Students of drama min Baltimore Guided project: Three professionals from Touchstone Theater help Towson State graduate students create a truly local piece.

February 04, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The piece playing today at the Theatre Project took shape like a statue carved out of smoke.

Called "The Baltimore Project," it was created by graduate students from Towson State University's theater drama program, rigorously guided by professionals from the much-acclaimed Touchstone Theater Ensemble of Bethlehem, Pa.

Seven students working toward master of fine arts degrees fanned out into Baltimore in search of their own vision of the city. They looked for characters and quirks, icons and legends, myths and truths.

They brought back images of Harborplace at noon, The Block at midnight, Mount Vernon Square at 4 a.m. They then acted out their kaleidoscopic views of Baltimore in rehearsals at Towson, where Mark McKenna, Amy Russell and Anatol Wechtl from Touchstone honed their student acting exercises into theater.

Earlier, in mid-January, Mr. McKenna, Ms. Russell and Mr. Wechtl brought their own original Touchstone production of "Fish," a new take on the old triangle, to TSU's Mid-Atlantic Movement Theater Festival. Ms. Russell played the wife of Mr. McKenna, a fisherman. She falls in love with a romantic stranger who offers a new life in a new world. He's a salmon, played by Mr. Wechtl. The Touchstone ensemble stayed on to help create "The Baltimore Project."

Mr. McKenna, who is Touchstone's artistic director; Ms. Russell, a graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts; Mr. Wechtl, a native of Vienna, Austria, who's taught theater in England and South Africa; and Jennie Gilrain, who directed "Fish," studied together at the Jacques LeCoq International School of Theater in Paris. Ms. Gilrain is design consult

ant on "The Baltimore Project."

Touchstone Theater, Mr. McKenna said, had its beginnings 20 years ago with a group of students at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, inspired by an exciting theater teacher named John Pearson, who was committed to experimental, improvised theater.

When he died in 1976, his students carried on his work with a company that eventually became Touchstone.

Now Touchstone is one of the few theater companies in the country that has a resident ensemble creating original works outside commercial theater, said Mr. McKenna. Touchstone's relationship with the Theatre Project dates to the '70s, when Mr. Pearson sent actors to work in the Preston Street theater.

Working hard

At rehearsals in the studio theater in TSU's Fine Arts Center, "The Baltimore Project" evolved like an opera from a dance, a sound movie from a silent film, a basketball team from a gang of schoolyard hot dogs. The company's been working six hours a day, six days a week, for nearly a month.

Each member of the ensemble -- Lucie Poirier, Brandon Welch, Susan Rotkovitz, Kate Howard, Justin Skinner, Leslie Baker and Marty Miklusek, who range in age from 22 to 40ish -- brought a slice of Baltimore life before the Touchstone triumvirate in the form of an acting exercise.

Rehearsal occasionally looked like self-criticism before the people's committee of a cultural revolution, as each performer unfolded a sketch alone before a row of fellow actors and the three directors. But critiques were kindly, if acute. Mr. Wechtl said "great, but " a lot.

"Very nice, I think, great work," Mr. McKenna said as everybody took a break after a run-through the other night.

"They're very perceptive," Ms. Poirier said of her mentors.

She did a hilarious sketch of a grande dame at the Walters Art Gallery, screeching about "that damned Picasso!" Everybody broke up, including the Touchstone trio.

"They have great eyes," said Mr. Welch. His bit was a beer-swilling fan, nostalgic about the Baltimore Colts as the Indianapolis Colts lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dressed in what looked like his pajamas, Mr. Miklusek played out his view of Harborplace commercialism. Mr. Skinner mimed a pre-dawn stroll through Mount Vernon Place.

"I didn't get everything," Mr. Wechtl told Mr. Skinner in his Austrian accent. "Great work."

Ms. Baker appeared in a vinyl, baby-doll dress, caressing a balloon in a somewhat obscure sketch that may have had something to do with the birth of the Ouija board. Ms. Howard came on as a denizen of Madison and Charles streets, red-haired with green shades and a police whistle on a lanyard.

"If she's on the street, she stops traffic," Ms. Russell observed. "In her little world, she's very, very normal."

Ms. Rotkovitz worked up a scene as an eager Block maiden welcoming a sailor home from the sea. Mr. Skinner played the enthusiastic seaman.

Looking for direction

"We don't have a piece yet," Mr. McKenna said at the end of the session. "But we're generating. We have to find the directions they're going."

He and his co-directors sought connections between the city sketches that the players brought them.

"It'll be written by the students at the end," Mr. Wechtl said. "It's on their research material that the whole thing is based. We've got to confront their characters and carve out the place where those characters meet."

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