On Thursday night, January 12th, Preston Street in Baltimore was packed with cars. That was thanks to Itzhak Perlman, an out-of-town violin player who had decided to drop by the Baltimore Symphony and play Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons.’ I have no problem with violin players, unless they cause traffic jams. But since I can’t tell the difference between Perlman and Baltimore’s own concertmaster, I decided to move on.
Further down the street, though, as I walked by Baltimore Theatre Project, I started to smell….Gumbo! Not just Gumbo, I soon found out, but Free Gumbo. So I headed inside. The actual event was Baltimore’s own Generous Company’s Gumbo Festival, hosting a three week long presentation of 16 new theatrical works from unpublished writers. And it’s free, donations accepted.
Generous Company is a local theatre company, cofounded by David White. Together with BTP, they are hosting WordBRIDGE, a longer-lasting project which since 1994 has been offering non-professional playwrights [i.e. playwrights who don’t make a lot of money yet], a chance to show their work in low-pressure arenas.
This strips critics of their accustomed position: cultural bouncers. And it gives the audience a chance to respond, without wondering whether it was “worth it.” I wandered in, and suddenly found myself sitting in front of an unfinished play in progress, being read by good actors who really wanted to know what I thought.
The event on Thursday the 13th was a staged reading of the first act of Strange Playthings & other half-true tales (a working title). The title is not ironic; there is no second act, yet. And since it’s a work in progress, I have no right to criticize it. If it was dead on arrival, I guess, I’d have a reason to criticize Generous Company, the Theatre Project, and WordBRIDGE for allowing that playwright [name(s) unwritten on program] to waste my time. But, instead, it was funny, quirky, and definitely going somewhere.
At the end, instead of offering my (un) schooled advice about what I would have done if I was the playwright, I got to tell people what image I immediately associated with the first act of this unfinished play. The image: worms.
There’s a scene in the nightmarish childhood journey – involving a Young Edgar Alan Poe, Mephistopheles, and a creepy piano player, among others — where a young girl talks about how she had fooled her mother into thinking she had thrown up worms. This play isn’t about worms. It doesn’t treat worms with due respect. It doesn’t even turn worms into real people. But worms, to me, was what this play was all about.
That’s all I wanted to say. It wasn’t the consensus. And other people came up with smarter responses. But WordBRIDGE, at least at the Theatre Project’s three week festival, is all about no-holds-barred interaction with playwrights who are gifted but, as yet, unacknowledged.
So, audience members get to watch the production, respond to questions, make comments, and watch a rehearsal in process. And eat free gumbo.
And I wondered: what’s better? Paying 75 bucks to hear Perlman play the greatest hits of Vivaldi and Brahms, or listening to young Itzak for free, before anyone knows who he is, and telling him that maybe he should go a little lighter on the bow?
There’s no answer to that question, really. But WordBRIDGE’s Gumbo series gives audience members a chance to be there at the creation. Tonight (Friday, Feb 13th) will feature four shorts courtesy of the UnSaddest Factory Theatre Company, and Saturday will feature a handful of shorts by Baltimore’s Annex Theatre. There there’s one more week to go. If last night’s production was any clue, they should be fascinating, quirky, well-acted readings. Enjoy. And enjoy the Gumbo.
Generous Company’s Gumbo Festival of New Theatrical Works runs thru January 20, 2012 at Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 West Preston St, Baltimore, MD.
Details and tickets