Little theater? In this city, it's become a big deal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Small theaters are getting to be a big deal in Baltimore.

This season theatergoers can choose from among more than 60 plays produced by almost 20 community and semi-professional theaters. Long-time observers and participants claim it's the greatest flurry of little-theater activity they can remember.

And, it can be measured not only in the number of productions, but also in terms of bricks and mortar.

* Fells Point Corner Theatre has embarked on a $340,000 total renovation project, the first $75,000 phase of which is under way and includes updating the building, increasing the lobby size and creating a new entrance. Eventually Fells Point Corner will also have a fully functional second theater space, making it the only community theater in town with two stages.

* The Vagabond Players, which bills itself as the oldest continuously operating community theater in the country, is currently completing a $250,000 renovation of its South Broadway facility, which will reopen in January with a production Joe Orton's "Loot." Among the more noticeable changes will be a larger stage, improved audience sightlines and handicapped accessibility. (Due to construction delays, this month's musical revue, "Cole," has been postponed until June.)

* Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore at Superba, a new theater scheduled to present its first production in March, will move into a 150-seat facility that is part of a $1 million reconstruction project to convert six abandoned Washington Village buildings for new uses.

The growth of Baltimore's smaller theaters is also reflected in an increase in quality. Particularly in all-volunteer community theaters, whose productions were once highly uneven, the level of acting, directing and even technical skills now often approaches professional standards.

Of course, none of these developments occurred overnight. There's been steady progress over the past decade or so, and the reasons for itare almost as varied as the theaters themselves.

Indeed, variety of fare partly explains why so many companies have been able not only to coexist, but also to continue to attract audiences in a market in which more and more activities compete for a share of our leisure time.

Different missions

Here's a sample of the different artistic missions of a few of these theaters: The relatively conservative Theatre Hopkins specializes in literature written before the last couple of decades. The new Playwrights Theatre will focus on world premieres, beginning with a script by Baltimore playwright Alonzo D. Lamont Jr. Splitting Image presents collaboratively created original work that explores psychological issues. And the risk-taking Spotlighters has a reputation for giving neophytes a chance -- a practice that helped launch the careers of TV and movie star Howard Rollins and off-Broadway actor David Drake, among others.

In addition, several theaters, most notably Fells Point Corner and AXIS, focus on area premieres of plays that Baltimore audiences might not otherwise see. One indication of the success of these efforts is that on at least three occasions, Center Stage, Baltimore's professional regional theater, has mounted subsequent productions of plays that made their local debuts on community theater stages. "Fences," now in previews at Center Stage, is a current example; the same play was produced by the Spotlighters three seasons ago.

Also on the professional front, last season the Theatre Project -- a venue with a reputation for presenting the avant-garde -- acknowledged the higher caliber of little theater by expanding its agenda to include residencies for three local companies.

Of these, the struggling New Century Theater is in hiatus, but Splitting Image will premiere its latest work at the Theatre Project this spring, and Impossible Industrial Action's current production "The Artificial Jungle" is the first of two shows IIA will mount there this season.

Obvious advantage

The most obvious advantage of the residencies is that they provide addresses for companies without permanent homes -- a problem shared by several of the city's newer companies. In addition, according to IIA artistic director Tony Tsendeas, the prestige of being at the Theatre Project can be a help in fund-raising. "For us to be in residence in one of the professional houses is a great boon," he explains.

However, while other homeless companies continue to hunt for venues -- one of the more unusual solutions will be Mother Lode Productions' staging of an original work at a former furniture showroom in Towson Marketplace next month -- the cooperative efforts to solve such problems stand out as one of the more distinctive features of this city's community theaters, as well as a factor contributing to the proliferation of little theaters.

Though many of these itinerant troupes have performed at the vast and vacant St. John's United Methodist Church in Charles Village, there have also been instances of one theater helping another out. For example, Everyman Theatre produced "Hot l Baltimore" at the Vagabonds in 1991, and Fells Point Corner, which is in the advantageous position of having several rehearsal spaces, frequently makes them available to other theaters.

Without question, the best example of cooperation is the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, which has included a total of 10 participating theaters in its 12 seasons and is one of the few non-professional new-play festivals in the country.

"The Baltimore Playwrights Festival is what keeps us working together. I think it's a very important cohesive force," says Beverly Sokal, president of the board of Fells Point Corner.

Borrow and lend

There are also other less obvious examples of cooperation. For instance, since community theaters tend to have limited storage space and inventory, it's fairly common for one to borrow props or scenery from another.

Furthermore, Samuel H. Wilson Jr., artistic director and founder of Arena Players -- the nation's oldest continuously operating black community theater -- points out that he "usually meets with good cooperation" when an Arena production calls for what he somewhat self-consciously refers to as "token white" performers. Similarly, with black plays showing up with greater frequency on the little-theater circuit, actors with Arena Players credits are gracing an increasing number of stages around town.

For that matter, the local pool of actors, directors, designers and technicians moves from one theater to another with surprising fluidity. This is not to suggest, however, that there isn't competition -- or that this competition hasn't had some positive effect. "I think the quality is due to a large extent to the competition," says Vagabonds president John Bruce Johnson. "You have to match the high standards of others."

Of course, the proliferation of theaters depends on a proliferation of theater artists (though, in one of those chicken-or-egg dilemmas, it may be the other way around). Theatre Hopkins' director Suzanne Pratt draws a direct connection to the drama programs offered by area universities and colleges.

"You didn't really have people graduating with theater degrees as a socially acceptable major until the late '50s, maybe '60s," she says. "So there's now at least one generation of theater professionals who are having to invent their own career and have career alternatives."

In addition, Pratt -- whose 72-year-old theater is second in longevity only to the 78-year-old Vagabonds -- also attributes the increased activity to what she calls "an aftershock of the whole regional theater thrust since the '60s -- the sort of subliminal assumption that theater does not have to be New York theater. . . . I think that the community theaters have somewhat the same feeling that there are just different tracks and that there's nothing to say 'You can't do this.' "

More theaters, of course, mean more seats to fill. Seating capacities range from Fells Point Corner's modest 70-seat second-floor theater to the New Metropolitan Theatre's new 400-seat home on North Charles Street, which artistic director Kevin Brown describes as "the biggest of the little."

And though there have been occasions when there are more people on stage than in the audience, many theaters attract a regular clientele, either by subscription, or by profit-sharing group sales (a practice that has proved successful at Arena Players), or by reputation.

Vincent Lancisi, who founded Everyman Theatre in part on the philosophy of "theater for everyone at an affordable price," feels some of the appeal is the low ticket prices, which range at most theaters from $8 to $18. "Going to the theater ought to be like going to the movies. You ought to be able to go to the theater without taking out a second mortgage," says Lancisi, who faces tough challenge in this respect, since his budget of $15,000- $20,000 per production is 10 times that of some of the smaller, all-volunteer efforts.

Splitting Image managing director Lori Kranz identifies another appeal. "The thing about all of our theaters is that there is the intimacy that people yearn for," she says. "Little theater can genuinely offer that. That sense of personal connection to the actors on stage and that sense of connection to other audience members is much more possible than in a cavernous theater or in a movie."

There may also be a more fundamental explanation. Quite simply, it's possible that more theater generates more theater. Or, in the words of the Vagabonds' John Bruce Johnson, "It's a rather sappy metaphor, but if you water a plant, it's bound to grow, and what's happened here is more and more people have been added to the mix, and they split off and then that group splits off, and there just seems to be an unending supply of added people. Like on a plant, many [theaters] atrophy and die, but many have gone on and done viable things."

Still seeking spaces

It's difficult to predict which of the present companies will be around a decade from now. But that doesn't keep some of the relative newcomers from dreaming about the future. Everyman and Impossible Industrial Action dream of a home of their own, and IIA would also like to tour. The Bowman Ensemble -- in residence at McDonogh School during the summer -- is looking for a suitable space to produce plays during the fall and spring.

AXIS, which performs in an enviable space in Meadow Mill, would like to augment that space with a rehearsal hall and storage area. And several of the more ambitious companies aspire to pay artists a living wage and possibly establish resident companies.

"Personally, I don't think there can be too much theater," says AXIS' artistic director Brian Klaas, who moved to Baltimore from Seattle, which has become one of the country's most fertile theater towns.

"I'd be much happier if, God forbid, we were to fail and we failed because there were 10 other theaters out there that were doing great work, and for whatever reason, five survive and the other five fail," Klaas says. "That's five theaters that have established themselves in the community."

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