six of the plays had been performed, and the dozen actors took a final, group bow before an enthusiastic, 85-member audience.

Though the playwrights were inspired by the people they met and the views from the bus windows, they used those real-life experiences as a springboard for their own imaginations.

Rich Espey, Max Garner and Rebecca J. Wyrick conjured metaphysical bus trips into alternate realities, while Goldner imagined the internal debate between a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital and her cancer. Toohey crafted a courtroom drama, and Gamerman, a romantic comedy.

So polished were the performances that some theatergoers were surprised to learn that the entire evening had been put together in one day. They were even more startled when they were told that a lottery system had determined both the number of characters in each play, and the actors who would portray them.

"You're kidding," said Kevin Keepper, 24, of Baltimore. "I would never gave guessed. But why did they put themselves up against such high odds? They've known for a year that Artscape was coming."

Added Lindsay Scattergood, 22, of Baltimore, "If this is what they can do in 24 hours, I'd be interested in seeing what they could do if they had 72."

Goldner wouldn't want to work under intense time pressure all the time, but she was thrilled with the outcome of the experiment.

"It's like taking a test," she said.

"You can't second-guess yourself. Your first answer is usually right. It's when you go back and erase that you run into problems. After you've been through something like this, you start to trust yourself a little bit."

Even after the audience dispersed, a few final details remained. A truckload of chairs that had served as the set for the bus, had to be driven back to the Load of Fun gallery. Props — a pair of identical hardcover books, a briefcase — had to be returned to their original owners. A check from Artscape had to be collected.

And arrangements had to be made to get the actors, directors and writers safely home. Driving was out — every street within several blocks of Theatre Project was either closed because of Artscape or parked up. Bikes were an option only for the more athletic city-dwellers. The Light Rail stopped service long before the after-show cast party wound down.

That's when a light bulb went off in actor Ben Brunnschweiler's head. He'd come up with the perfect solution, and he was eager to share it:

"We could," he said, "take the bus."

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