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The Arts

(Radio) Days of Summer

Stoop Storytelling debuts its first ever old-time variety show

Caleb Stine (left to right), Laura Wexler, Jessica Henkin, and Aaron Henkin dress sharp for the radio.

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 7/8/2009

"Baltimoored: Summer in the City"

CenterStage, July 9-11.

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When Laura Wexler and Jessica Henkin started the Stoop Storytelling series three years ago, their intentions were relatively modest. They wanted to bring the storytelling series--a concept that had already seen success in San Francisco and New York, among other places--to Baltimore, their adopted hometown.

The series was an instant success. Within a year of its debut, sellout crowds convinced Wexler and Henkin to move it from the Creative Alliance at the Patterson to CenterStage, where shows still sold out. For the holiday show last year, Wexler and Henkin tried holding it at the Meyerhoff, and sold more than 1,400 tickets.

This weekend, Wexler and Henkin make the Stoop show accessible in two ways. First, it will be held for three consecutive nights at CenterStage with different storytellers each night, almost guaranteeing that tickets will still be available for those who decide to go at the last minute. Second, the entire show will be, for the first time, recorded and broadcast on WYPR, on consecutive Fridays, July 17 and 24, at noon and again at 7 p.m.

"We all like to push ourselves and try to figure out what's next," says Henkin of the decision to put the show on the radio. "We're kind of experimenting. We don't want to lose the core of what makes people come to each show. In some sense, we haven't really nailed down specifically what it is that makes our show something that people want to come to, and I think that's important. It's loosey-goosey, but it's formulaic."

But this week's summer-themed program, titled "Baltimoored: Summer in the City," is more than just a live broadcast of a typical Stoop session. Wexler and Henkin, along with their partners --Wexler's husband, Mike Subelsky, who is serving as a sound engineer, and Henkin's husband, Aaron Henkin, host of WYPR's show "The Signal"--and Stoop regular musician Caleb Stine have created a Baltimore version of "Prairie Home Companion," with radio skits and local musicians filling out a program that features Maryland First Lady Katie O'Malley, Clarke Peters from The Wire, and Larry Doyle, novelist and former writer for The Simpsons. In addition to Stine, musicians Ellen Cherry, Arty Hill and the 5th L perform songs about summer in Baltimore.

"It's a new enterprise for all of us," says Aaron Henkin, whose WYPR radio show had previously broadcast individual stories from the Stoop series. "Writing these sketches, these mini-radio dramas, we're all relatively new to. Writing around sound effects was a learning curve."

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the five principals met in one of the basement studios at WYPR's offices to go over a dozen radio skits that had been written and performed by members of the Baltimore Improv Group, including Subelsky, Wexler, and Jessica Henkin. This weekend, the skits and the sound effects will be performed live, but only after months of rewrites and experimentation.

As the group settles in to listen to an hour's worth of radio skits, Aaron Henkin starts the first one, which serves as an introduction to the show's concept. The group centers in on a single effect, which sounds like a chainsaw, but is intended to be a lawn mower.

"The weed whacker sounds like a . . . I want something that sounds more lawnmowery, if at all possible," says Jessica Henkin, who throughout the session is most attuned to the comic potential of the sound effects.

As if on cue, Subelsky imitates a weed whacker sound, then spells out the joke. "It's as if the yard is so small that it just needs a weed whacker," he says.

"Or, it needs a huge, like, John Deere, like mega, that would also be funny," says Wexler, who leads the group through listening to the skits. "Does anyone have ideas for how to make a lawn-mower sound?"

"I'm not sure we're allowed to have combustion engines on stage," Aaron Henkin says. "I think it might have to be a mouth effect."

"I think the choice between an electric weed whacker and a mouth noise, I'd rather have the weed whacker, because visually that will be so funny when that comes out," Jessica Henkin says.

"It sounds a bit like a skill saw, but it's fine," Wexler says.

"At this point, it's as much about the visual," Henkin says.

For the next hour, the group runs through the skits, pointing out flaws in the text or the sound effects and editing down the clips for maximum comic timing. Henkin says that when the group conceived of doing a summer radio show last winter, he sought out radio enthusiast Gene Leitner, who let the group borrow sound-effect equipment and helped turn the group on to radio shows from the 1930s and '40s. Wexler says that Leitner told the group that sound effects, which will be mechanically or vocally produced, should be made part of the performance.

"Sound effects are theatrical, and he said just know that everyone in the audience is going to watch those sound effects be made," Wexler says. "Mike is going to be set up on stage, and doing these sound effects is going to be its own entertainment."

While the production of the show might draw the most attention for Stoop regulars, the broad theme of the show--chosen in part because Stoop has never held a storytelling session during the summer--gives the storytellers and musicians free range in choosing their topics. Larry Doyle, whose first novel I Love You, Beth Cooper was turned into a movie opening this week, is speaking about the decision to spend $25,000--a significant amount of money, even for a television writer--to install air conditioning in the 19th-century Baltimore home he moved into two years go.

"Since I work out of the house, I think I'm making more money than the air conditioning, so we're coming out ahead," he says. "We're considering putting solar panels on the roof, which will cut down the cost and decrease my overall guilt level."

In a story that is almost an 180-degree turn from Doyle's, Sheri Booker, a poet and writer, will tell a story about a car accident she had a few summers ago when she was working for a funeral home. "I got into a car accident while I was picking up a body, and I actually crashed into a rail at the McDonald's with a body in the car," Booker says.

Wexler believes that summer in Baltimore is a great theme because it's so unpredictable. "We have a love/hate thing with summer in Baltimore," she says, noting that some Stoops in the past have been serious. "This is not one of those shows. Everything about it is summery."

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