Theatre Project Celebrates 40 Years of Flouting Convention
Featuring Last Chance: The Story of a Broken Heartland
Published: January 4, 2012
Generous Company’s Gumbo
From Jan. 6 to Jan. 21
Proceeds from the Jan. 6 performance of David White’s Last Chance will go to help Joplin High School’s drama program in Joplin, MO., recover from the May tornado.
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Generous Company’s Gumbo, a festival this month at Theatre Project, is unusual—even for a place that has long been a hub for Baltimore’s avant-garde. The festival, which will take place at the theater over the course of three weekends, consists almost entirely of unfinished plays. Arranged by local ensemble Generous Company—which performed I Am the Machine Gunner at Theatre Project in 2010—it features 16 new theatrical works in various stages of development, ranging from staged readings to more elaborate productions.
The first weekend will showcase a series of intertwined plays called Last Chance: The Story of a Broken Heartland, set in a small town in the Ozarks, by Generous Company member David White. The second weekend features an as yet untitled multimedia work by Generous Company, replete with puppets, music, live performance, and video. (Local companies Annex Theatre and Un Saddest Factory Theatre will also present pieces that weekend.) And on the final weekend, several new plays developed at WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory, an annual two-week-long retreat for pre-professional playwrights run by Generous Company, will hit the stage.
“We’re looking at [the festival] as a way to let people see how we work and what we do,” says Mike Vandercook, Generous Company’s executive director. (The company is highly collaborative and does not have an artistic director.) “The play doesn’t become real without an audience, and this is a chance to get a glimpse of what goes into putting up a play.”
Megan Gogerty, a playwright with two pieces coming to Theatre Project in January—Bad Panda, which may premiere later this year, and the completed Feet First in the Water With a Baby in My Teeth—says presenting unfinished work to an audience can be extremely useful for a playwright. “When you’re writing, when you’re rehearsing, it’s all guesswork,” she says on the phone from her home in Iowa City. “You don’t really know what you have until the people are in the room with you. Audience is this wonderful barometer because they cannot lie. If it’s funny, they’ll laugh. . .or be moved, or hold their breath. When a play is working, everyone in the audience shifts in their seats at the same time. It’s remarkable. And when it’s not working, it’s also remarkable, but now it’s remarkably painful. Everybody’s moving around and checking their watches—little Indiglo lights pop up.”
Vandercook says this sort of feedback is especially useful for an unconventional company like Generous, which doesn’t produce a regular season and sometimes works on a given piece for two years before staging a full production. “You can’t just step away and put the same six people in a room for two years and develop a piece,” he says. “You start to get all the inside jokes and you’re just talking to each other and you sort of become removed from your audience’s experience.”
But opportunities to show incomplete work to an audience are scarce. “Most venues would not give you three weeks out of their season to do a bunch of unfinished work in process,” Vandercook says. “But this is what Theatre Project encourages—unconventional ways of doing work, new experimental work, and a lot of support for local companies. . . . We choose to work on our terms and Theatre Project allows us to embrace that philosophy.”
Theatre Project, an intimate 150-seat space on Preston Street, turns 40 years old this season, and if Generous Company’s Gumbo and the rest of the 2011/2012 lineup are any indication, its commitment to all things experimental, unique, and new has not flagged a bit. This season has already seen the High Zero Festival, the venerable annual improvisational music event; several productions by the Iron Crow Theatre Company, a relatively new group devoted to the work of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender artists; and a one-woman show depicting five Muslim women post-Sept. 11, 2001 (“Rohina Malik,” Stage, Nov. 30, 2011), among other works. On deck, along with many others: numerous dance performances; a chamber opera based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse, set in a 1914 train station; events produced in conjunction with QuestFest, a visual theater festival led by a Maryland-based organization committed to the work of deaf and hard-of-hearing artists; and a performance by National Public Radio’s Al Letson, host of State of the Re:Union, which will feature a series of taped segments and live performances about Baltimore and other cities for a new TV show.
Anne Fulwiler, 50, who attended her first performance at Theatre Project when she was 15, has been the director for 10 years. She says she “grew up at [founding director] Philip Arnoult’s knee,” and continues to focus on the original mission: to support contemporary artists who are experimenting with new forms of expression. “I’m always looking for edgier work,” she says. (Arnoult and Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance director Buck Jabaily recently announced they plan to launch a free theater in Baltimore with a very similar mission, through funding from the Deutsch Foundation.)
Fulwiler also likes to fill out the calendar with genres that aren’t often produced in Baltimore, like chamber opera, dance, and puppetry. (That last one can be difficult, because audiences either assume the show is for children or think that because the show is at Theatre Project, they’d better not bring their children. “We had a bit of that problem with [Sandglass Theater’s 2010 production] All Weather Ballads,” Fulwiler says. “There was a bit of mild cussing and brief puppet nudity. But it was a charming show that the 6-year-olds that were brought loved and the 60-year-olds loved it too.”)
As with Generous Company and Iron Crow—both companies-in-residence—Theatre Project tends to commit to an artist or a company rather than a particular piece of work. “And sometimes there’s a train wreck,” Fulwiler admits. “But it’s very much part of our mission to let companies take risks and to let companies fail sometimes, because that’s an important part of their growth process.”
The live performance scene in Baltimore has changed a good deal over the years that Theatre Project has been in existence. Its founding preceded that of several venues that are now institutions: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and Everyman Theatre, for example. Fulwiler finds the recent emergence of numerous new, small theater groups promising, though she says such companies tend to come and go. “Baltimore does have an affection for the flavor of the month, and when you’ve been around for 40 years, you’re not necessarily it,” she says. “But I think it’s exciting there are so many young theater companies springing up.” And their presence makes Theatre Project more vital than ever, Fulwiler says. “I know there’s an attraction to having your own space, particularly if you can really program an entire season,” she says. “But a lot of companies really only have one or two productions in a year, and it’s better to concentrate on getting the show right than taking risks on rent and utilities, insurance. These are very real costs and we’re kind of there to help with that.” Some companies that now have their own spaces, like Single Carrot Theatre, once produced work at Theatre Project.
But despite the organization’s continued vitality, funding is a constant struggle, particularly in the economic downturn. The venue recently lost city funding, as did many other arts organizations—the Creative Baltimore Fund was entirely cut from the city budget—and foundation funding is down as endowments have dwindled. “I think that’s part of what prompted me to try and create so many free shows this year . . . I didn’t want people to feel like there was a barrier to come and see what we do,” Fulwiler says. In homage to the Theatre Project’s early years, when all shows were free, the theater is featuring pay-what-you-wish or “Pass the Hat” events throughout the season, including nearly all of the Generous Company’s Gumbo performances.
But though times may be hard, they are better than they were when Fulwiler became director. “It’s a struggle,” she says. “But it’s less of a struggle than when I first took it on and every phone call was a creditor.” Soon after Fulwiler became director, Theatre Project sold the two rowhouses adjacent to its current location—which had served as offices, dressing rooms, and artist housing—to get back on its feet. The operating budget now hovers around $200,000, programming and audience numbers are double what they were when Fulwiler began, and there are now three full-time staff members rather than one. Some weeks are better than others; there are, for instance, still occasions when Fulwiler finds herself mopping the floors and taking out the garbage herself. But she’s not terribly worried about the future. “It’s Theatre Project,” she says with a laugh. “We’ve been going out of business for 40 years now!”
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