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Nearly A Quarter Century Into Its Existence The Baltimore Playwrights Festival Fights For Recognition And To Transcend The Tightly Knit Community That Nurtured It

Christopher Myers
SIX SEATS TO THE WIND: Current and Past BPF playwrights Joe Dennison (front, left) and Mark Scharf and (back row, left to right) Mike Morgan, Kimberley Lynne, Stephen Larocque, And Kathleen Barber

By John Barry | Posted 7/27/2005

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By June 17, the 24th annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival has moved into full gear at Fells Point Corner Theatre, but it may not be immediately apparent to the casual observer. From the outside of the theater on Ann Street, the brightly lit lobby looks empty through the large glass doors. Inside, the first thing the casual observer notices is that there are no casual observers. There’s a small audience of several dozen of the directly or indirectly involved: colleagues, festival judges, and friends from the local theater scene. The black-box main theater is about half-full, but backed with a spectacular set. And in the back row, Mark Scharf, playwright, is waiting for his BPF play, Blue Mermaid, to come to fruition a year after submitting it to the festival.

Scharf is one of Baltimore’s more successful local playwrights; though it’s not exactly his day job, he has had plays produced in small theaters in London and Australia. Blue Mermaid is his 11th BPF-produced play, and since 1994 he’s won nine festival awards for productions and playwriting, including Best Play in 2002 for Whispers of Saints.

For 24 years, Maryland playwrights such as Scharf have been biting their nails in the back aisles of Baltimore theaters, watching their plays get world premieres that they would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. What began in 1981 at the Vagabond Theatre when directors found their desks piling up with unsolicited manuscripts has turned into the most dependable outlet for local writers who don’t have the agents or the national reputation that, say, the New York International Fringe Festival requires.

The longevity of the BPF is not in dispute. Neither is its mission. But even many of the festival’s admirers wonder if it’s a little too tightly knit for its own good.

While the enthusiasm for the BPF runs deep at theaters such as the Vagabond and FPCT, audience support doesn’t run wide. This reporter was hard pressed to find anyone from Creative Alliance, one of the city’s largest community arts organizations, who had actually attended the BPF. When Megan Hamilton, program director of the Creative Alliance, was asked to comment on the festival, she knew what it was, but that was about it. “Basically I think it’s a great idea, and beyond that I probably shouldn’t say a thing,” she says. “I have never been to a play of theirs—not one, I’m embarrassed to say.”

A glance at the BPF’s production history also gives the impression of an inclusive, tight community of playwrights. Currently four playwrights—Scharf, Rosemary Toohey, Kathleen Barber, and Joe Dennison—have 39 festival productions to their credit. This season, three of the nine participating playwrights have had plays produced in past festivals. And Scharf is also chairman of the festival.

Roy Hammond, who has directed productions for the BPF in the past, is a supporter of the festival but acknowledges that it is in danger of becoming inbred. “You have the same playwrights, the same theaters every year,” Hammond says. “I think it’s a wonderful thing, but no one outside of Baltimore knows about it. And the plays themselves—except for the ones by Mark Scharf and Joe Dennison and few others—never really leave Baltimore. But a lot of them could.”

Scharf feels the inbreeding characterization is a little unfair. He insists that the administration of the festival has nothing to do with choosing scripts, which are submitted anonymously. And though he says he never asked for the job, which doesn’t pay, he indicates that in a tight community with little money, a little inbreeding and networking might be necessary. The festival’s annual budget is $4,000-$5,000, according to BPF treasurer Bob Bardoff: $750 comes from a Baltimore City grant, the rest from private donations and box-office receipts. Almost all of the funding goes toward publicity. Playwrights receive honoraria, from $50 to $100, depending on play length.

“When they offered the job [of chairman] I told them, ‘If they think it’s going to damage the festival, I don’t want to do it,’” Scharf says. “But come down and see what my job really is and you’ll understand. It’s not like there’s a cabal telling everybody what plays get produced and which ones don’t. We have meetings every third Tuesday [of the month]. Everybody’s welcome.”

Scharf says that the structure of the festival—a core of volunteers and a diffuse, low-key production process—is the key to its longevity. Of 80 or so plays submitted this year, 17 were selected anonymously, then 11 were chosen for production by the seven participating theaters: Vagabond, FPCT, Mobtown Players, Chesapeake Arts Center, Spotlighters, Run of the Mill, and Uncommon Voices. When theaters get to choose their own productions, Scharf says, the quality improves.

Dennison, a local playwright and artist, is one of those local writers who credits the festival with giving him an opportunity as a playwright just out of college. He first heard of the festival in 1989 when he read about it in The Sun. While other festivals frequently require submission of scripts through agents, BPF had only one requirement: He had to be from Maryland. So Dennison took the bait. By 1992, he had his first play, A Short Simple Stay, produced.

“It was a great experience,” he says. “Since then, I’ve had a lot of great experiences.” He’s had the experience 11 times, to be exact, and racked up eight BPF awards in the last decade.

Penny Lorio, who also has written three plays produced for the BPF, is a grateful and enthusiastic supporter, but she also agrees that the festival needs to reach out to a wider audience. “The plays get decently well-attended, but that’s usually a default audience—they all have connections to the local scene,” she says. “A lot of the people I talk to have no idea it exists.”

Newer directors such as Jim Knipple, artistic director of the Run of the Mill Theater, hope to give the festival a jump-start. Run of the Mill hosts two one-acts for the festival, but Knipple thinks that the festival should actively court a younger audience. Building on his own experience with playwrights festivals in Pittsburgh—where Run of the Mill was originally based—he feels that the BPF needs to be, frankly, a little more festive.

“If you’re a person who has a friend who’s a director, you have a lot more of a chance [getting your play produced at the festival],” Knipple says. “I know they say the selection process is anonymous, but after a while, the anonymity falls away. They know what a Mark Scharf play is like, they know Joe Dennison.”

He also feels that the current structure of the festival—where seven or eight local theaters determine which plays get produced—limits the spectrum of drama to conventional theater. The more conservative venues, such as Vagabond and FPCT, may have an effect on the type of plays chosen for production.

“They need to try to get places like Company Thirteen and Living Room . . . involved,” Knipple says. “The plays I see at the [Baltimore] Playwrights Festival aren’t all that challenging. The playwrights are being ‘safe’” so that they can get produced.

If there’s one thing most of the directors and playwrights agree upon, it’s that the festival isn’t getting the recognition it deserves. With the bewildered frustration of long-suffering older siblings, Scharf seems puzzled by the hipper-than-thou reaction of a younger generation that seems more tolerant of the DIY ethic in the studio than onstage.

“How do you define ‘amateur’?” Scharf asks. “I get paid for my work. I’ve gotten them published. There are [eight to 10] productions of my work every year. I get a little perplexed at the use of the word. It makes it seem so unappetizing. If you’re saying professional playwrights are the ones who earn all their money writing plays, that’s going to knock down the list considerably.”

Lorio says City Paper itself is guilty of dismissive remarks in the past. “It probably helped cement the opinion that live theater is only slightly more exciting than watching the grass grow,” she says. “We really can do without that kind of support.”

Yeah, it’s a small town. You don’t need to be a theater critic to figure that out. But despite the bruised egos and miniscule budget, the Baltimore Playwrights Festival is certain of one thing: Its dedicated if small band of supporters has kept it going for a quarter century. And it’ll probably be around for a while to come. Whether it gets any bigger or better is anyone’s guess. H

The Baltimore Playwrights Festival hits full swing this week with Stephen LaRocque’s $40 Million if You Want It at Fells Point Corner Theatre, Daniel Mont’s Myron and Evelyn at Vagabond Players, and Jim Sheehan’s Holidays In and Rosemary Frisino Toohey’s Socks at Run of the Mill Theater.

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