I started writing this article as a retrospective of Baltimore theatre in 2011. But I couldn’t help thinking a little bit about what Baltimore is looking at in 2012. In Baltimore, thanks to the Orioles, (and in DC, thanks to the Nationals), we’re sick of hearing that next year Could Be the Year. But things are changing fast. It’s the year of the Apocalypse, true enough. But even so, before doomsday arrives (early Spring) Baltimore is going to be making a serious play to become a nexus for theatre in the DC region.
First, the new breed of theatres in the City has coalesced into an organization. The Baltimore Network of Ensemble Theatres. That’s an initial step, and it’s even got some press in the Sun. I checked for a website (and didn’t find one), so it still doesn’t fill the gap left by the demise of the Baltimore Theatre Alliance. I seem to get into hot water whenever I call an ensemble ‘professional’ or ‘nonprofessional’, so I’ll just leave it at this: they’re determined, dedicated groups, many of them fresh out of theatre school.
At Center Stage, meanwhile, it looks as though, after Irene Lewis’ long tenure, new artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah is giving things a major overhaul. The new tag line has changed from ‘cool/savvy’ (and all its implications) to ‘join the conversation.’ The Head Theatre on the third floor has dismantled its chic cabaret sheen, and returned to the black box look. That’s two years after inserting a fairly expensive looking, glass-topped bar in the rear of the theatre, dismantling the seating arrangements, and inserting one table for every couple of chairs.
Is that a retreat, a return to roots, or a bold step forward? I tried (but failed) to get an interview on the subject, so I’ll fill in the blank with my own interpretation. The initial 2009 facelift was interested in integrating theatre with a larger ‘experience,’ presumably involving multiple bottles of wine. Problems: the seating was uncomfortable, and they forgot to insert a jukebox. Under the leadership of Kwame Kwei-Armah, the theatre is focusing on the theatre itself: bringing dialogue and intensity to the experience.
Kwame is halfway through his first year as director. Reviews have been good, but the transition isn’t complete until next season, when, for the first time, he’ll be choosing plays. A living, breathing playwright himself, he’s been pushing for a dramatically more contemporary mix. We’ll see how far he gets with that. This June, along with Generous Company, Center Stage will be hosting the WordBridge Playwrights Laboratory summer emerging playwrights’ residency.
Everyman Theatre, for its part, is finally moving its base from the Station North District westward, to the Westside, which, thanks to the Hippodrome Theatre, has been developing rapidly. Everyman isn’t trying to compete with the Hippodrome – which features touring Broadway shows – but it’ll be upsizing on several dimensions. Seating will increase from 175 to 250, and the new venue will liberate set designers from the notoriously low ceilings of the old facility.
Last, but not least, the 2012-2013 season will focus a lot of attention on Baltimore’s Open Theatre. Starting March, the Open Theatre is bringing Free Theatre to Baltimore. Sound like a flashback to the late 60’s and early 70’s, the heyday of street and experimental theatre? There is certainly that element: the Open Theatre was an idea of Philip Arnoult, who founded Baltimore’s Theatre Project four decades ago. But his partner, and the Artistic Director of Open Theatre is 27 year old Buck Jabaily, cofounder of local Single Carrot Theatre and (until recently) the director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.
The press release offers all the details, but here’s the basic idea. Open Theatre is a place, not an ensemble. The location itself is still undetermined, but Arnoult and Jabaily are currently considering several, both in the Station North District and in the Westside. The mission is an ambitious one: expanding a theatre audience and artistic dialogue in the Baltimore/DC region and elsewhere. That will involve about 5 international productions a year – next season will include productions from South America and Eastern Europe – and twenty weeks of dance and theatre from the DC/Baltimore/Philadelphia region.
The funding looks solid. They’ve gotten funding from the Deutsch Foundation, consisting of a $50,000 initial grant and $150,000 in matching funds. And, the concept of ‘free’ art is becoming increasingly popular in Baltimore. It’s worked pretty well for the two local Museums, Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Walters. And it’s no coincidence that Doreen Bolger, the BMA director who launched the BMA’s free admissions campaign, has also been a strong and vocal supporter of Single Carrot Theatre. The philosophy is simple: you need a foundation in tough times? First, expand your audience, and bring in people who feel excluded from the dialogue.
“Art is the mission,” says Buck Jabaily, “But the conversation around theatre is also the mission. So we frame the work before the audience arrives.” That may involve two minute videos and introductory presentations. “We want to create points of access.” Free theatre breaks down two barriers. There’s the obvious one: cost. But Jabaily is also interested in tearing down another one that seems to be stopping younger American audiences from attending performing arts events.
“How many people today decide not to go to contemporary dance because they think that they can’t understand it?” he asks. “Hopefully not a lot, but it is a concern. So if you can create that point of access for somebody, you can reach an audience you didn’t have before. They’ll come and hopefully, they’ll get something deeper.” Something to talk about, in other words.
More later on all of these developments. And I’ve left out a few. But for the next couple of months, it sounds like a cliché, but big things are actually happening in Baltimore that have nothing to do with developing condos.
Personally, I’ve spent ten years covering theatre in this city. Baltimore, like most small-to-middlin’ sized artistic communities (call them the 99 percent) doesn’t need more artists as much as it needs to give a younger audience a reason for occupying the theatre seats. In a year when people across the country are demanding the right to be part of the discussion, and not just passive observers, theatre can turn a crisis into a critical moment. Just based on what I’ve noted above, it looks like there is a sizeable cross-section of Baltimore’s performing arts community that is determined to do something about that in 2012.