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Staging Ground

Baltimore is gaining a reputation as a hub of theater development

Photo: Buck Jabally, License: N/A

Buck Jabally

Double Edge Theatre performs The Grand Parade (of the 20th Century) at the Theatre Project

On Sunday afternoon, the capacity crowd at Theatre Project snakes out into the front hall and is chatting with members of the cast of Double Edge Theatre, which has just finished its final workshop performance of The Grand Parade, hosted by Baltimore Performance Kitchen. On the stage, techies are slowly dismantling the set: aerial trapezes; a huge, overhanging cloth tent; several suspended geometrical figures; a fully stocked bar; a running machine; a large inflatable globe; and a circa-1950s television.

The 12 free performances were largely sold out. And the crowd doesn’t look like a typical Baltimore matinee crowd at all. There are kids, hipsters, old folks, younger non-actors, and a genuine ethnic mix.

They haven’t come to see a finished production either. They’ve skipped football to watch a Double Edge production in its final creative stages—as the company prepares for its Arena Stage opening, from Feb. 6 to Feb. 10.

In an era when theaters are struggling to attract a new generation, it’s hard not to think that something important is going on here. In this interactive, highly curious age, the process of putting together a play—by an ensemble which has been working steadily for two years—has attracted a new theater audience, which has developed a desire to engage in the artistic process. This has less to do with theory, and more to do with the simple fact that (at least in Baltimore) everyone’s an artist. They want to get behind the scenes and use what they learn.

There’s no better group to start with than Double Edge Theatre. For decades, this Massachusetts-based ensemble has been ditching the traditional American template: six weeks of high-pressure rehearsals (often with strangers) followed by a polished product.

Double Edge instead chooses to assemble in a large white barn in the small New England town of Ashfield, carefully building up productions that, like Grand Parade, can be two years in the making. Rigorously trained—some have been with Double Edge for two decades—its ensemble is fully engaged in the process of bringing the artistic imagination to the stage.

In the upper-level cheap seats of Theatre Project, Grand Parade director Stacy Klein takes a brief break to oversee the set’s dismantling. Klein, a Baltimore native, founded Double Edge 30 years ago.

She talks a little bit about the process of creating The Grand Parade (of the 20th Century), which began in the 1980s, when she came upon the Russian painter Chagall. Chagall, who died at 97 in 1985, had a visionary and modernist style, though he’s best known for his paintings of Russian village life, which Klein decided to incorporate into a production with a panoramic view of the 20th century.

“I was struck by his images,” she said. “There was this sense of flight, mystery, and wonder. And I also realized that Chagall had been alive for most of the 20th century as an artist.”

The process began with the artists, research texts, and artifacts from the century. “It was a long process,” says Matthew Glassman, co-creator and core actor. “But it was never boring. It was a journey through the century for us, finding what about it is close to our lives, how we put things together as we find a mosaic out of shattered glass.”

Intense research of texts was accompanied by physical collaborations as six actors, along with consultants, musicians, puppeteers, creative advisers, and technicians, developed the production in the barn in Ashfield, situated on a 100-acre dairy farm that Double Edge made its home in 1994. Stacy Klein had a down-to-earth manifestation of that method in action: an ’80s running machine at stage center, which wound up defining the out-of-control pace of the production as actors moved from the Industrial Revolution to speakeasies, to World War I, to Flappers, to the Marx Brothers, to the rise of Fascism . . . to the computer age.

After several months, actors realized that their relationship to the century was more image-oriented. The production gradually lost the verbal element.

“We started with the idea of reading texts and poetry,” says veteran ensemble member Glassman, “then, organically, it started to go away. It was a conscious choice. We started to live fully in these images. In expected and unexpected ways, many of those words began to integrate themselves into sound, design, and video.”

The haunting musical score by Russian composer Alexander Bakshi, who was brought into the process courtesy of Baltimore’s Philip Arnoult, a senior consultant for Double Edge for over two decades and founder of the Theatre Project. About a year ago, in one of many trips to the farm, he saw Grand Parade coming into shape in its initial stages. “They were already slated for Arena Stage,” he said. “I told them, though, that after all that time in a barn, that they had to come to Baltimore and workshop in front of an audience.” Buck Jabaily, of Baltimore Performance Kitchen, who accompanied Arnoult, agreed (“It was mind-blowing”) and eventually rented out the space at the Theatre Project.

“For over a year, we’d been doing this in front of a wall,” says Carlos Uriona. “This was a chance to triangulate in front of an audience and see how they responded. It was a great experience. And Baltimore is a wonderful audience.”

Stacy Klein says that the two weeks in Baltimore have been essential to the final phases of development. One change she says: slowing down a rapid-fire, final leap through the ’80s and ’90s. “Baltimore audience members noted that we’d skipped over some important elements in that decade. We’ll be working on that.” She notes that a number of adjustments in lighting and tech have also been made over the last two weeks.

Of course, they still need to dismantle the set. “It all goes into trucks,” she says, a little grimly. They go on to Chicago, to a larger venue, where Double Edge will preview the production. Finally, from Feb. 6 to the 10, the production will premiere at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. Then, later, they’ll take the production to Moscow for the annual Golden Mask Festival, where the entire set will be constructed again, from the ground up.

Klein herself seems to feel that the Baltimore audience itself was part of what made this an ideal place for the last stages of the development of Grand Parade. She was born in Baltimore in 1956. She lived in the inner city, and later, in Randallstown, before heading north to Massachusetts in 1974—where she would eventually form Double Edge. “It’s a special place to me,” she says. “And the city is a lot more fun than it was when I grew up.”

Baltimore has long been known as an extended, low-rent workshop for artists and musicians. But as a theater town, it is in the shadows of New York and Washington, D.C. With workshops like this, though, the city is attracting national and international artists interested in bringing ideas to fruition or polishing them up. Arnoult—who has been engaged in this for about 50 years, with the Theatre Project and also the Center for International Theatre Development—feels that this is the sort of work that engages the younger audience. He directs me to a recently published article by Lana Lesley (“Building the Audience into the Process”) which indicates that younger audiences want to engage in the actual process of creation. “She shows how, at these productions, 52 percent of the audience is under 60. Compare that with most regional theaters, where almost everyone’s over 60.”

With his Baltimore Performance Kitchen, Buck Jabaily agrees that this is the sort of theater that is going to strike a chord. “Process is the most exciting thing in theater. Everything comes out.” Performance Kitchen supports performing artists in site-specific locations across the city, as they give audiences the chance to watch artists create work on-site.

“This is a new audience. It’s been brought up on the internet. We’ve become more curious, we’re the people who will type in the search boxes if we don’t understand things. Theater like this opens the doors and it helps them engage in the process of creation.”

The production will be shown in its final form at Arena Stage in February. The tickets for the week-long engagement are almost sold out. But the capacity crowd that files out of this Baltimore workshop production The Grand Parade (of the 20th Century) on Sunday afternoon could be the wave of the future.

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