Not afraid of the dark

Small community theaters think big with edgy and ambitious shows

August 26, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun theater critic

Some of the most provocative and cutting-edge theater around these days is being mounted by volunteer actors working on tiny stages with less than 100 seats, where the production budget essentially consists of a ball of twine and two pieces of tape.

Welcome to the weirdly exhilarating world of Baltimore's community theater, where a sofa can spend more time on stage than in its owner's living room, and where practitioners jealously guard their secret recipe for stage blood.

In the coming season, the latter should be in great demand: Baltimore community theaters shows tend to go for the jugular. Consider a smattering of future and recent productions:

Earlier this summer, Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre mounted the area premiere of Fat Pig, in which playwright Neil LaBute tackles the seldom-discussed topic of bigotry against plus-sized women with all the diplomacy and tact implied by the title.

This week, little Run of the Mill Theater - not Charm City's fancy-schmancy professional companies - becomes the only troupe in town to participate in Suzan-Lori Parks' innovative 365 Plays/365 Days, the largest theatrical collaboration in U.S. history.

And next month, Mobtown Players stages The Pillowman, a play about that warm and fuzzy topic, child murder. Martin McDonagh's play has been described as "so revolting and yet so human and so funny" that at the Broadway premiere in 2005, a large part of the audience left at intermission, while the rest remained riveted in their seats.

What, no productions of Bye, Bye Birdie?

"Theater is more than entertainment," says Fuzz Roark, artistic director of the Spotlighters. "We feel very strongly that theater should challenge audiences. We don't choose our seasons based on our box office. About 60 percent of the shows that we produce are selected primarily for artistic reasons."

To get a sense of how unusual that is, Julie Angelo, executive director of the American Association of Community Theatre, a Texas-based trade organization, ran down a list of the most frequently produced shows in the past season.

Cats ranks high, as does Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan and The Sound of Music.

"A lot of community theaters are more middle-of-the-road because that's what their patrons want to see," Angelo says. "Small theaters in urban areas can support lesser-known, more controversial shows."

"Community theater" refers to amateur troupes that cast actors and crew members from the surrounding neighborhoods, instead of auditioning outsiders. Unlike professional theaters, community groups don't pay performers. For these volunteers, theater isn't a career, but a passionate avocation.

"A lot of times, community theater has an appeal that professional theater lacks, because the audience knows the people on stage, and they know that the show is a labor of love," Angelo says.

Amateur troupes are small but numerous. Baltimore has three professional troupes and roughly 60 community and college theaters listed on the Baltimore Theatre Alliance Web site at baltimore performs.org, though not all are active.

More than 70 percent of community troupes in the U.S. have budgets of less than $100,000, Angelo says. Compare that with Center Stage, Baltimore's largest professional troupe, which has a budget of $7.6 million for the 2007-08 season.

Yet, lack of resources hasn't caused Baltimore community theaters to play it safe.

For instance, the Fell's Point Corner Theatre and Run of the Mill Theater are known for championing new work, which is notoriously difficult to market to ticket-buyers. Fell's Point even provides office space for the annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

"We are community theater, but that doesn't diminish the scope and ambition of what we do," says Beverly Sokal, the president emeritus of Fell's Point's board of directors.

"Giving opportunities to new playwrights is an important part of our mission."

Yet, all the troupes are careful to balance challenging shows with established crowd-pleasers. Spotlighters, for instance, will follow its recent production of Perestroika, the second installment in Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America, with Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, an established crowd-pleaser.

"We'll always make more money with The Mousetrap than with Perestroika or Fat Pig," Roark says. "You can't escape it."

This caution is perhaps not surprising, considering the decline in the number of community theaters nationwide. In the past 45 years, the total of little theaters in the U.S. has dropped by 11,000 from the estimated 18,000 troupes in 1962.

Ironically, the same good idea that gave the little theater movement its initial impetus also caused its downfall.

Nurturing talent

Community theater reached its zenith after World War I as an alternative to the only other theater of the time, the touring Broadway show.

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