Leading man Tim Elliott puts on makeup for his role at the Fells… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
In the late 1990s, Brett Rohrer decided he wanted to be onstage and headed off to an audition at a community theater. He got as far as a nearby parking space.
"I just sat in my Jeep," he said. "I drove to auditions several times and never went in. But eventually, I did go in, and I got hired for a role in 'Oklahoma.' Now, the theater is my sanctuary. This keeps me even. If I didn't do this, I might go postal at my job."
Rohrer, a 30-something whose day job is with a printing company, did laugh as he said that, before heading back into rehearsal for "The Great American Trailer Park Musical," which opens Friday at Spotlighters Theatre.
That company has roots stretching back to 1962. Baltimore's community theater scene goes back much further, at least to 1916, when the Vagabond Players got started — it's billed as the country's oldest continuous community theater.
Troupes have come and gone over the years (especially dinner theaters), but there remain multiple outlets for aspiring actors and directors in just about every genre, from Shakespeare to cutting-edge.
That's not to say these are outlets for financial advancement.
"We're not doing this for a paycheck," said Rodney Bonds, a seasoned player on local stages who is currently in rehearsals for "The Seafarer" at the Fells Point Corner Theatre. "We do it to keep our souls alive. And we try to keep our jobs from interfering with our hobby."
Gregory Jericho is doing just that. The native Midwesterner has a degree in graphics design and what he describes as "a nice, sleepy job" writing and editing instruction manuals. Shortly after moving to Fells Point in 2008, he saw that Vagabond Players was looking for backstage help. Jericho volunteered.
"I raised and lowered a tree each night," he said. "Then, in a kind of really cool way, like old Hollywood, the next thing I knew, I was onstage."
Mike Zemarel was the director who took a chance on Jericho. "He said he'd like 'to try this acting thing,' and I put him in a part," Zemarel said. "It's weird. I went to college to get a degree in theater, and then someone like Greg will walk in without any training and blow us out of the water. He became a force on the stage in several of our recent productions."
Jericho plays Biff, one of the sons in "Death of a Salesman," a Vagabond Players production that closes Sunday. Last season, he performed at Fells Point Corner Theatre.
"Doing this really puts me on a great schedule," Jericho said. "I get out of work, go to the gym, go home to shower and eat, and then get to the theater. I use it to balance my life. And it is so much fun."
Not every would-be thespian will have Jericho's luck, but there's always a chance to get a foot in the stage door. Auditions pop up throughout the year. (Facebook and listserves are now the most popular means of advertising casting calls for community theaters.) People of all ages, backgrounds and experience levels are known to try out and to get accepted.
Carlos del Valle, a systems engineer who has a role in "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" at Spotlighters, had a succinct reply when asked what someone has to do to break into the community theater action: "Show up."
That goes for backstage crew as much as for actors. Companies covet reliable stage managers and people who can operate sound and lighting systems, prepare costumes and props. (Small stipends are sometimes paid to stage managers; actors invariably work for free.)
"Don't say you want to do this without understanding exactly what is required," said Steve Goldklang, a retired state health department employee who is directing a production of "Six Degrees of Separation" opening next month at the Vagabond Players. That commitment can run three or four months per show, including weeknight rehearsals and multiple weekends of performances.
Goldklang ran into some trouble early on with launching "Six Degrees." He was impressed with a young, inexperienced man's audition and offered him a role. But come Day 1 of rehearsals, the would-be actor was a no-show. He failed to return phone calls and emails.
"Four days later, I recast the part," Goldklang said. "Occasionally you run into someone like that, but it's not the rule. There are tremendously talented and dedicated people who love performing after a full day job, coming down to the theater at 7, staying until 10 or 10:30 at night to rehearse."
Greg Guyton, an orthopedic surgeon currently preparing for "The Seafarer" at Fells Point Corner Theatre, is likely to be still in hospital garb when he gets to rehearsal. "You have to make sacrifices," he said, "but it's manageable. It's no worse than surgical residencies, I can tell you."
That some actors or stage personnel end up abandoning ship isn't surprising. "Life happens," Zemarel said. On the flip side, "I now find a lot of directors will work around your schedule conflicts," said Jeffrey Burch, who just finished performing in the cast of "Twelve Angry Men" at Dundalk Community Theatre.