Not afraid of the dark

The Baltimore Sun

Some of the most provocative and cutting-edge theater around these days is being mounted by volunteer actors working on tiny stages with less than 100 seats, where the production budget essentially consists of a ball of twine and two pieces of tape.

Welcome to the weirdly exhilarating world of Baltimore's community theater, where a sofa can spend more time on stage than in its owner's living room, and where practitioners jealously guard their secret recipe for stage blood.

In the coming season, the latter should be in great demand: Baltimore community theaters shows tend to go for the jugular. Consider a smattering of future and recent productions:

Earlier this summer, Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre mounted the area premiere of Fat Pig, in which playwright Neil LaBute tackles the seldom-discussed topic of bigotry against plus-sized women with all the diplomacy and tact implied by the title.

This week, little Run of the Mill Theater - not Charm City's fancy-schmancy professional companies - becomes the only troupe in town to participate in Suzan-Lori Parks' innovative 365 Plays/365 Days, the largest theatrical collaboration in U.S. history.

And next month, Mobtown Players stages The Pillowman, a play about that warm and fuzzy topic, child murder. Martin McDonagh's play has been described as "so revolting and yet so human and so funny" that at the Broadway premiere in 2005, a large part of the audience left at intermission, while the rest remained riveted in their seats.

What, no productions of Bye, Bye Birdie?

"Theater is more than entertainment," says Fuzz Roark, artistic director of the Spotlighters. "We feel very strongly that theater should challenge audiences. We don't choose our seasons based on our box office. About 60 percent of the shows that we produce are selected primarily for artistic reasons."

To get a sense of how unusual that is, Julie Angelo, executive director of the American Association of Community Theatre, a Texas-based trade organization, ran down a list of the most frequently produced shows in the past season.

Cats ranks high, as does Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan and The Sound of Music.

"A lot of community theaters are more middle-of-the-road because that's what their patrons want to see," Angelo says. "Small theaters in urban areas can support lesser-known, more controversial shows."

"Community theater" refers to amateur troupes that cast actors and crew members from the surrounding neighborhoods, instead of auditioning outsiders. Unlike professional theaters, community groups don't pay performers. For these volunteers, theater isn't a career, but a passionate avocation.

"A lot of times, community theater has an appeal that professional theater lacks, because the audience knows the people on stage, and they know that the show is a labor of love," Angelo says.

Amateur troupes are small but numerous. Baltimore has three professional troupes and roughly 60 community and college theaters listed on the Baltimore Theatre Alliance Web site at baltimore performs.org, though not all are active.

More than 70 percent of community troupes in the U.S. have budgets of less than $100,000, Angelo says. Compare that with Center Stage, Baltimore's largest professional troupe, which has a budget of $7.6 million for the 2007-08 season.

Yet, lack of resources hasn't caused Baltimore community theaters to play it safe.

For instance, the Fell's Point Corner Theatre and Run of the Mill Theater are known for championing new work, which is notoriously difficult to market to ticket-buyers. Fell's Point even provides office space for the annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

"We are community theater, but that doesn't diminish the scope and ambition of what we do," says Beverly Sokal, the president emeritus of Fell's Point's board of directors.

"Giving opportunities to new playwrights is an important part of our mission."

Yet, all the troupes are careful to balance challenging shows with established crowd-pleasers. Spotlighters, for instance, will follow its recent production of Perestroika, the second installment in Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America, with Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, an established crowd-pleaser.

"We'll always make more money with The Mousetrap than with Perestroika or Fat Pig," Roark says. "You can't escape it."

This caution is perhaps not surprising, considering the decline in the number of community theaters nationwide. In the past 45 years, the total of little theaters in the U.S. has dropped by 11,000 from the estimated 18,000 troupes in 1962.

Ironically, the same good idea that gave the little theater movement its initial impetus also caused its downfall.

Nurturing talent

Community theater reached its zenith after World War I as an alternative to the only other theater of the time, the touring Broadway show.

According to the American Association of Community Theatre (aact.org), community theater was an attempt to provide intellectually stimulating fare based on the European "art" theater model. Suddenly, Beckett and Ibsen began appearing on local stages.

These little theaters uncovered talent in their neighborhoods and nurtured it. Actress Vivienne Shub, a Baltimore treasure, got her start at the Vagabond Players, a troupe that also supported the work of a then-unknown playwright named Eugene O'Neill.

Howard Rollins Jr. - nominated for a 1981 Academy Award for his performance in Ragtime - previously made his theatrical debut with the Spotlighters.

"We make a real effort to reach into the community and find out who wants to put on a show," says David D. Mitchell, interim artistic director of Run of the Mill Theater. "We are really about fostering talent that is local."

Local theaters thrived on that formula - until the advent of the regional theater movement in the 1960s. Suddenly, professional, resident troupes with sizable budgets sprang up from Chicago to Seattle to San Diego. Little theaters could no longer compete for the most experienced performers, or, eventually, for audiences.

For several decades, Shub has been an ensemble member at Everyman Theatre. And the Hippodrome Theater can sell about 6,850 tickets in just three sold-out performances, or roughly the total attendance at Fell's Point Corner Theatre for an entire season.

Sokal, the president emeritus of Fell's Point, puts it succinctly: "Getting audience is always a challenge."

Partly, that's because there can be an onus attached to community theater productions. "There's definitely a stigma," Mitchell says. "Some companies don't do great work."

Indirect support

That taint can make it more difficult to get funding. For instance, Austin, Texas, refuses to grant money to amateur troupes, Angelo says, so some troupes there go to great lengths to wrap themselves in professional garb.

In Baltimore, the situation isn't quite so dire. Not much money is allocated to community troupes, but support can be obtained indirectly. For instance, many little theaters are participating in Free Fall Baltimore, the monthlong celebration of the arts in October. The city-sponsored festival awards grants to qualifying arts groups willing to put on a show and forego admission charges.

Angelo thinks programs like this might be one reason that Charm City's little theaters haven't fled to the suburbs, as they have in most other municipalities.

"In most urban areas," she says, "the professional theaters are in the city proper, while the community theaters are in the bedroom communities."

Were Baltimore ever to follow this pattern, Sokal thinks, it would be a huge loss. The Fell's Point Corner Theatre enjoys a relationship with its neighbors so close that residents have advocated at City Hall on the troupe's behalf. And theater folks hope to maintain such a bond, whether they're mounting Neil Simon's 1957 chestnut Broadway Bound or plumbing Tolstoy and Cuban-American culture in Nilo Cruz's 2003 Pulitzer winner, Anna in the Tropics. (Both are coming this fall.)

"Our presence does something very special for a community," she says. "When I moved here in 1957, it was a pretty dead town. The arts have made a big difference. If we ever left, people would cry."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Coming soon on a small stage

Here is a sampling of some of the provocative and challenging plays Baltimore community theaters will be launching in the coming season:

365 Plays/365 Days, Run of the Mill Theatre, Wednesday-Sept. 1 at Morgan State University's Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, 2201 Argonne Drive. Author Suzan-Lori Parks wrote a play a day for an entire year. Run of the Mill is producing week 42 of the collaborative project, which involves more than 600 theaters nationwide. 443-885-3670 or runofthe milltheater.org.

Fences, Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway, Friday-Sept. 30. In August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, set in the 1950s, a former star baseball player-turned-garbage collector struggles to come to terms with racial prejudice after his son receives a football scholarship. 410-563-9135 or www.bcpl.net/~thevag/.

Anna in the Tropics, Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St, Sept. 21 to Oct 21. This 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winner is a volatile mix of Tolstoy and the tropics, set in a cigar-making factory in Florida in 1929. 410-276-7837 or fpct.org.

The Pillowman, Mobtown Players at Meadow Mill, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, Sept. 28-Oct. 20. The gruesome stories written by an author living in a totalitarian state bear an uncomfortable resemblance to a series of child murders. 410-467-3057 or mobtownplayers.com.

A New Brain, Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., March 21-April 13. A talented young songwriter discovers he has a brain tumor and fears he'll die without releasing the music inside him. 410-752-1225 or spotlighters.org.

Mary Carole McCauley

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