In the late 1990s, Brett Rohrer decided he wanted to be onstage and headed off to an audition at a community theater. He got as far as a nearby parking space.
"I just sat in my Jeep," he said. "I drove to auditions several times and never went in. But eventually, I did go in, and I got hired for a role in 'Oklahoma.' Now, the theater is my sanctuary. This keeps me even. If I didn't do this, I might go postal at my job."
Rohrer, a 30-something whose day job is with a printing company, did laugh as he said that, before heading back into rehearsal for "The Great American Trailer Park Musical," which opens Friday at Spotlighters Theatre.
That company has roots stretching back to 1962. Baltimore's community theater scene goes back much further, at least to 1916, when the Vagabond Players got started — it's billed as the country's oldest continuous community theater.
Troupes have come and gone over the years (especially dinner theaters), but there remain multiple outlets for aspiring actors and directors in just about every genre, from Shakespeare to cutting-edge.
That's not to say these are outlets for financial advancement.
"We're not doing this for a paycheck," said Rodney Bonds, a seasoned player on local stages who is currently in rehearsals for "The Seafarer" at the Fells Point Corner Theatre. "We do it to keep our souls alive. And we try to keep our jobs from interfering with our hobby."
Gregory Jericho is doing just that. The native Midwesterner has a degree in graphics design and what he describes as "a nice, sleepy job" writing and editing instruction manuals. Shortly after moving to Fells Point in 2008, he saw that Vagabond Players was looking for backstage help. Jericho volunteered.
"I raised and lowered a tree each night," he said. "Then, in a kind of really cool way, like old Hollywood, the next thing I knew, I was onstage."
Mike Zemarel was the director who took a chance on Jericho. "He said he'd like 'to try this acting thing,' and I put him in a part," Zemarel said. "It's weird. I went to college to get a degree in theater, and then someone like Greg will walk in without any training and blow us out of the water. He became a force on the stage in several of our recent productions."
"Doing this really puts me on a great schedule," Jericho said. "I get out of work, go to the gym, go home to shower and eat, and then get to the theater. I use it to balance my life. And it is so much fun."
Not every would-be thespian will have Jericho's luck, but there's always a chance to get a foot in the stage door. Auditions pop up throughout the year. (Facebook and listserves are now the most popular means of advertising casting calls for community theaters.) People of all ages, backgrounds and experience levels are known to try out and to get accepted.
Carlos del Valle, a systems engineer who has a role in "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" at Spotlighters, had a succinct reply when asked what someone has to do to break into the community theater action: "Show up."
That goes for backstage crew as much as for actors. Companies covet reliable stage managers and people who can operate sound and lighting systems, prepare costumes and props. (Small stipends are sometimes paid to stage managers; actors invariably work for free.)
"Don't say you want to do this without understanding exactly what is required," said Steve Goldklang, a retired state health department employee who is directing a production of "Six Degrees of Separation" opening next month at the Vagabond Players. That commitment can run three or four months per show, including weeknight rehearsals and multiple weekends of performances.
Goldklang ran into some trouble early on with launching "Six Degrees." He was impressed with a young, inexperienced man's audition and offered him a role. But come Day 1 of rehearsals, the would-be actor was a no-show. He failed to return phone calls and emails.
"Four days later, I recast the part," Goldklang said. "Occasionally you run into someone like that, but it's not the rule. There are tremendously talented and dedicated people who love performing after a full day job, coming down to the theater at 7, staying until 10 or 10:30 at night to rehearse."
Greg Guyton, an orthopedic surgeon currently preparing for "The Seafarer" at Fells Point Corner Theatre, is likely to be still in hospital garb when he gets to rehearsal. "You have to make sacrifices," he said, "but it's manageable. It's no worse than surgical residencies, I can tell you."
That some actors or stage personnel end up abandoning ship isn't surprising. "Life happens," Zemarel said. On the flip side, "I now find a lot of directors will work around your schedule conflicts," said Jeffrey Burch, who just finished performing in the cast of "Twelve Angry Men" at Dundalk Community Theatre.
Burch, a fundraiser for a nonprofit foundation, started performing in 1976 when he was 18. "In those years," he said, "it wouldn't be unusual to have 500 people turn out for auditions. I use to see a lot more volunteerism backstage, too. Now theaters are scrounging to find people to run a show."
Zemarel also has noticed smaller turnouts at open audition calls. "So it's easier for someone who's good to get a part," he said.
Auditioning for community theater requires some basic preparation.
To try out for a musical, be prepared to sing 16 bars of a ballad, another 16 of an up-tempo number.
"For a play audition, the standard is always to be able to walk in with a one-minute dramatic monologue and a one-minute comedic monologue," said Zemarel, who works in the University of Baltimore's human resources department when he isn't acting in or directing a show. "If you want to be real professional, have two classical, two modern monologues."
Instead of, or in addition to, monologues, directors may ask you to read a few pages from a play with another actor.
Several community theaters — and some professional ones, such as Everyman Theatre — offer acting workshops and classes throughout the year. The Baltimore Playwrights Festival, held each summer, provides "a lot of good openings for less-experienced actors," Goldklang said.
A lack of experience doesn't necessarily mean a lack of ambition.
"A lot of young aspiring performers today seem to feel that if they don't get a part, they're not interested," said Burch. "Maybe it's the influence of reality TV, the idea that everyone's a star. Don't think being a member of the chorus or the ensemble is a bad thing. You know the old cliche: There are no small parts, only small actors."
It's worth noting that performers in Baltimore's community theater arena have been known to reach the big time. Spotlighters alumni include Academy Award nominee Howard Rollins Jr., for example, and among those on the Vagabonds' boards in the 1970s was a University of Maryland, Baltimore County student named Kathleen Turner.
And the number of non-Equity companies in the area keeps growing, thanks to the recent arrivals of such theaters as Single Carrot, Glass Mind and Iron Crow, which focus on new, often experimental works. "I definitely think we are headed toward a renaissance period for community theater," Zemarel said.
Added Fuzz Roark, managing director of Spotlighters: "We're always open to anyone coming down the pike. If you're in Baltimore and want to get into theater, there's a doorway for you."
Here's a sampling of 15 Baltimore community theater groups
A newly formed collaborative venture for actors and directors in the Baltimore/D.C. area
Arena Players Inc.
801 McCulloh St., 410 728 6500, firstname.lastname@example.org
Now in its 58th season of serving the African American community. "Rebel Without a Cause" opens April 1.
Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre
CCBC Essex, 7201 Rossville Boulevard, 443-840-1369
For more than 30 years, offering musicals, comedies and dramas on campus. 2011 summer season includes "Hairspray."
Dundalk Community Theatre
CCBC Dundalk Campus, 7200 Sollers Point Road, 443-840-2787
Theatre in Residence on the Dundalk Campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. Production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" opens in May.
251 S. Ann St., 410-276-7837, fpct.org
Long-established company focuses on classics and contemporary works. "Compleat Female Stage Beauty" runs through April 10.
Glass Mind Theatre
120 W. North Ave., glassmindtheatre.com
Company focuses on new works.
Iron Crow Theatre
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St., 443-468-4837, ironcrowtheatre.com
Company specializes in works of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and LGBT-identified artists. "Swimming in the Shallows" opens March 31.
"The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" opens March 25.
Red Branch Theatre Company
9130-I Red Branch Road, Columbia, 410-997-9352
Run of the Mill Theater
120 W. North Avenue, 410-796-1555, runofthemilltheater.org
"Variations on Chaos" opens April 15; a forum for local playwrights to generate new work.
122 W. North Ave., singlecarrot.com
Specializing in cutting-edge plays.
817 St. Paul St. 410-752-1225, Spotlighters.org
"The Great American Trailer Park Musical" opens March 25.
1823 N. Charles St., strandtheatercompany.org
Focuses on female artists, writers, designers, directors, new works.
3213 North Charles St., jhu.edu/theatre/
Founded in 1921, the second-oldest theater group in Baltimore..
806 S. Broadway, vagabondplayers.org, 410-563-9135
"Death of a Salesman" runs through March 27; "Six Degrees of Separation opens April 15.