Baltimore's Theatre Project is still radical at 40
Venue gives nod to original 'pass the hat' policy for anniversary
Anne Cantler Fulwiler has led the Theatre Project since 2001. (DOUG KAPUSTIN, Baltimore Sun / May 1, 2006)
Today, the intimate venue on Preston Street still offers plenty of theatrical experiences that qualify as new and edgy, such as "Unveiled," a play by Rohina Malik about Muslim women post-9/11 that opens in December. Next month will see the premiere of "I Want To Be A Gay Icon," by Sarah Lynn Taylor in a production of Iron Crow Theatre, a recently formed company now using Theatre Project as a home.
Other things on the decidedly diverse schedule are just plain fun, like a production opening this week of "Rocky Horror Show" from one of Baltimore's other young companies, Factory Edge Theatre Works.
The free admission policy gave way to ticket prices in the early '80s, but it has made something of a comeback in a nostalgic tweak for Theatre Project's 40th anniversary season.
"Almost every production has at least one performance that is free, with a 'pass the hat' after the show, just like they did at the beginning," says Anne Cantler Fulwiler, Theatre Project's producing director for the past decade.
When it opened on the second floor of a handsome 1887 building that originally housed the Improved Order of Heptasophs (must be source material there for an off-beat play),Theatre Project was just about the only spot for cutting-edge work in Baltimore. Even the seating had an avant-garde feel.
"It was just a beat-up black-box room with some church pews and kneelers," says Fulwiler. "You sat where you wanted and paid what you wanted."
Theatre Project, founded by Philip Arnoult, started with backing from Antioch College. "Antioch was thinking way outside the box, and I was thinking way outside the box," Arnoult says by phone from Poland. "It was the intersection of artists morphing from the '60s into the richness of the '70s."
The venue was soon presenting such groups as Pilobolus Dance Theater and Urban Bush Women, as well as generating outreach programs such as the Baltimore Neighborhood Arts Circus.
"There was a real percolating of avant-garde theater and dance, laminated with extraordinary beginnings of new kinds of theater," Arnoult says. "And it was happening all over the country, not just the big cities. You were seeing gender-based and sexual orientation-based companies, and rural companies in Tennessee. Theatre Project became a stop on the underground railroad for those folks, providing opportunities to show that work to a very young and hip audience."
Arnoult instigated a major venture with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County called The New Theatre Festival, aimed at bringing experimental work to the area. The TNT Festival, as it was known, was a major part of the Theatre Project's activity for several of its early seasons.
Fulwiler was a teenage volunteer during the TNT years.
"I was really intrigued by theater that was so very, very different from any I'd ever seen," she says, before adding with a laugh: "OK, I hadn't seen that much theater, I'll admit. But this was really different."
Another young woman was likewise captivated — Molly Smith, now the acclaimed artistic director of Washington's Arena Stage.
"I went in the '70s to the TNT Festival for a full day of performances and saw some great companies from Europe doing dangerous, physical work," Smith says. "It was extraordinary. Philip Arnoult has the best eye for international work in the business. As a young theater artist, I was hungry for different ways of treating word, a different visual sense."
Different was the operating principal for the place. Although various financial challenges cropped up, the venue kept going. Better seating came in, as did accessibility for the disabled.
During the '90s, after Arnoult departed and Robert Mrozek was director, new plays continued to be work-shopped or premiered there, among them David Drake's "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me." Opera became a regular feature in the space as well, thanks to the Peabody Institute.
"Bobby [Mrozek] told me that Theatre Project's [appeal] was its power to work directly on the imagination without the need for elaborate sets," says Roger Brunyate, director of opera programs at Peabody. "He also said, 'We look, of course, for success, but if we have a failure, we prefer it to be a spectacular one.' The combined challenge of creative risk at a low budget was catnip to me as a producer."
Having access to Theatre Project was a boon to Peabody Chamber Opera, which continues to produce work there.