New venue, new works for Rock Opera Society

DIY ensemble moves into long-vacant theater, stages double-header

  • Shanna Babbridge, of Upper Fells Point, a soprano in the play's choir, tries on her costume in the former Showtime Theatre's old projection room turned prop room. Located at 9 West 25th St. in Charles Village, the theatre is being renovated by the Baltimore Rock Opera Society that will open on May 27th with The Bros Double-Feature Amphion and The Terrible Secret of Lunastus.
Shanna Babbridge, of Upper Fells Point, a soprano in the play's… (Photo by Karen Jackson,…)
May 26, 2011|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

A steady snap of beer cans being opened punctuated the air as members of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society gathered earlier this week to rehearse — this volunteer, do-it-yourself ensemble runs on beer. They may need a few more cases, given the challenges they've set for themselves.

The creators of the 31/2-hour medieval fantasy "Grundlehammer" that launched the BROS to a heavy metal beat in 2009 are back with a double-header that premieres this weekend in their new home, a newly renovated theater in Charles Village.

"Amphion" tells a tale of love and loyalty in ancient Constantinople, complete with some severed limbs — stage blood is becoming a BROS tradition. "The Terrible Secret of Lunastus," a comic sci-fi work complete with lasers and '70s-style rock, finds astronauts from a doomed Earth encountering an alien race called the Abzugs. Both works boast original scores.

"After the first time," said founding member Aran Keating, "it was, like, let's do something twice as stupid, and renovate a theater while we're at it."

That theater, once known as the Playhouse, showed foreign and art films for decades until closing in 1981. Various attempts to revive and repurpose the Charles Village venue have come and gone over the years; the most recent name on the marquee is Showtime Theater.

Keating was among those who checked out the vacant venue last year — not that the society was in any financial position to make a bid for it. But Billie Taylor was.

"I always thought that maybe one day I'll have my own theater," said Taylor, a recently retired government worker who also was an actor for a decade with the now-folded D.C. Black Repertory Company. "I came to look at the space and Aran happened to be there at the same time."

After selling her house in Washington and using the proceeds to buy the venue, which she will rename the Autograph Playhouse, Taylor remembered Keating and the BROS.

"I asked Aran if they would help fix the theater up," she said. "I told them once I buy it, I'll have no money."

Taylor, who envisions putting on plays and possibly showing films in the theater, said she is "in awe looking at the transformation" made by the BROS.

From the core group of half a dozen, the society mustered dozens of helpers for the renovation, which started in November. The stage was extended and a platform built above it, with room for a band on one side and an eight-member "rock choir" on the other.

"We've done a ton of cleaning," said founding member Dylan Koehler. "Sherwin-Williams donated 25 gallons of paint. The Baltimore Love Project donated a paint sprayer. We've got both restrooms working. We steam-cleaned the 285 seats."

Earlier this week, it looked like there would still be "a ton of cleaning" left to do before Friday's opening. Props were piled over or between many of the seats. Debris filled the lobby, where a handwritten sign carried the message, "Remember: It's going to be great because we are great."

But if there was a chaotic atmosphere ("We're on the edge of a precipice at any moment," Keating said), the sense of creative energy was just as evident.

"It's a really nice escape for creative people," said Jen Tydings, a BROS member who owns a coffee shop and a photo studio. "It makes the boring stuff easier. They have a huge result to look forward to. We all do it for free and we do it for the community. I don't know why it works, but it does."

Tydings is head of props for the rock operas — "and resident female for common sense and safety, which these men need," she added. She also helped write the scripts and music.

The new pieces carry on the original goal of the BROS. "We're still interested in Gesamtkunstwerk," Koehler said, using the German term for a work that combines art forms. That explains all the actors, dancers, singers and instrumentalists who will pack the stage for "Amphion" and "The Terrible Secret of Lunastus."

Having a place to put these fantasies onto the stage is fueling inspiration inside the group.

"There are plenty of ideas floating around for the next one," Koehler said. "We're kind of in our dream space right now, and a dream situation."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

Baltimore Rock Opera Society presents "Amphion" and "The Terrible Secret of Lunastus" at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays through June 12 at Autograph Playhouse (Showtime Theater), 9 W. 25th St. Tickets are $12-$15. Go to baltimorerockopera.org.

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