One night last summer, The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) tried to narrow the chasm between Big Culture and little culture by getting about 65 of its patrons to visit the Load of Fun Theatre (LOF/t), a new performance space inside Load of Fun Studios on North Avenue. There, three young leaders of the burgeoning, do-it-yourself arts scene—Dan Deacon, the nationally-renowned electronic musician; J. Buck Jabaily, artistic director of the critically-lauded Single Carrot Theatre; and Ric Royer, an actor and monologist who runs the LOF/t—led a discussion of what they and other young artists like them were up to.
"We were there to talk about our art, but all the audience wanted to get into was whether it was okay to be on North Avenue," recalls Royer. "People had come down to see us, but in essence the BMA had to shuttle them in. They had to hold their hands to get them there."
A member of the audience estimated that 75 percent of arts-patronizing Baltimoreans were either fearful of visiting the area or unaware of Station North, the city-designated arts district that includes Load of Fun. Royer noted, optimistically, that the figure "meant we were 25 percent ahead of where we were four years ago." That was when artist Sherwin Mark bought the former Lombard Street Office Furniture warehouse and opened its doors to an eclectic collection of visual artists and no-frills performance groups.
LOF/t and Single Carrot, which rents a theater space at Load of Fun, have helped transform North Avenue into an unlikely theater corridor. Two blocks east, the Strand Theater, one of several new hipster spots to open in the once-dreary 1800 block of North Charles Street, has similar ambitions for its stretch of asphalt. (The Annex, a collective theater with connections to the Copy Cat artists' enclave at Guilford and Oliver, also stages shows nearby.)
These playhouses are newcomers to Station North, a 100-acre arts district bounded by rail lines to the south, Howard Street to the west, and North and Greenmount Avenues to the north and east. They've brought new energy to a neighborhood that already includes The Charles Theatre, The Club Charles, Everyman Theatre, Joe Squared (a restaurant/bar that offers live music), The Windup Space, the Cyclops bookstore, an artist supply shop, and Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) studios in an old JoS. A. Bank suit factory.
And they're drawing audiences, including some folks who were inspired in past years to do little more than lock their car doors and hit the gas whenever they motored down this strip of North Avenue. "Each theater came in with a strong idea of its mission," says Nancy Haragan, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, which is headquartered in the MICA building. "All of those people took a risk, and it's paying off."
Derring-do isn't all the groups have in common. The new theaters were founded by people who, like Deacon, came from elsewhere to ply their trades. It's a reflection of the city's increasingly high profile among artists. MICA surveys of high school seniors have long shown that Baltimore scared off some prospective students. But that has changed, and this year's freshmen class reported that the city was actually a major reason they chose MICA. They ranked Baltimore above New York, citing our vibrant arts and music scene.
That echoes the Single Carrot Theatre backstory. In 2005, a group of theater students from the University of Colorado decided to form a company of their own. "We had been in productions together," says Giti Jabaily, an ensemble member and the lead actress in the theater's fall production of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice. "We had developed a lot of trust in each other. Once you do that, you don't want to give it up."
Made up almost entirely of native Coloradoans, the group poured hours of research into determining which of 50 cities offered them the best chance to make it. "We wanted to avoid oversaturated cities like New York or Chicago," says Brendan Ragan, an actor in the ensemble—he played the father in Eurydice—who doubles as its director of public relations.
"We wanted to be able to make an impact, but still have a big city to draw from," adds J. Buck Jabaily.
After winnowing the list down to four cities—Austin, Baltimore, Columbus, and Philadelphia—the group opted for Charm City, with little idea they'd end up party to a revolution of sorts on North Avenue. (They took their name from a quote uttered by Paul Cézanne, the French painter: "The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.")
"The thing that really impressed us was the openness of the Baltimore theater community," says Jabaily. "We didn't get that feeling anywhere else."
The seven grads who ended up making the trip east became Single Carrot players, and, since then, three more University of Colorado alums have relocated to Baltimore. They found day jobs at Centerstage and Everyman among other places, made thespian friends through the Baltimore Theater Alliance, and, in 2007, began putting on shows at venues such as Load of Fun and Theatre Project.
Still, they faced considerable obstacles, because Baltimore audiences aren't known for sustaining ambitious companies. In fact, several of them have disappeared in the last decade under a sea of red ink and inconsistent patronage. "About the only one to make it is the Everyman," says Jabaily.
Yet, since securing long-term space at Load of Fun two years ago, Single Carrot has increased its fundraising tenfold and now boasts 300 subscribers, many of them in the 25- to 40-year-old age group, but with a strong representation of older and younger folks as well. The theater utilizes inducements (free beer, wine, or soda), cheap tickets ($10-$20), and clever reconfiguration of its cozy, 45-seat space.
To stage Eurydice, the company turned its rectangular black box into a netherworld complete with a reflecting pool and pier to evoke the sea. The Lord of the Underworld, portrayed as an impetuous child, rode a tricycle past talking stones. The production artfully navigated the space between the poignancy of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice and the comically absurd possibilities of their plight. Actors walked along ledges and stretched out in the water, and Ping-Pong balls were dropped from the ceiling.
"We try not to be stale," says Ragan. "Each new show starts with a workshop of sorts where we learn what we need to do to make it fresh."
Around the corner at the Strand, productions are also designed to challenge theatergoers' preconceptions of stagecraft. Committed to producing new plays and works by female playwrights, the Strand fills an even smaller niche on the local scene than Single Carrot. Housed in the one-time shop of a former fortuneteller, the theater programs a bit more adventurously. "Theaters in Baltimore don't tend to convey plays that have magical realism or are driven by non-sequiturs," says Jayme Kilburn, the Strand's artistic director. "We do works with soul that Baltimore hasn't seen before."
Kilburn, 29, was drafted for the job by Joy Martin, owner of Club Charles, where Kilburn tends bar. Martin, who bought the building seven years ago, thought the space could become a viable theater and knew Kilburn worked as operations manager for the Maryland Humanities Council and was an intern at Centerstage and a theater grad at the University of California-Santa Barbara. "Jayme is extremely well educated, and I love theater," says Martin, who also owns Hexagon (a space for music performances) and the Bohemian Café buildings on the same block. Adds Kilburn: "Joy likes it when women run their own businesses."
Like Single Carrot, the Strand puts on five main-stage shows a year—but on a shoestring. It also mounts an assortment of smaller shows, with its Lab Series. Because the theater's annual operating budget is a mere $5,000, it often can't afford to pay playwrights more than $100. "We did all new plays [in 2008], in part to show off these emerging voices, but also because we often can't afford to buy the rights to other plays," Kilburn says. (In 2009, the theater did well enough to produce Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat.)
Kilburn speculates that the low cost of renting in Station North may have a lot to do with its burgeoning theater scene. "One of the biggest lures is it's cheap here," she says. "People are giving away space."
At LOF/t, the price for renting the multi-use space must be right—more than 80 events had been booked there from the time it opened last spring through November, and it was booked solid through this winter. The versatility of the room might also have something to do with its success. The LOF/t has enough space, at 40-by-60 feet, to fit 200 people standing, or 150 sitting, and it can be reconfigured to host various types of events. It has, in fact, accommodated aerial artists, burlesque shows, dance troupes, large-format puppet shows, literary events, and experimental theater. "It's very configurable," says Royer, 31, who came to Baltimore from Buffalo six years ago to study theater at Towson University.
He, too, was drawn to the area because of its free-spirited arts scene and felt there was "room for something new." So when Load of Fun founder Sherwin Mark decided to start a new stage within Load of Fun Studios, Royer and others jumped on it. "We wanted to create a space where experimental theater could flourish," says Paco Fish, who helped establish LOF/t with Royer and now produces a monthly burlesque show called "Viva La Decadence" at the theater. "In Baltimore, audiences are really open to whatever art is being offered. So, we end up with a lot of risk-taking artists here. The LOF/t is the one place people know they're welcome to try any kind of art, or to come see it."
All of that activity is a sign of progress in Station North, says Martin. "Just by having life, lights, action up there it's a big help," she says. "In fact, we could use more lights, including a generous amount of neon, up there. This area used to be Baltimore's Times Square. I could show you pictures from the 1940s that you wouldn't believe." And for a time in the 1970s, Centerstage was housed on North Avenue, but a devastating fire led to its relocation on Calvert Street.
Still, worries about the area's image persist. Some locals fret about prostitution in the area, and others claim that nearby drug treatment clinics don't help matters. Martin says the razing of the Magnet Lounge building and the former Chateau Hotel at North and Charles has left "a lot of dark and empty lots that make people feel unsafe. The city needs to take a hard look at why there are so many buildings torn down in this area. It doesn't make it more attractive, I can tell you that."
Because of such issues, the Strand often puts on shorter plays. "We don't want people leaving out of here at 11 p.m.," says Kilburn.
But even as doubts about safety persist, the theater scene thrives. And at least one group figures to stick around awhile. Single Carrot Theatre, bursting at the seams in its current space, needs more room, but it's not looking to relocate to another part of town.
"We really believe that the neighborhood is buzzing and blossoming into what can be a very real cultural arts capitol in Baltimore," says Brendan Ragan.
"We've been able to see the neighborhood literally transform over the two years we've been here, and the energy and the art happening in the area are amazing," says J. Buck Jabaily. "North Avenue is undergoing a renaissance, and we want to be a small part of it. For some reason we see our fate as a company being linked to the success of the neighborhood."