After decades as one of the country's leading importers of avant-garde theater, the Theatre Project is entering its 25th anniversary season with a major change in mission: It will now focus on local work.
The local companies that will be involved belong to what Philip Arnoult, Theatre Project founder and artistic director, calls "the Baltimore independent theater movement."
The Theatre Project introduced a local residency program three seasons ago. The big change this season, however, is that instead of a smattering of local companies mixed between the national and international troupes, the just-announced 1995-1996 season consists almost entirely of local productions.
The shows will range from "I Was a Reindeer for the CIA," Impossible Industrial Action's original Christmas comedy by company member Don Arupp, to "Carnivale: The Celebration," a piece by graduate students in Towson State University's theater department in collaboration with Trinidadian theater artist Michael Rogers. One of two scheduled Towson State productions, "Carnivale" is part of the Theatre Project's continuing relationship with the university.
"Twenty-five years is a very long time for any cultural organization in America -- for any theater, and particularly [since] I have continued to be on the edge of the cultural topography not only of this town, but of this country," Arnoult said. "There was a moment, I must say, where I thought about, 'Let's make Season 25 look back.' But that sort of passed like a mild case of morning gas and then it was really clear to me that what I was really interested in was looking at the future."
Arnoult said he decided local theater was the future in part because of his satisfaction with the Theatre Project's residency program, and in part because of his participation in two open meetings of Baltimore theaters held this past spring.
As part of his commitment to these groups, Arnoult has named three local Theatre Project Associate Artists: Karen Bradley, administrative director of Mother Lode Theatre Company and chair of the Towson State University dance department; Tony Tsendeas, artistic director of Impossible Industrial Action; and Kirby Malone, founder and director of Desire Productions.
The theater companies that the Theatre Project will present are not traditional community theaters. They often lack a permanent performing space, and are characterized by such traits as relatively small size and artistic visions that are frequently social or political in nature.
As a further reflection of his commitment, Arnoult said Theatre Project plans to hold open auditions, establish a database of local performers and creative artists, and sponsor a series of seminars throughout the season targeted to the needs of independent theaters.
"Community theaters are filling their niche. The independent theaters are another niche that's not being supported as much. We tend to think in terms of giant and small, and there is work in the middle. A lot of these companies are modeled more on companies like Theatre X and Mabou Mines and the Wooster Group," explained Impossible Industrial Action's Tsendeas, referring to some of the American avant-garde troupes presented by Theatre Project in its early years.
For Mother Lode's Bradley, the Theatre Project's change in direction brings a definite cachet to the participants. "Theatre Project is a desirable venue because it is an identifiable destination," she said. "So your work comes with a kind of stamp of approval, and I think that's one of the things Philip wants to support. It isn't just about good work. It's about ever-improving work as well, and that is something we all want."
Arnoult said economic concerns played only a minor role in his decision to shift to a more local orientation. But, he acknowledged, "There are fewer dollars out there to do the international producing."
Explaining that he will continue to serve as director of the U.S./Netherlands Touring & Exchange Project, and as a consultant with the Center for International Theatre Research at the University of Tennessee, Arnoult also said one or more international shows may yet be added to the Theatre Project's season.
Two other changes were announced for the forthcoming anniversary season. The theater will be completely accessible to handicapped patrons, with a wheelchair lift, special seating and redesigned restrooms as well as an induction loop for the hearing impaired. In addition, instead of subscriptions, annual memberships will be sold for $25, which will entitle the bearer to purchase tickets at a discount price of $8 for each performance.
The Theatre Project's new mission may make it accessible in another respect as well. "When I would bring in a marvelous company from wherever that was doing the national myth from whatever, it was really hard to get a handle on sometimes," Arnoult admitted. Pieces produced by local companies, he suggested, will probably speak more directly to Baltimore audiences.
SOMETHING TO CELEBRATE
Here's Theatre Project's 25th anniversary season:
* "Fish," Touchstone Theatre of Bethlehem, Pa., Oct. 5-15
* "Locks & Links," the Men of Nommo, 7 p.m. Sundays, Oct. 8, 29; Nov. 12; Dec. 3
* The Women's Project at Theatre Project, Oct. 18-20
* "The Mysteries, or What's So Funny?" Mother Lode Theatre Company, Oct. 25-Nov. 5
* "Lapis Blue, Blood Red," Splitting Image Theatre Company, Nov. 8-19
* "Chatter and Static," Desire Productions, Nov. 29-Dec. 10
* "I was a Reindeer for the CIA," Impossible Industrial Action, Dec. 13-24, 29 and 30 1996
* The Flying Tongues, Jan. 10-28
* The Baltimore Project, Towson State University MFA program with Touchstone Theatre, Feb. 7-18
* "Flow My Tears the Policeman Said," Desire Productions, Feb. 21-March 10
* "Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme," Mother Lode Theatre Company, March 13-24
* The Women's Project at Theatre Project, March 27-31
* "The Madman and the Nun," Impossible Industrial Action, April 10-28
* "Carnivale: The Celebration," Towson State University MFA program with Michael Rogers, May 3-12
* Baltimore Dance Showcase, May 15-19
* "Judith," Mongrel Theatre Company, May 29-June 9
* Denise Diggs in a one-woman show about Winnie Mandela, Sights Productions, June 12-23
Note: Unless otherwise noted, performance times are 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Call (410) 752-8558.