If you’re new to Baltimore, and driving up from DC, the Arena Players is the first Baltimore theater you’ll see. Off the I-95 ramp, down Martin Luther Avenue, it sticks out as a gaily painted brick structure off of McCulloh Street.
It’s been up and running for 59 years – making it the oldest continually running black theatre in the United States. It has a strong history, and a list of alumni that includes a generation of African American actors. Here are a few: Broadway star Traci Thoms (know to many from the film “Rent”), Tony-winning Trezena Beverly. Damon Evans (Opera Singer, also a young costar on the 70’s television show “The Jeffersons”), Devron Young (regional director), Penny Johnson Gerald (now on the television show “Castle,” played the presidents wife in “24”). And there are plenty more like that.
But times have changed. Theatres are no longer cultural gathering places. Aspiring African American actors have more options. While, under the artistic directorship of Donald Owens, a dedicated core audience remains, the Arena Players is in danger of falling off the city’s cultural map. As it moves into its 60th season, it has to deal with a crumbling structure and a shrinking audience, and an unfriendly economy.
So as it moves into its seventh decade, the theatre is on reboot. The themes for the 59th season reflect that. In a call for volunteers, Arena Players lays out its mission for this spring: *Refresh *Reconnect *Replenish *Remodel *Regroup *Recycle *Remember.
With that mission in mind, artistic director Donald Owens has brought the 37 year old David Mitchell aboard. Mitchell represents a link between Arena Players and Baltimore’s active independent theatre community. Mitchell spent seven years as artistic director of the Run of the Mill (“RotM”) Theatre. RotM was a pioneer in Baltimore’s now-thriving DIY theatre scene. When Run of the Mill closed its doors in 2011, Mitchell was ready to take a sabbatical from his directing career. Not for long.
“I decided to take a break from the theatre business,” he says. “But a couple of weeks into that break, I got a little bored, and I headed over to Arena and started to talking with Donald Owens and he convinced me to direct the first play of the 59th season.”
Like many in Baltimore’s theatre world, Mitchell juggles teaching and acting jobs. He teaches speech communications at Goucher, and at Baltimore City Community College. And recently he became a member of the programming committee for Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance. Now, in his position at Arena, he has a mission: to revive and reconnect Arena Players with the Baltimore arts community. Over the phone we talked a little about his aspirations and about Arena Players.
I asked him to describe what Arena Players is, especially for those who might not know Baltimore’s history that well.
“Well, it was founded in 1952, during the Civil Rights Movement. That was when African Americans started their own theatres because there wasn’t anywhere else to go.”
In that capacity, it was a training ground for a number of aspiring professionals. It started out on the Campus of Coppin University, and, since then, moved to its present location on the west side of Baltimore, at 801 McCulloh Street.
“But over the course of time, that became less of a mission as more opportunities started to arise for people of color,” Mitchell says. “But it’s had a strong youth program. And it’s been on the West Side of Baltimore for a long period of time.”
Anyone driving into Baltimore along Martin Luther King highway can vouch for that. Arena Players is right off the highway, and a second (or third) cousin architecturally to the Mechanic Theatre, the now-empty monument to modernist Brutalism, a few blocks from Inner Harbor. In a city full of defunct theaters. it might be tempting to assume that Arena is one of them. It’s not, says Mitchell.
“A lot of people I talk to wonder what’s going on inside that building. But the theatre’s still happening. It’s still happening in that building.”
The problem is, clearly, letting people know that it’s happening.
“Now, it’s about reconnecting with the community. First of all, the immediate community, the Seton Hill community. Lexington Market and Mount Vernon. That’s a forgotten-about area. Between that, there are a lot of smaller artistic communities that sort of function on their own. Like the Eubie Blake Center. We’re trying to build connections there, and then with the Baltimore community as a whole.”
“Most of the older generation of African American actors in Baltimore I’ve come into contact with have had some relationship to Arena Players – either they’ve been on the stage, or they’ve worked with the youth program. For them, it wasn’t just a theatre; it was a meeting place for the community as well.”
“Unfortunately, for the younger generation, we don’t have the same kind of identity, and we’re trying to reestablish that. So we can keep it alive for another 60 years.”
Arena Players is a community theatre. I note that the term itself has gone through hard times. “Waiting for Guffman” and “Revolutionary Road” have all left the term associated with non-professionals looking for an outlet. But in the African American community, for six decades, Mitchell says, the term has a mission.
“Arena Players has always been more than that. It’s been a community place for wayward teens. It’s been a meeting place for elders to come, not just to exercise their craft, but to place their comments in the conversation. We have arts classes, professional development classes that come there. That takes us way beyond, you know, a person just stepping on stage and getting their fifteen minutes.”
Mitchell hopes to revamp the infrastructure of the theatre itself. “It needs to be redefined so that it serves the artists of now, not just the historical idea. The theatre has changed. Practices have changed. Our communities have changed.”
That will be a welcome development. I note that I can’t even find a website for the theatre. “We should have one up and running by summertime.”
“It’s unfortunate, you know, because at one time, it had its heyday. But Arena was pretty insular. In that, you know, that’s how it started off. It was a service to the African American community, specifically. That excluded a great many people. And that exclusivity extended way beyond its necessity.”
“Then productivity started to spike a little bit. People found other places to work. Other doors that they could pass through. Because of the civil rights movement, things started to loosen up a bit.”
Then along came Center Stage, Baltimore’s regional theatre company. Launched by another community drama group in 1963, Center Stage became the city’s largest professional theatre in the 70’s. What was a boon for the city wasn’t necessarily great for Arena Players.
“It was an opportunity for people to do something else. Like Theatre Project, it started to present international work. Audiences began to say, well, we’ll go see that. We can walk in and even participate in that.”
“With all that change,” says Mitchell, “I don’t know whether Arena Players adjusted quickly enough to stay competitive. That was a major thing that kept Arena from thriving the way it could have.”
But he notes that they do have an advantage over many of the competitors. Where a lot of theatres are nomadic. Arena owns their building. Baltimore currently is swarming with nomadic groups. Mitchell says that with a little renovation, Arena can provide the venue that they’re looking for.
Arena’s sixtieth season begins next autumn, with Mitchell as Assistant Artistic Director. He says that at present, the theatre is sifting through a pile of scripts. “We’re looking for something that is going to bring everyone home. You know, the generations of people that have been part of Arena Players, and also the newer generations.”
Starting this weekend, Arena Players is presenting four plays in rotating repertory at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St, Baltimore, MD 21201. Directions
Happy Ending and Days of Absence: March 9,10,23 and 24, 2012 at 8pm; March 17 at 18 at 4pm
Details and tickets
Sphere: The Thelonious Monk Story and Moments
Show dates March 16 and 17 at 8pm; March10, 11, 24 and 25 at 4pm
Details and tickets