New worlds for Stoop to conquer?

With more shows and higher production values, the once scrappy storytelling group is at a crossroads. Will it stay small or dream big?

  • This year, Stoop Storytelling will perform a two-week run of their live radio show, "O Little Town of Baltimore," employing 40 storytellers. Center Stage, which is co-producing for the first time, is making this its holiday show.
This year, Stoop Storytelling will perform a two-week run of… (MONICA LOPOSSAY, BALTIMORE…)
December 05, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The most-visited Stoop in Baltimore has never been more polished.

When "O Little Town of Baltimore: A Holiday Live Radio Show" takes the stage on Thursday, it will begin a record run consisting of eight performances instead of, at most, three. The show is being co-produced by Center Stage, and it's the most recent indication that the Stoop Storytelling series, which began four years ago as an experiment, has the potential to become Charm City's newest professional troupe.

Laura Wexler and Jessica Henkin, the organization's two 30-something creators, are elated at the speed with which their series has found an audience. Most individual shows sell out, and last year's holiday extravaganza at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall filled 1,400 seats.

"This is thrilling for us, because we don't come from theatrical backgrounds," Wexler says "Center Stage is keeping our vision and our vibe and sort of refining it. They're helping us to be better."

At the same time, the women aren't at all certain they want the Stoop to move uptown. They fear their marble stairs would be out of place fronting an elegant townhouse. They'd like the Stoop to stay just as it is — the kind of place where someone can sit a spell in front of a painted screen door and shoot the breeze.

"Both of our fathers are old-school businessmen, and they will cringe when they read this," Henkin says. "But neither Laura nor I think we want to incorporate as a nonprofit organization, and make Stoop into our careers."

And yet, "O Little Town of Baltimore" clearly represents a new stage in Stoop's development.

Professional backdrop

For the first time, the local residents telling unscripted anecdotes about their lives will stand on a set built by a professional scene shop. The stage is done up in a 1960s palate of turquoise, black and silver, and contains both a knee-high cocktail glass and a chandelier resting, incongruously, on the floor.

For the first time, Wexler and Ron Spencer will have sophisticated props at their disposal to create such distinctive sound effects as windshield wipers and a slamming door.

And for the first time, the Stoop folk have the chance to learn the tricks of the trade from seasoned pros. At a recent rehearsal, Mike Schleifer, Center Stage's production manager, advised Aaron Henkin of WYPR-FM, who is hosting his wife's holiday spectacular, how to preserve his cold-stressed voice for eight performances.

"Get a bottle full of Gatorade, and when you're off-stage, spray it into the back of your throat every 20 minutes or so," Schleifer says. "The first time I heard that, I thought it was crazy. But I know a lot of actors who swear by it."

Because "O Little Town of Baltimore" is performed as a live radio show, the eight storytellers (five chosen in advance, and three from the audience) are interspersed with scripted sketches performed by a company of radio actors.

The skits tackle such ripe targets as "Baby's First Christmas," featuring dueling in-laws, and a behind-the-scenes look at what really goes on in Santa's workshop. (The elf union rep, Twinkly Twizzlebutt, agitates for a dental policy — essential because the elves eat nothing but gumdrops — and for Santa to recognize elf/gnome civil unions.)

Musical interludes include singer/songwriter ellen cherry, Dundalk's BSQ Barbershop Quartet and Nepalese folk singer Prem Raja Mahat. In addition, Wexler and Jessica Henkin, who created The Stoop in 2006, sing a touching duet in which they search far and wide for their missing holiday spirit before locating it in a can of Natty Boh.

Though Stoop has been renting Center Stage's Pearlstone Theatre for the past three years, this is the first time that both organizations have joined forces. Center Stage is making "O Little Town of Baltimore" its holiday offering, and promoting it to its 30,000-member mailing list.

It's a testament to Wexler and Henkin that Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis didn't hesitate to pursue a partnership between Baltimore's largest regional theater and what technically is an amateur company.

"We definitely wanted to do a holiday offering, but Irene is against doing anything too soft and sentimental," Schleifer says.

"She wanted something with some chops to it. She has been to see Stoop's shows, and she has been a fan of theirs for a long time. Stoop's product is great. They have killer bands, really good radio performers, a great emcee, and Laura and Jess are terrific. Maybe there isn't a union emblem behind their name, but they put on a solid, polished production."

The Center Stage gig is also important symbolically.

""My mother said, 'Laura, you're in show business,'" Wexler says. "To me it's a total surprise. But it feels like it happened organically. We started something we loved and followed our own interests and talents. It's an outgrowth of who Jessica and I are as people."

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