It Ain’t Easy Being a Founder, Director, Treasurer, Official Greeter, Artistic Director, and Ticket Seller for a Small Startup Theater in the Middle of Baltimore in the Middle of a Recession:
An Interview With the Strand’s Jayme Kilburn.
When I headed down to see Anna Bella Eema, now in its last weekend at Baltimore’s Strand Theatre, it was because a friend who rarely goes to the theatre had rushed me an email that looked like it had been ripped off a flyer: “Insanely good!!! Weird but riveting! Great acting! And you know I hate everything.”
I was sold.
When I arrived, director Jayme Kilburn was sitting at a table in front of the door, selling tickets. I hadn’t been there for awhile. The Strand is a relatively new arrival in Baltimore, a small storefront theatre in the Arts District that is in what might be called an ideal spot. It’s across from Club Charles (whose owner actually owns The Strand), and it’s about a half block from Everyman Theatre – one of Baltimore’s two Equity theatres. (In B-town, understand, the moniker ‘professional’ isn’t always clearly defined. See below.). The Strand stands alone, in part because of its mission. It produces plays by contemporary women playwrights.
I asked Jayme if she was doing Well. What I meant was: “I noticed you’re doing Well, by Lisa Kron, to cap your interesting five play season.” But she misunderstood the question. “Am I doing well?” she shrugged, with a wan smile. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t exactly say that.” It was still early. But after about fifteen minutes, I saw what she meant.
By the time the lights went up on this wild, three person play about the triangular relationship between daughter and mother and an imaginary playmate, nine people had dribbled into the audience. [Note: that may be an undercount. I didn’t count myself, and I didn’t count the couple that crept in fifteen minutes late.]
Kilburn’s predicament is the one few people like to talk about, especially in a city where not using the word ‘vibrant’ to describe an arts district is generally taken as an insult. But as Kilburn says, it’s a reality that any aspiring director with big ideas is going to have to deal with. There are good nights – usually the first one – and there are bad nights. The Strand’s production was in its second weekend of its three week run, and in this season premier, the bad nights were outnumbering the good nights.
First there’s the caffeine rush: finding the place, winning the nonprofit status, the opening nights, the awards, the good reviews. Then, at least in this city, there’s the next step: a fight to the death with other small theatres and indies for the tiny audience pool of Baltimore theatergoers who aren’t friends of the production team or the actors.
After four years, Kilburn is right in the middle of step two. For the moment, in the middle of an extended economic downturn, it seems like there’s no end in sight. And as founder, director, artistic director, treasurer, and ticket seller, with a full time day job, she admits, things are looking bad.
Strand itself is past its toddler years. Although it’s not an ensemble, it has a pool of actors, and, with plays like Anna Bella Eema, it’s ready to take bold steps. But the Baltimore audiences, to her, seem to be more reluctant than ever to follow up on them.
I had interviewed her once before, for Baltimore’s Style Magazine, four years before, when the Strand was just taking off. She was photographed for the feature, literally taking off, leaping off the sidewalk in front of the newly reconstructed Strand. The theme of the article had been a familiar one: Baltimore is a vibrant city, with a flourishing arts scene, enjoying a cultural renaissance. Now I gave her a chance to tell the story again, straight up, no chaser, four years later. She agreed.
Jayme came to Baltimore in 2005 with a major in directing from the University of California. Like many in Baltimore’s theatre world, she was attracted by the relatively low rents and the availability of space.
“I’d never been to Baltimore before, and I figured that it’s where I needed to go to continue my theatre career, so after I got out, I started working at the Club Charles, and started directing plays at Spotlighters and Mobtown…and I also worked at a nonprofit. Joy, who owns the Club Charles [a bar across the street from The Strand], had this building, she wanted it occupied, she cares about the arts, and she knew I directed, so asked if I wanted to start a theatre.”
She said yeah.
“It’s any artist’s dream. To do their own theatre and choose whatever plays they want to do. So that’s how it started.”
The rent was taken care of, at least for the moment. Now she needed cash to run the theater.
“Yes. The Strand started with Zero. It started with nothing, and then we had our first fundraiser, and then we applied for our 501c3 which cost $750 – a four month ‘waiting process’ that involves ‘calling a lot of different people’ — and then our first season was all new plays, because then we didn’t have to pay rights.”
Rights are the primary cost for small theatres like Strand. Anna Bella Eema cost the Strand $75 per performance. Nine performances, over three weeks, costs them $675.
“It’s killer. That’s a major chunk of it. So at first we didn’t do any with rights. When we got to a place we could, we went ahead with published plays.”
But the first season, she said, was very shaky. It featured new and unpublished plays.
And people in Baltimore, she discovered, are open to unpublished plays – as long as they’re by locals. But with its theatrical niche – high quality women playwrights – the Strand wasn’t always able to accommodate that.
“It’s hard to get people in Baltimore to see (new, unpublished) plays that aren’t by people from Baltimore. If it’s a playwright from Baltimore, and they have strong ties in the community, they’re gonna bring patrons out. If it isn’t, people are a little more reluctant.”
In the second season, the Strand moved on to more well known, published playwrights. The Strand itself took another risky step forward, by grabbing a niche market: the Strand did published plays by contemporary women. She acknowledges that by producing only women playwrights she was taking a risk. But, by focusing on women’s plays, she was also responding to another uncomfortable truth: in Baltimore’s non-professional scene, there aren’t nearly enough male actors to go around.
“For me, it was when I was directing plays not at the Strand, I was being asked to direct plays that were only for men, and then, when you hold additions, only women show up. That’s just the way it is in Baltimore. It’s all women auditioning. You know, to me, it seemed a natural fit, something that was needed in Baltimore.”
She also learned another valuable lesson: don’t call yourself community theatre.
“For a while community theatre was in the mission, and my idea was, well, let’s make community theatre not a dirty word, and I tried to do the shows professionally as possible. But we do serve the community, we have really cheap rentals, we do fundraisers, we open it up.’”
But she abandoned that. Community theatre, these days, is a dirty word.
“Everyone’s so against the name ‘community theatre’ that it’s a hex on your space. It’s awful. So that’s not what we are.”
But in Baltimore’s tiny theatre district, the labels stick. When the Baltimore Sun, three years or so ago, made its list of the city’s three ‘professional’ theatres, Strand, and a number of others were miffed. The Sun had named the city’s newcomers, The Single Carrot, a ‘professional’ theatre.
“They decided that Everyman, Center Stage, and Single Carrot were professional. But Single Carrot didn’t have the same budget. And it seemed – other theatres were upset, it seemed sort of arbitrary. I still find it arbitrary. I would say that Spotlighters should be considered professional because they pay their executive director. But I don’t know what the criteria are. So I try to stay away from that. I wouldn’t call us professional. We have a small budget, and most people work for free. We give stipends to designers. But everyone has such a bad thought about community theatre, so…we don’t like to use that word either.”
Still, though, the Strand, like others in this sort of in-between zone, find themselves in a crowded field in a city where small theatres proliferate, but audiences are small. And the number of critics was shrinking too, as the Sun let its full time reviewer go, and City Paper cut down its freelancing budget.
“In the four years since I started this theatre, I’ve seen the City Paper, you know, get smaller and smaller. People aren’t reviewing, but it’s also because there’s no space. The City Paper reviewed this particular show [pretty well], but it’s only online. It’s tough. And that’s the thing. But it affects…everything. And if those reviewers’ jobs go away, people are going to have a harder time getting things exposed, and it’s all going to dwindle.”
She isn’t sure why, but this season hasn’t been a good one, so far.
“The tickets for [Anna Bella Eema] have been terrible. Like, really bad. So I’ve been asking other theatres how they’re doing. Is this just a show that people aren’t in to? What’s going on? And everybody’s bad. Like, really, really, really bad.”
She says ticket sales are one-third of what they were before.
“And I think we’re starting to see what, whatever you call it, the beginning of the depression, is gonna do to small arts organizations. Now everyone’s focused on keeping the doors open, and it’s scary.”
But there are still theatre groups popping up around Baltimore. Maybe too many.
“I do think there are too many theatres in this town. There’s not enough actors for all the theatres, that’s for sure. I have to beg people to be in our shows, I really have to go after them. Sometimes people tell me that I’m always pre-casting people. But we had auditions last week. Nobody came. Not one person showed up. Then we have to start seeking actors. That’s great for actors. They’re able to get whatever role they want. You want to act, you’re doing it. That’s great for the actors who aren’t great, too. But if you are good, you’re, like, booked for a year. So, yeah, I think there’s too many theatres.”
She thinks that in a city like Baltimore, there’s a need for partnerships. But then, she admits, it’s not a great city for partnerships.
“I think everyone’s head is down trying to make their own theatre work. There have been efforts at partnerships. You know, BTA (Baltimore Theatre Alliance), that’s what they were trying to do. The interest wasn’t there, and they disbanded. The money’s gone. The people who cared about it, and who thought it was necessary, were also completely involved in their own stuff. That’s the problem. Everyone’s stretched so thin, that asking someone to run this organization becomes difficult. And there’s no money.”
Everyman Theatre, for the moment, stands about fifty meters to the North of the Strand on Charles Street. They’re friendly. But, Kilburn says, as a professional ensemble, they’re in a different universe.
“It’s hard to relate with their issues. They’re worrying about not getting enough single ticket sales, because they have too many subscriptions. But that’s out of our league. Their problems aren’t our problems. We put coupons in their programs. But people don’t take advantage of it. We put postcards over there. I don’t know. I’m sure there is crossover, but not a lot.”
Being one of the city’s nonprofessional theatres in Baltimore is hard. Especially when a new theatre comes into town, and immediately gets all the attention. Four years ago, Single Carrot Theatre – straight out of University of Colorado’s School of Theatre – did exactly that. They got attention. And money.
“Doreen Bulger [director of Baltimore Museum of Art] got people with disposable income to really help. It gave them more gravitas. And Buck [Buck Jabaily, Single Carrot Artistic Director] worked at Center Stage. For them, they had a good formula, and the stars aligned. These are skill sets you have to have. And they’re not ones I’m good at. Obviously, Doreen Bulger liked them from the beginning, that was a huge boost for them. She got people who had money to really help.”
And in a town of limited resources, that ticked off some of the other smaller indie theatres.
“I do think that it pissed off a lot of theatres. But if Strand was the one with the $250 thousand budget, I wouldn’t give a poop if anyone else was pissed off. It happened for them, but it doesn’t happen for everyone.”
It hasn’t happened for the Strand. And it hasn’t happened for many of the other small theatres in Baltimore. For Kilburn, there’s a small consolation: she’s not alone.
“If it wasn’t the other theaters were going through the same thing, I would say [it’s our fault]. But the other theaters, who do very different stuff, are saying the same thing. We got nothing. So I’m okay, like, we’re entering into a really bad spot for theaters. If sales are like this for the next show, basically, we can survive like this for two more shows.”
She pauses. Strand has four more productions coming up this season, and they’re all edgy productions by contemporary playwrights, whom Kilburn has chosen after pouring through hundreds of scripts.
“Look, I know you’re not supposed to talk like this. But hey, it’s what you hear us talking about in bars. And please don’t tell me that this [situation] doesn’t suck, because it does.”
So there you’ve got it. The Strand is determined to move onto stage three: where it is known widely as a respected, progressive theatre, which produces important plays which the large theatres are reluctant to touch. But for the moment, they’re in stage two: where it’s a respected, progressive theatre with a mission, a good reputation (it was recently named ‘One of Baltimore’s Top Five Theatres by Baltimore Magazine) and a faithful, but tiny audience. And for the moment, stage two seems to be lasting forever.
John Barry is a Baltimore based theatre critic and writer.