Baltimore's cutting-edge theater scene just became a bit less razor-sharp.
For the first time in more than 40 years, Spanish puppet troupes and headline-making performers who smear chocolate on their skin will have a hard time finding a stage where they can put on their shows.
Primarily for economic reasons, Baltimore's venerable Theatre Project has quietly stopped bringing in experimental artists with global and national reputations. Instead, the 150-seat showhouse at 45 W. Preston St. is hosting local theater and regional dance companies.
To make matters worse for fans of foreign fare, Baltimore Open Theatre, which had been planning on filling the void left by Theatre Project's change of mission, went belly-up last month before it could stage its first show.
Some fear that if Baltimore were to go for too long without performances of an international flavor, such as regular visits from Dutch avant-garde dance theaters and Singaporean performance artists, it would become a duller, less cosmopolitan city.
"When international and experimental theater is really good, it's transformational," says Philip Arnoult, who founded Theatre Project in 1971 and who was attempting to launch Baltimore Open Theatre this year. "It plops a big, round, shiny object called 'wonder' right down in the middle of your worldview."
Arnoult should know.
It was under his watch that the Theatre Project first became instrumental in making Baltimore a destination for some of America's and the world's most innovative small touring companies.
During its heady early years, Theatre Project brought to Baltimore fledgling groups that went on to garner national reputations: the Pilobolus dance company, the Bread and Puppet Theatre, and Urban Bush Women..
In 1986, Theatre Project played host to the prestigious Theatre of Nations Festival, and in the 1990s the venue helped develop and premiere new work by such performance artists as Karen Finley and Holly Hughes.
"For us, diversity never meant just a black thing and a white thing," says Anne Cantler Fulwiler, who stepped down July 1 after 14 seasons of heading the company. "It meant alternative theater in all of its glorious and messy incarnations."
While Theatre Project might have been nationally known, it never raked in the dough. The company has mounted performances for a small, passionate audience of about 9,000 customers each year.
" 'Profitable' was never a word that applied to us," Fulwiler says."We know we're doing well if we lose less money than we did previously. We always struggle, but we are a resilient organization."
The venue has been scraping along for years on an annual budget of about $200,000. During Fulwiler's tenure alone, Theatre Project mounted more than 400 performances involving more than 3,000 artists from the U.S. and 17 foreign countries.
The recession squeezed not just the Theatre Project, but the foreign companies that had been regular visitors.
In the past, these artists frequently received contributions to their travel budgets from their respective governments. But the turmoil in overseas markets has resulted in a sharp drop in funds available for cultural ambassadorships. In addition, visas and work permits became much more difficult to obtain after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"At the beginning of last season, we morphed somewhat from being a venue for international works to being a hometown incubator," Fulwiler says.
"In part, that's what we can afford to be in this economy. But providing a home for local groups has always been part of our mission. That space has always been about nurturing living artists and presenting new work."
Next season will feature such companies as Iron Crow Theatre, which produces work focusing on gay and lesbian themes; In-Flight Theater, devoted to aerial work using trapezes and other apparatus; and The Generous Company, which develops nontraditional works. All three troupes are based in Baltimore.
Theatre Project's future also will include a new producing director,Chris Pfingsten, who most recently was Fulwiler's second in command.
Fulwiler emphasizes that the company's new focus had nothing to do with her decision to accept employment doing public outreach for the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.
"I'm taking a job that in some ways could be seen as less prestigious than what I've been doing at Theatre Project for the past 11 years," she acknowledges. "But it's going to pay me more money and take up less of my time. I do love Theatre Project, and I'm going to continue to be a part of it. I've promised to help with the transition, and I've joined the board of directors."
As Theatre Project was switching its identity, those who enjoy trenchant shows about, say, human-rights abuses in Russia had high hopes for the fledgling Baltimore Open Theatre.
From the moment that organizers announced in December that a brand-new company planned to launch in the fall of 2012, the troupe struck many as a kind of reincarnation of Theatre Project, circa 1975.