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Minimum Stage

Jim Knipple Shaped Run of the Mill Theater Into Something Other Than the Average Local Company

Jefferson Jackson Steele
GOING TO CALIFORNIA: Jim Knipple (right) and Janet Miley are leaving the upstart local theater scene to its own devices.

By John Barry | Posted 8/9/2006

Variations on Fear

Opens Aug. 10 at Run of the Mill Theater

In three years, Jim Knipple hasnít done badly for himself. He founded Run of the Mill Theater Company, hosted two mini-playwriting projects, and raised the quality bar for Baltimoreís small, intense theater scene. Now he heads to the University of California, Irvine, where heís gained admission into its prestigious three-year masterís directing program. And after three years--five total, including an internship at Center Stage--Knipple, 28, generously gives some of the credit for his and the companyís successes to Baltimore itself.

"New York is completely different," he says, occasionally gulping from a plastic water bottle in the sweltering antechamber of St. Johnís Church where he leads rehearsals for Run of the Millís upcoming production, Variations on Fear, Knippleís last as artistic director. "Even when youíre trying to get in the crappiest, tiniest theater, they have thousands of requirements. Here, you ask for something, youíll probably end up getting it."

Knipple and Run of the Mill are living testaments that it doesnít take much money to produce consistently ambitious theater. The company began in summer 2003, when Knipple and his wife, Janel Miley, were living outside Pittsburgh; she acted and he taught drama at Geneva College. Knipple saw an empty theater as an opportunity.

"I asked if I could use it," he says. "The first two plays were by George Bernard Shaw and August Strindberg, and I chose them because they were both in the public domain. Nobody showed up on opening night--except for one guy who came in asking if he could use the lumber when we were done with it. But we stayed on for a two-week run, the word got out, and more people started to use it."

The perseverance paid off. A few months later, Knipple came to Baltimore with his own theater group. Run of the Mill was younger and a little edgier than others in town and it had an agenda--to bring new and unpublished works to the stage. Run of the Mill began auditioning actors for its debut in September 2003.

And Knipple was going to produce plays inexpensively. "I guess I just have a way of coming up with shows without spending a lot," he says. The companyís first donor was a Baltimore police detective, Alex Lee, who now sits on its board of directors. "He was single and didnít spend a lot," Knipple says of his companyís founding backer. "So he helped get us started. But I donít even think we spent all of his money."

When those auditions were held for a production of Eugene Ionescoís The Bald Soprano in the fall of 2003, the troupe didnít even have a space. After Knipple heard that the 10-year-old Axis Theatre closed its doors in 2002 because of mounting debts, he made a bid on its 68-person theater at Hampdenís Meadow Mill complex. At the time the Meadow Mill management company had received a number of offers to use the space for single shows, but Knipple had other ideas. "We didnít have any money," he says. "But we told them we were interested in renting out their space for a whole season."

Knipple also planned to share the space with Mobtown Players, who had already been in the area for five years. When Meadow Mill management was still a little wary, Knipple made use of one more resource: his main donor. "They were about to say Ďnoí to us, and then he came in with a police badge on his belt," Knipple says. "I guess they were impressed when they realized he was on our board." He laughs. "Yeah, a lot of [starting a theater company] is luck. A lot of it is setting yourself up for luck. If I want something I just ask for it. I donít always get it, but often I do."

Run of the Mill put on five productions over its debut 2003-í04 season. Its second season continued the companyís unique streak. It opened the 2004-í05 season with Maria Irene Fornesí one-act The Danube and two short one-acts by Djuna Barnes, all three little-known, understaged plays. And Knipple was just getting started.

In early 2003, Knipple read a collection of plays by Erik Ehn, an American avant-garde playwright known for his short, visionary pieces. And after reading an interview with him in American Theatre magazine, Knipple decided to get in touch with Ehn, who was then in Rwanda. Not only did Ehn give Knipple permission to produce his plays, but he also offered to write 20 short one-acts from which Knipple could pick 10 to use for the 2005 production 13 Christs.

"He said heíd work out the details later," Knipple says. "I couldnít believe it. It was a dream come true."

Ehn came to Baltimore for a week-long tour in December 2004. "We paid for the train trips from New York and gave him room and board," Knipple says. "We gave him one of our T-shirts, but that was about it."

Knipple says he was impressed by Ehnís technique of finding inspiration in whatever was at hand. "We took him to the Baltimore Aquarium, and he was fascinated by the nurse shark--you know, that huge shark that just sits there at the bottom of the tank," Knipple says. "That shark turned up in three of the plays he wrote for us." Ehn spent about six weeks writing--"from Christmas to Valentineís Day," according to Knipple--then returned to Baltimore in early March with a stack of plays.

Knipple took up the challenge of staging Ehn, whose directions were as cryptic as his charactersí lines. Knippleís day job at that point was lecturing at Howard Community College and working as technical director at its Rep Stage. "Iíd never directed anything like that before," he says. "I spent every day from 7 to 11 [p.m.], five or six days a week, trying to figure them out. I would come out with pounding headaches. I mean, how do you make Ďchildren come out of green teaí [a stage direction]? Actors loved it. A lot of the audience loved . . . Well, some of them were very confused, but a few walked up to me afterward and told me how it had changed them. That made it all worth it."

13 Christs was followed with a July 2005 production that stemmed from his wifeís idea to stage variations on themes. Knipple had also heard about a "theater director who had this big party, invited everyone who he assumed would be in the audience, and had them pick ideas for plays and based a season on that. So we decided to do that."

Variations on Desire was as a set of ten 10-minute plays. For Knipple, it was the perfect way to get Baltimoreís somewhat scattered theater community to collaborate on a single project. "Thatís what Run of the Mill does," he says. "We go looking for stuff, and when we find it we use it. I donít think that we have to reproduce reality. We just have to remove it from something, take it in a different direction, embellish it."

 

The spirit informs all aspects of Run of the Millís productions, from design--the gigantic beach of this past springís Icarus was erected with leftover slats from Center Stageís production of August Wilsonís Radio Golf and lighting donated from the Baltimore School for the Arts--to casting. For one of the five actors in Desire, Knipple cast a young Hampden man with an acting degree who had been out of acting for a while. But on opening night with press in attendance, he didnít show. Knipple called the young manís mother, but she didnít know where he was. (Only later did Knipple discover that the actor had been arrested. "I think it was some sort of fight he got in," he says. "I guess he didnít use his free phone call.")

After everybody had been seated for 30 minutes, Knipple came out and offered them a deal. "I told them that one of our main actors didnít show up," he says. "So we got Ryan [Whinnem, Mobtown Playersí artistic director] to read the roles from the script. Then I told the audience that they could use their tickets for another night if they wanted. No one did." The production received a 2005 Greater Baltimore Theater award for "outstanding experimental production." Variations on Desire was so popular that Run of the Mill decided to reprise that collaborative approach with Variations on Fear.

While Baltimore offers opportunities that some of the larger cities donít, Knipple worries that it doesnít do much to retain actors and directors as they move toward professional careers. Knipple and Miley--both leaving Baltimore to pursue their theater careers--may be a case in point. Mobtownís Whinnem is also leaving to pursue a directing degree at Catholic University. Whether theyíll have a reason to return, Knipple admits, is anybodyís guess.

"Thereís a real void in Baltimore theater," Knipple says. "On one hand, you have Center Stage, which generally takes regional shows. Thatís fine, thatís what they do. And you have small community theater, like Fells Point Corner Theatre. But in the middle, for local actors who are trying to make it professionally, thereís only Everyman Theatre and Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. That means that there arenít that many opportunities for actors in Baltimore. You have two options. You can go to Philly or New York or D.C. Or you can get a job at Everyman."

Everyman gives its ensemble of mostly local professionals the chance to earn salaries, and Baltimore needs more of those opportunities to elevate its local theater community. "I really believe that to compete with D.C. it needs three theaters on a par with Everyman," Knipple says. "I donít think that Spotlighters or Vagabond should have to try to fill that gap. Baltimore just needs a few new companies who are committed to reach the point where they can offer equity contracts--if we get two or three to step up and try to reach that point in two or three years, thatíd be great. Weíre on the verge of theatrical respectability, but in American Theatre magazine the only theater that pops up is Center Stage, which does most of its auditioning in New York. Thatís a shame. Thereís a ceiling there that needs to be broken."

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