Little theater? In this city, it's become a big deal

November 21, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Small theaters are getting to be a big deal in Baltimore.

This season theatergoers can choose from among more than 60 plays produced by almost 20 community and semi-professional theaters. Long-time observers and participants claim it's the greatest flurry of little-theater activity they can remember.

And, it can be measured not only in the number of productions, but also in terms of bricks and mortar.

* Fells Point Corner Theatre has embarked on a $340,000 total renovation project, the first $75,000 phase of which is under way and includes updating the building, increasing the lobby size and creating a new entrance. Eventually Fells Point Corner will also have a fully functional second theater space, making it the only community theater in town with two stages.

* The Vagabond Players, which bills itself as the oldest continuously operating community theater in the country, is currently completing a $250,000 renovation of its South Broadway facility, which will reopen in January with a production Joe Orton's "Loot." Among the more noticeable changes will be a larger stage, improved audience sightlines and handicapped accessibility. (Due to construction delays, this month's musical revue, "Cole," has been postponed until June.)

* Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore at Superba, a new theater scheduled to present its first production in March, will move into a 150-seat facility that is part of a $1 million reconstruction project to convert six abandoned Washington Village buildings for new uses.

The growth of Baltimore's smaller theaters is also reflected in an increase in quality. Particularly in all-volunteer community theaters, whose productions were once highly uneven, the level of acting, directing and even technical skills now often approaches professional standards.

Of course, none of these developments occurred overnight. There's been steady progress over the past decade or so, and the reasons for itare almost as varied as the theaters themselves.

Indeed, variety of fare partly explains why so many companies have been able not only to coexist, but also to continue to attract audiences in a market in which more and more activities compete for a share of our leisure time.

Different missions

Here's a sample of the different artistic missions of a few of these theaters: The relatively conservative Theatre Hopkins specializes in literature written before the last couple of decades. The new Playwrights Theatre will focus on world premieres, beginning with a script by Baltimore playwright Alonzo D. Lamont Jr. Splitting Image presents collaboratively created original work that explores psychological issues. And the risk-taking Spotlighters has a reputation for giving neophytes a chance -- a practice that helped launch the careers of TV and movie star Howard Rollins and off-Broadway actor David Drake, among others.

In addition, several theaters, most notably Fells Point Corner and AXIS, focus on area premieres of plays that Baltimore audiences might not otherwise see. One indication of the success of these efforts is that on at least three occasions, Center Stage, Baltimore's professional regional theater, has mounted subsequent productions of plays that made their local debuts on community theater stages. "Fences," now in previews at Center Stage, is a current example; the same play was produced by the Spotlighters three seasons ago.

Also on the professional front, last season the Theatre Project -- a venue with a reputation for presenting the avant-garde -- acknowledged the higher caliber of little theater by expanding its agenda to include residencies for three local companies.

Of these, the struggling New Century Theater is in hiatus, but Splitting Image will premiere its latest work at the Theatre Project this spring, and Impossible Industrial Action's current production "The Artificial Jungle" is the first of two shows IIA will mount there this season.

Obvious advantage

The most obvious advantage of the residencies is that they provide addresses for companies without permanent homes -- a problem shared by several of the city's newer companies. In addition, according to IIA artistic director Tony Tsendeas, the prestige of being at the Theatre Project can be a help in fund-raising. "For us to be in residence in one of the professional houses is a great boon," he explains.

However, while other homeless companies continue to hunt for venues -- one of the more unusual solutions will be Mother Lode Productions' staging of an original work at a former furniture showroom in Towson Marketplace next month -- the cooperative efforts to solve such problems stand out as one of the more distinctive features of this city's community theaters, as well as a factor contributing to the proliferation of little theaters.

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