“All the world’s a stage,” the Bard famously tells us. Nowhere has that line been taken to heart and stage more fittingly than at the Single Carrot Theater, whose summer production of Promenade: Baltimore made unwitting players out of hundreds of men and women.
You see, as playgoers turned up for the performance at Single Carrot’s 99-seat Remington theater, they were ushered aboard a bus and told to don headphones. Over the next nearly two hours, the bus rambled all across town—from Sandtown to Guilford—as actors raced ahead to perform skits on the streets and sidewalks. One ongoing storyline involved an abandoned suitcase. (The audience wondered what’s in there, a bomb or something beautiful.)
Everyday Baltimoreans going about their business were extras in this literal street drama (including a police quartet arresting a man in Waverly during one performance). Taped interviews with neighborhood residents included a self-proclaimed “stoop jockey” watching the world from a marble perch and a one-percenter reflecting on how his white, male, heterosexuality has him in the catbird seat of life.
Their words rounded out the sonic offerings coming through the headphones, along with a soundtrack of Baltimore music—Philip Glass to Future Islands to TT the Artist. It was a compelling and moving (in both senses of the word) way of showing that, here in Baltimore, differing worlds and differing stories are never more than a couple of stoplights apart.
Curiously, the roots of this wholly Baltimore production are in Budapest, where Single Carrot’s artistic director Genevieve de Mahy saw such a bus-based production two years ago. “I was so excited by it and felt there was such potential to do it in Baltimore where people stay so much in their own neighborhoods, in their own geographic comfort zones,” she says. Members of the Hungarian theater company STEREO Akt came to Baltimore to coproduce the show—helping with the tangled logistics of a performance strung out across several miles. This is not Single Carrot’s first mobile show, as April’s A Short Reunion had audience members walking around Remington, and it’s all part of a conscious effort to shake things up.
“I think recently we’ve been asking ourselves as artists how to create theater that is more relevant to the people of Baltimore and more exciting,” de Mahy says “I think there’s only so much you can do in a theater where all we’re asking is to just sit back in a comfy chair in the dark and watch a show.”
While not all of Baltimore’s drama companies are taking their stories to the streets, they are seeking ways to keep their product relevant and exciting in an age when audiences are fascinated by that shiny thing in our hands, drama increasingly comes from a Facebook feed and Netflix is a verb. For live theater to survive and thrive in this age of shrinking attention spans and digital disruption, theaters are ramping up educational efforts or bundling shows with other experiences—at the very least, thinking beyond the 8 p.m. curtain call.
An awareness of all the issues facing theater today is baked into most every aspect of Baltimore Center Stage’s $28 million renovations, says Daniel Bryant, its artistic producer and director of community programs. The lobby and other public areas are all about a new openness and accessibility, with walls and ceilings removed to create airier spaces that also offers enhanced food and drink options. (Also new, “Baltimore” was officially added to the theater’s name to underscore its connection to the community.)
Changes to the main stage, The Pearlstone, involve mostly upgrades to sound and lighting systems, but upstairs, the Head Theater has been reconfigured to carve out a new performance area—a black box behind the black box—called Third Space.
“The idea is to have this flexible, non-conventional space that is very intimate so audiences are within arm’s reach of the actors,” Bryant says. “We’ll be bringing in more bold, progressive pieces here that hopefully attract the younger audience that wants edgier, more in-your-face theater. It will be an entryway for the younger crowd who aren’t avid theater goers right now.”
Bryant was primarily brought on board this year to run the theater’s new Mobile Unit, which debuted this spring to bring high-quality theater experiences to underserved Baltimoreans. This meant a footloose ensemble staged Samuel Beckett’s absurdist tragicomedy Endgame in some unexpected places, including senior centers, homeless shelters and transitional housing facilities.
“It is something that’s outside of what the average ticket buyer sees, but it’s a part of the bigger role that theater plays in the community,” public relations manager Lisa Lance says. “We’re not just about the shows on our main stages.”
“It’s literally breaking down the walls of theater,” Bryant adds.
Everyman Theater is concerned with walls lately as well. Only they need more of them, managing director Jonathan Waller says. “We are sort of running out of room as our education programs and onsite classes have grown to the point where it’s difficult to add more,” he says.
The theater, housed since 2014 in a renovated Fayette Street movie palace, is exploring options for additional space, both in the neighborhood and elsewhere. Among its many educational programs, Everyman currently partners with six different city public high schools allowing some 500 students to attend five productions a year. Teaching artists make classroom visits before each show to lead discussions on themes and meanings.
“There’s a talk back after the show with the cast and then we’re back in the classroom later that week for a post-show discussion,” Waller says. “And what we found is that it creates an enthusiasm for theater that you don’t get when you just have a good sale on tickets. We are developing a theater-going habit and that’s been very exciting.”
They recently launched another youth program called TNT—Theatre Night for Teens—offering 9th through 12th graders $10 tickets and a pre-show discussion. Adult programs aimed at adding value to a night of theater include Taste of Everyman, pairing a show with onsite tasting menus and cocktails curated to match each show, and ReWINEd, where a moderator leads a discussion of a play at a local restaurant over dinner, and of course, wine. “We want to take theater away from being this passive experience of just sitting in an audience,” Waller says.
Now, if any company might be fighting for relevancy in this LOL age of 140-character communications, it should be the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, champions of dense, 400-year-old works rife with archaic language. But founding artistic director Ian Gallanar begs to differ. “As a company, we’re not about saying ‘Oh, this is great art that everyone must bow down to,’” he says. “We love finding ways to connect this work to people—what’s contemporary about the work, what still resonates about it. It’s not a chore for us.”
Like Everyman, Chesapeake Shakespeare has a lot of programming aimed at high school students. Like Single Carrot, they also have productions where both players and audience are mobile, outside in parks and even inside the Walters Art Gallery, where they riff on pieces in the collection. And they are also doing newer works, such as next season’s Red Velvet, which tells the story of pioneering, 19th century African American actor Ira Aldridge, who made a name for himself in Europe performing Othello and other Shakespearean rolls. (As it turns out, the Walters has a portrait of Aldridge in its collection.)
Gallanar is particularly excited about an acting ensemble workshop for veterans they are piloting called “Olive Branch and Laurel Crown” wherein veterans of all branches of the armed services explore the themes of peace and war in Shakespeare’s texts.
“I love this program because it’s exactly what we want to be doing,” Gallanar says. “Vets are folks that have been in extreme situations, much like these plays which are dealing with extreme characters and extreme stories. And we’re really anxious to see how working on these plays and with these words can connect to these vets and be useful to them.”
To put it another away, #Shakespeare is #StillRelevant #TheaterLives