Shine or struggle at the mike

Fun: Good or bad, acts that appear at HCC's Theatre Outback open-mike night are shown warmth and support.

October 03, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

The microphone was up for grabs at Howard Community College's Theatre Outback in the first of several annual student showcase events sponsored by the college's Performing Arts Group.

During three hours of open-mike night, most of the 18 acts were musical, ranging from Broadway show tunes to blaring electric guitars to original ballads to freestyle rap. Some people shined, some struggled, but all drew encouraging applause from the audience and experienced the spotlight for a little while Friday.

"It's a good way to get involved," said Aaron Broderick, an alumnus who volunteered as sound engineer for the evening. "It's a real accepting atmosphere.

"People learn from watching each other," added Broderick, a music education major at Towson University.

Sue Kramer, director of student-alumni arts at the college, said, "Open mikes are my favorite because you meet a whole new range of people."

The Performing Arts Group holds open-mike and audition-only coffeehouses, concerts and showcases several times a year. Growing from an event that fit in a classroom to one that has sold out the college dining room, open-mike night drew about 60 performers and spectators last week.

Some performers were seeking exposure, such as Ann Sophocleus, a 65-year-old retired Social Security Administration policy writer who has sung professionally part time for many years.

"I think it is a great venue, especially for younger kids," said Sophocleus, who kicked off the night by singing One Moment in Time, a song made popular by Whitney Houston.

A grandmother of two, Sophocleus said now that she is retired, "I'm spending my time on enrichment," such as piano and acting classes at HCC.

Other participants used the open mike as a first opportunity to gain performance experience.

Karen Riehl, a student at Catonsville Community College, sang original folk-oriented songs with Dan Cohan -- an Essex Community College student she knows from middle school -- playing guitar and Nick Burris, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County student, playing a large African hand drum called a djembe.

"We were just trying to get away from playing in someone's house," Riehl said.

She also said she was nervous going on, but after a positive response from the audience, "I felt really good. I wanted to do more."

Some performers were open-mike regulars, such as several members of the urban folk rock band Dirty Mothers.

Denise Cumor and Anthony Scimonelli were active members of the HCC performing arts department while they were students, helping to found the school's improvisation troupe.

"This is one of the things we do come back for," said Cumor, who works on outreach for the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. She and Scimonelli, an actor, are engaged and live in Hamilton.

Erin Blush, an HCC alumni and veterinary technician who lives in Parkville, and Kevin Klingebiel, a Silver Spring resident who works in the geology lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, complete the quartet.

Dirty Mothers plays in area clubs, cafes and festivals, but Cumor remembers starting out at events like this one.

"There are not a lot of opportunities for young adults [to perform] in this area," Cumor said. At the open mike, "a lot of bands get their first opportunity to play."

Some people joined in just for the fun of it.

Will Baker of Laurel, a first-year HCC theater major, went on solo after his band, X-Spendable Euth, did not show up. Baker was not very prepared, but he won the crowd over with self-effacing humor and effort.

He began with trivia questions, asking an audience member to sing the theme to the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants (which she did with enthusiasm). Then he played guitar and sang Oasis' "Wonderwall" with a few forgetful pauses, earning applause when he started again. He invited the audience to sing along, which they did, complete with one group of women singing backup parts.

Baker concluded with an instrumental song he wrote.

"I felt really calm," he said afterward. "If you really mess up, nobody cares."

Jimmy Meritt, a lanky HCC student with green sneakers, a suit and tie, blond highlights and braces, kept the evening moving as master of ceremonies. Meritt, of Laurel, is in year three of what he called "a 28-year plan" at HCC while he pursues a career in stand-up. He practices at coffeehouses, church banquets and opening for local bands.

Meritt drew laughs talking about ex-girlfriends, bad jobs he has held and attending Christian school. His job is "to keep everything moving," he said, noting that being funny is not as important as having a rapport with the audience.

His advice? "Just engage them."

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