Ensemble theater companies blossoming in Baltimore

Artist-run groups focus on shared goals, duties, risks

  • Baltimore is becoming a hotbed of ensemble theater companies, troupes whose members do everything from acting, directing to box office sales and public relations. Pictured are members of three different ensemble theater companies: (front row L-R) Joseph Ritsch, Paul Wissman, Nathan Fulton, Sarah Weissman, Andrew Peters and Jessica Garrett; (Back row L-R) Steven J. Satta, Aldo Pantoja, Michael B. Zemarel, Elliott Rauh, Alexander Saclly, Steven Krigel and Sarah Ford Gorman.
Baltimore is becoming a hotbed of ensemble theater companies,… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
November 25, 2011|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

They're mostly in their 20s, college grads who majored in theater or related studies. If they weren't friends before deciding to collaborate, they're friends now. They're enthusiastic multitaskers. None of them will get rich soon.

Meet the participants in Baltimore's ensemble theater scene, which is making its presence felt in much same way as the city's underground music and art scenes, with a steady output of new, eclectic, provocative fare.

"There is a critical mass of young artists all in one area at one time looking to get work done," said Mike Vandercook, co-founder of the Generous Company, which recently relocated from New York and has a monthlong festival scheduled for January. "It's an exciting time to be around Baltimore. That's why we're here."

Where there were maybe two ensemble theater groups five years ago, there are at least eight now. Most have shoestring budgets, but they all appear to be settling in for the long haul, determined to increase their financial and artistic horizons.

"It seems like it's catching fire," said Nathan Cooper, Single Carrot Theater's artistic director. His colleague, Jessica Garrett, director of public relations for the company, went one step further: "I feel we're on the cusp of something huge in Baltimore," she said.

Definitions can get a little blurred, but some common attributes help identify ensemble theaters. They are artist-run, from top to bottom. The artists decide on an overriding mission and aesthetic voice for the company, and collectively settle on works to be produced. Those works are mostly contemporary.

There may be occasional open auditions, but most casting is done primarily from among company members. The artists also do pretty much everything that needs to be done to get a show onstage. They may act in a production, run the box office or lighting for the next, direct or even write the one after that.

The troupes, which typically have six to 10 core members, may have a home theater, or they might move around the city. Whatever the location, ticket prices are invariably low. And a lot of the communicating with the public will be done via social media.

"An ensemble company makes a commitment to its members, who have a desire to be masters of their own artistic destiny," said Steve Satta, artistic director of Iron Crow Theatre. "We find projects that interest us, and we make it happen. We create our own opportunities. You don't wait for someone to put on a play that has a part for you."

The blossoming ensemble theater movement got a boost in 2007 with the arrival of Single Carrot, founded by a group of friends from the University of Colorado in Boulder who were eager to work together after graduating.

"It's a real good city to be an entrepreneur," said J. Buck Jabaily, a founding member of Single Carrot and current director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance. "Baltimore is a place where you can apply your imagination."

In short order, Single Carrot took root in a storefront theater on North Avenue and started generating considerable buzz.

"It is such an awesome sensation to be welcomed here and feel this is our home, and to see more companies popping up," said Elliott Rauh, managing director of Single Carrot. "It inspires us."

When Single Carrot sprouted, Run of the Mill Theater was just about the only other ensemble-style enterprise in town. Run of the Mill folded last summer, but other groups that emerged in the past few years remain in the picture.

The Generous Company focuses on developing and producing new work; the festival in January, held at the Theatre Project, will showcase 16 pieces in various states of development.

Among those participating in that festival will be another of Baltimore's ensemble troupes, the Annex Theatre, which recently wrapped up a production of the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht classic "The Threepenny Opera."

Iron Crow Theatre, founded to produce the work of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender artists, has quickly built a record for imaginative stagings of edgy plays. Same for the Strand Theater Company, which showcases new work created, performed, designed or directed by women; this week will see the world premiere of Alison Luterman's "Glitter and Spew."

The local ensemble scene also includes Glass Mind Theatre, Baltimore Rock Opera Society and the newly formed StillPointe Theatre Initiative. More may be out there, or will be soon.

There's an informal association, the Baltimore Network of Ensemble Theaters, based on the Network of Ensemble Theaters, which was over 150 members across the country.

"BNET is an opportunity for organizations to come together and address topics that concern all of us," Cooper said. "We can walk away with action plans and goals. We're here to support each other."

Why do ensemble theaters seem to be growing? For one thing, they provide an appealing alternative to what can be a nomadic existence, heading from company to company, even city to city, for theater work.

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