They Stoop To Conquer

The Team Behind Thestoop Storytelling Series Expands The Show's Horizons - And Its Audience

July 05, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

There's no need to scoot over. Baltimore's favorite stoop is about to get a lot more wiggle room.

Stoop Storytelling, the series in which local residents tell unscripted anecdotes about their lives, has been a hit since its debut performance in February 2006. After the first season, the show's two creators, scrambling to keep up with the demand for tickets, moved the series to Center Stage, with more than double the seats - and nearly every show still sold out.

Would-be audience members have been known to try to obtain coveted tickets by offering half-joking bribes of chocolate to members of the box office.

This week, the number of performances of the newest show, Baltimoored: Summer in the City , A Live Radio Show, will triple the number of admissions by expanding performances from one to three nights: Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

There also will be a new format. In addition to providing personal vignettes from such storytellers as Maryland's first lady, Katie O'Malley; actor Clarke Peters of The Wire and the writer and performer Rain Pryor, Baltimoored will feature music from four local bands, humor sketches performed by radio actors and sound effects created in view of the audience.

The Pearlstone Theater will have the look and feel of an old-time radio show, with actors in 1940s-era attire performing on a set with a pink-and-white sign that will light up when the show is "on the air," and another that glows red when instructing audience members to applaud.

And later this month, anyone with a radio will be able to tune in to the results. Six hours of footage will be culled to two, which will be broadcast on WYPR on July 17 and 24.

"As far as we know, nothing like this has ever been done in Baltimore," says Laura Wexler, who founded Stoop with her friend, Jessica Henkin.

"We're poking a little fun at our hometown, but in a completely loving way," she says, adding that the sketches, written and performed by members of the Baltimore Improv Group, take on such hometown heroes as swimmer Michael Phelps and author Edgar Allan Poe, and local institutions, such as the Senator Theatre.

At a recent rehearsal, Baltimoored's host, Aaron Henkin, adjusts his brown fedora and leans into a microphone.

"Yes, it's that special time of year," Henkin intones in his deep, radio-announcer voice, "when we find ourselves learning all over again that we can only get so much comfort out of a measly air-conditioning window unit, a time of year when no matter how sophisticated we fancy our palates, nothing satisfies quite like an ice-cold can of Natty Boh. It's summertime in Baltimore and, miraculously, here in the middle of this sweltering, motionless month of July, animatronic Christmas decorations still deck the yards of Hampden's 34th Street."

You can't help but smile.

Jess Henkin likes to say that Baltimoored is "A Prairie Home Companion meets H airspray," and indeed, the new show owes an obvious debt to humorist Garrison Keillor's weekly public radio broadcast. But the energy, enthusiasm and can-do spirit of this group of thirty-somethings also calls to mind the MGM musicals from the 1930s and 1940s starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

"We're learning on the job," Jessica Henkin says. Perhaps. But they're also formidably organized. Their daily schedules would put a Cabinet minister to shame. Not only are Wexler and the Henkins employed full time, they are the parents of young children. Stoop is just what they do in their spare hours.

"They really have their act together," says storyteller Rain Pryor, who should know - her father was comedy legend Richard Pryor. "They are so well-organized, it's hard to believe they have other jobs besides the Stoop," she says. "When they told me this wasn't their full-time gig, I was like, 'What? No way!' "

The Henkins are married. Aaron, 35, is the producer of The Signal on WYPR, where the Stoop broadcasts will be aired. Jessica, also 35, is an administrator at the Kennedy Krieger School in Rockville. They are the parents of a 2-year-old girl and 1-year-old boy.

Wexler, 37, is a senior editor at Style magazine, and teaches writing at area colleges. She and her husband, Mike Subelsky, are the parents of a 1-year-old girl.

"It's been a challenge," Wexler says. "But, I really, really enjoy it. As a writer who works mostly alone, I've relished the collaborative process, though at times, it's nearly killed me."

She and Jessica Henkin are longtime friends and members of the Baltimore Improv Group. The inspiration for Stoop, in which seven guests speak for seven minutes apiece on a pre-selected theme (such as Family Secrets, or Money Changes Everything), was inspired by similar programs in other cities. Even the name of the Baltimore series is a nod to its predecessors: The Moth in New York and The Porchlight in San Francisco. "The moth is attracted to the porchlight, which shines on the stoop," Wexler says.

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