“I’ve always loved laundromats.” This declaration by DC playwright Bob Bartlett explains why he set his newest work, The Accident Bear, in The Avenue Laundromat in historic Downtown Annapolis.
“I imagine most of our audiences have never seen a play in a laundromat. I’ve never seen a play in a laundromat, and I see a lot of theater,” he says. “I’ve seen plays in living rooms, in fields, in museums, and even on a river—but never a laundromat! And don’t we all love laundromats and site-specific theatre, which has the potential to engage audiences in more immediate ways than theatre staged in traditional spaces?”
Bartlett’s unusual fascination with laundromats began as a child.
“Like many of us who grew up living in apartments and cities, we were hauled once a week to the neighborhood laundromat, and—as children do—we found ways to keep ourselves occupied for the few hours we were there,” he says. “I remember fondly the sounds, the smells, the people, the sorting, stacking, and folding—the business of laundry and laundromats.”
That feeling started to fade away because as an adult—until a few years ago—Bartlett always had access to laundry faculties in his home. But then he found himself living in an historic apartment on Maryland Avenue in Downtown Annapolis, adjacent to State Circle and The Maryland State House, without a washer and drier.
The Accident Bear
November 30 – December 22, 2018
Details and tickets
“On Thursday nights, I’d lug a few bags of dirty clothes and towels from my second-floor dwelling, and walk the block to my local laundromat,” Bartlett says. “I’d grab coffee from the cafe across the street and sit near the laundromat’s storefront window reading and writing while laundering.”
One night, while laundering with a friend, the playwright was challenged to write a play set there, and to make it a romantic comedy. The play came quickly, and he finished in approximately a month.
[adsanity_rotating align=”aligncenter” time=”10″ group_id=”1455″ /]
Bear, the laundromat’s owner-operator and lives in the upstairs apartment, without fail, every month, suffers from some sort of accident. From fender benders to broken ankles to a broken heart, the guy just can’t change his luck. Things start to change when he meets Chance, an unemployed paramedic living in her 1978 Volkswagen Beetle.
“Maryland Avenue has a terrific vibe for a writer, so sometimes I’d write out on the sidewalk after the laundromat closed, or walk up to State Circle and sit on a bench outside of the State House,” he says. “I tend to be a bit accident-prone, especially when I’m ‘distracted,’ so some elements of the play are autobiographical.”
The show, which is directed by Jay Brock, stars Paul Diem, Rachel Manteuffel and Louis Davis. “Paul Diem, who is cast as Bear, for me is the embodiment of the character,” Bartlett says. “I almost produced the play a few years ago, but Jay and I couldn’t find the right actor for Bear. But then a friend recommended that I check out Paul, who is Baltimore actor and Single Carrot company member, and we had our Bear.”
Chance was written with Manteuffel in mind, as Bartlett had met her at the Capital Fringe Festival five years ago and always wanted to write a role for her.
“She’s a smart, funny, physical actor, so one night when we were hanging out at the Fringe bar, I told her I was going to write a strong role for her,” he says. “It took me a while, but I’m happy that she’s able to premiere the role. Chance is strong, even though she finds herself in a difficult situation.”
“The intimacy is what most excites me. Audiences will be seated in and around the action of the play, often a foot or two away from an actor.” – Bob Bartlett
As for Buddy, the third character in the play, Bartlett admits he wrote a somewhat stereotypical role, based on growing up in and around the woods of Accokeek, Maryland, which breeds a “hippy-ish” sort.
“He became an affable, stoner type, still wearing woolly socks with his Birks,” he says. “I’ve recently gotten to know Louis, who I’d seen in a number of plays, but most recently Theater Alliance’s production of Word Becomes Flesh. I’d written Buddy to be a white pot-dealer but I chatted with Louis about Buddy, and that that I thought he’d be a blast in the role, but that I didn’t want to perpetuate stereotypes about young men of color and drugs. After a few minutes on the phone discussing the ways anti-cannabis laws and attitudes have changed in the years since I wrote the play, we agreed that he would do the role and I’d rewrite the character for him while considering the more progressive cultural shift regarding marijuana that we are experiencing.”
The laundromat is itself a character in the play. “If you’ve been to The Avenue Laundromat on Maryland Avenue, you know that it evokes laundromats of old,” Bartlett says. “While the washers and driers are contemporary, the vintage, coin-operated, vending machine and tile floor are spectacular and important in my play.”
In fact, he notes the vintage vending machine is where the writing started, and its unique relationship with Bear opens the play.
“And then there are all of the trappings and trimmings of laundromats, which will provide terrific business for our director and actors,” he says. “From the change machine to the rolling baskets to the storefront window filled with magazines and travel guides, and the sidewalk and street of Maryland Avenue, which is vital to the play’s action. The back office and neighboring businesses also provided fun plot elements as I was writing.”
Setting the play in a laundromat was easy, but Bartlett wasn’t sure he was going to get permission to use it to stage the show. Thankfully, in the three years he was a customer, he got to know the owner, Annie Small, and shared with her that he was a writer and was writing a play set in her laundromat.
“She probably thought I was a bit off, because there were nights I was writing in the laundromat when I wasn’t there to do my laundry,” he says. “When I was confident that I had a story that worked, I approached her with the idea of producing the play on site, and I sent her a copy of the script, which she read and liked, and agreed to allow me access for a run of the play.”
Next, he got Brock, who he met while finishing his MFA at Catholic University where Brock is a professor – to direct, and he contacted the Mayor’s office to check whether a permit was necessary. It wasn’t because it’s staged in a private business. Of course, there’s no reason the play can’t be staged in a “real” theater someday, though Bartlett feels building a working laundromat could be a challenge for some companies.
“I’d love to see the play performed in laundromats across the country, perhaps as a part of Fringe festivals,” he says. “I’ve produced my own work before, as a co-founder of The Welders, a DC-based playwrights collective, and at Fringe festivals. I took one of my plays to Edinburgh Fringe several years ago, and this play seems like a natural for traveling to Canada or Europe, which I’m investigating.”
“The intimacy is what most excites me about the project. Audiences will be seated in and around the action of the play, often a foot or two away from an actor,” Bartlett says. “Some performances are already sold out, and I imagine we’ll be mostly sold before we open, so don’t wait to buy tickets.”
The Accident Bear runs Nov. 30 to Dec. 22, Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.; and Sundays at 5:30 p.m. Seating is extremely limited with room for about 12. Tickets are $25. For more information and to buy tickets visit https://theaccidentbear.brownpapertickets.com.