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Intimate Drama

At Performance Workshop Theatre, They Can Hear You Breathe

Frank Klein
THE GREAT 28: The tiny performance workshop theatre hosts a rehearsal for its current production, Oedipus.
UNDERGROUND THEATER: Marlyn Robinson and Marc Horwitz stand in front of the stairs to their space.
CHORUS GIRLS: (from left) Robinson rehearses Katherine Lyons

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 5/28/2008

It was a chilly, rainy night in October 2006, and only 10 paying customers were on hand when the lights came up on Marc Horwitz, standing alone in the tiny basement room that is the Performance Workshop Theatre. Wearing a gray suit and overcoat, Horwitz played Frank Hardy, the title character in Brian Friel's play Faith Healer, and he was rambling nervously about the way his gift for curing the sick and crippled seemed to come and go.

Thus began one of the most extraordinary evenings I've seen in more than 30 years of reviewing Baltimore theater. What made the show so special was not just Horwitz's performance--though he was very good--nor Friel's script--though he's one of our best living playwrights. Essential to the impact were the circumstances of the production.

Because the play took place in a small rectangular room, with a couple dozen seats shoved up against one long wall, Horwitz could stand on the basement floor, two arm-lengths from the first row, and be confident that a gesture as subtle as staring off into the distance and then refocusing his eyes on the listener would register. He could speak in a normal, conversational voice without having to project to the balcony of a larger theater.

This matters more than you'd think. Though a trained actor in a big theater can make a big gesture seem small or make a projected voice sound casual, our bodies instinctively recognize the difference. It's the difference between asking your teacher a question in a large lecture hall and asking the same teacher a question across the Formica tabletop of a diner booth. It's an entirely other scale of interaction, and because Horwitz could work so intimately, Friel's monologues had an impact they wouldn't have had in another setting.

The evening made one realize that small theater represents not just a difference in size but also a difference in kind. It doesn't just mean fewer seats and smaller budgets; it also entails a whole other style of acting and directing. It's not just a reduced version of the theater done at Center Stage, Everyman, and the Hippodrome; it's a distinctly other form of stagecraft. It's chamber theater.

"In a more formal proscenium setting, an actor has to open up unnaturally to project to the audience or pitch his voice higher so they can be heard by everyone," Horwitz explains in a room just off the PWT stage. "In this environment, an actor can explore different parts of the voice--a lower pitch, a softer tone. Here the slightest change in breathing, the smallest gesture, even in posture, are tremendously important in a way they aren't in a normal theater."

"The work we do is almost cinematic," suggests Marlyn Robinson, the director of Faith Healer, sitting nearby. "The actors are so close to the audience that it's like the closeups in film. Actors can act with their faces in a way they never could in a larger theater."

It's an apt analogy. While it can never match the landscape shots or special effects of a movie, chamber theater can use closeups the same way. And because actors don't have to project, they can use softer, lower, more natural voices, much like film actors who have the benefit of microphones.

"You have to learn to modulate your voice in that space," agrees Katherine Lyons, Horwitz's co-star in Faith Healer. "You can't do too much because everything is heard. When we took The Jewish Wife on tour, I had to completely relearn my monologues to make sure I could be heard in the larger venues. I had to find that same emotion and make it larger, project it. It required a whole different technique."

"So often we make acting so big that it becomes a barrier to the audience," agrees J. Buck Jabaily, the artistic director at Single Carrot Theatre, another small local stage. "When you see a play in a large theater--unless you can afford the best seat in the house, and I never can--you can't see what's going on on an actor's face, and that's where it happens. On film, an actor can just redirect his eyes, and it can mean so much. That can happen in our space."

There are many notable small theaters in Baltimore--Fells Point Corner Theatre has 86 seats downstairs and 65 upstairs, Vagabond Players has 100, Theatre Hopkins 100, Riverside Stage 100, Spotlighters 86, Mobtown Theater 68, Single Carrot 60, and Theatrical Mining Company 45--but none is as small as the Performance Workshop Theatre: 28 seats.

Horwitz and Robinson co-founded the PWT in 1978 in Pennsylvania and still share responsibility as artistic producing directors. Their joint office, through the door stage left of the performing space, is papered with posters from their productions of Pinter, Yeats, Ibsen, and Shakespeare over the decades.

Horwitz leans back in his dark blue shirt and faded jeans at a cluttered work table. At 56, his brown hair is starting to recede, but his unblinking gaze fixes on a visitor. At 80, Robinson's hair is short and gray, set off by silver teardrop earrings, rimless glasses, and a turquoise-and-bead necklace. She hunches over the table, her head at a tilt.

In most but not all of their productions, Robinson is the director and Horwitz the male lead. That's the case in the PWT's current production, Ellen McLaughlin's adaptation of Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus. It was the case in the theater's memorable productions of John Millington Synge's The Well of the Saints (2006) and Gilles Segal's The Puppetmaster of Lodz (which won Horwitz City Paper's Best Actor citation in 2002). And it was the case with Faith Healer.

Friel's play is structured as four monologues--by the faith healer Frank, by his ex-lover Grace, by his ex-manager Teddy, and then by Frank again. In the Broadway production, Ralph Fiennes had declaimed Frank's lines as if he were trying to rouse the back rows of a giant revival tent in Scotland--or the balcony of the Booth Theatre in Manhattan. Fiennes' performance was remarkable in its larger-than-life way, but Horwitz's take on the show was very different, as if his faith healer were working a small, rented chapel rather than a large circus pavilion, as if he could seduce listeners rather than overwhelm them.

With his pulled-down tie suggesting informality and his damp eyes suggesting honesty, Horwitz ambled forward till he was close enough that he might reach out and "heal" the audience members in the first row. Instead he offered them confessions. It was only later--when Grace and Teddy offered their own versions of events--that we realized Frank's confidences were somewhat less than honest. He was still working the room.

"It's the kind of play we're always looking for," Horwitz says. "It allows the actors to be front and center with just a few props--nothing that would distract. When I was on stage as Frank, there was just a poster and a few empty chairs to represent all the people that Frank had either helped or failed. Friel gives the actor an opportunity to present Frank not only in his public mode, when he comes to town for a revival, but also when he's off stage, when he's alone. In our space, I could directly address the audience as if in confidence, as if telling them something I would never tell Grace or Teddy."

When Lyons did her monologue as Grace, she sprawled in a green armchair, her knees apart, her hair unbrushed, an ashtray full of cigarettes and a bottle of whiskey on the table beside her. Unlike Horwitz, who approached the audience to murmur beguilingly, Lyons seemed to shrink back into her chair, giving up her memories in reluctant, convulsive bursts. Her version of the same events so often clashed with his that it was almost as if they were conducting a dialogue, even though the two were never on stage at the same time.

"We needed some image that Katherine could pull on hard in discovering Grace," Robinson, the director, explains. "I suggested she imagine something physical pulling at her. She began to sink into the chair as if a magnet in the floor was pulling her down, as if she had to fight to keep from sliding off. It was the kind of physical action she needed to keep the monologue from becoming too intellectual."

"One of the things I really enjoy about acting here," Lyons says, "is you can hear the audience breathing. It's like they're on stage with you. I can't always see them, because of the lights or because of my performance, but I can hear them breathing, and I know they can hear me breathing. In a larger space, you have to make everything larger or it won't read. But there's no connection like the connection here, because we're so close. There's nothing like it."

It's one of the great experiences in the arts, but you'd never know it. Because the audiences are so small, the promotion so scanty, and the experience so transitory, chamber drama seldom gets much recognition in the mainstream media. Unlike a film or a concert that lives on as a DVD, a show such as Faith Healer survives only in the memory or the descriptions of those lucky enough to have seen it.

There is one notable exception to this rule--a chamber drama that was well documented and thus endures as the best example of the genre's strengths. That's Vanya on 42nd Street, the Louis Malle film about stage director Andre Gregory's legendary, semiprivate rehearsals of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. For eight months in 1989, Gregory worked with eight actors on the Russian play without costumes or sets. In 1991 and '92, they reconvened in a dilapidated Times Square theater. The audiences of no more than 30 were seated within 10 feet of the actors, who performed in street clothes.

It was a methodology very much like the PWT's, and Malle captured the intense intimacy established by the performers with one another and the nearby audience. Just before the film was released at the Charles Theatre in 1994, Gregory came to Café Hon in Hampden to promote the picture, eat bread pudding, and talk about the very different approach to theater required by chamber drama.

"If I ask you something personal like, `What has love meant in your life?''' Gregory said, reaching over to touch my hand, "and you tell me across this table, that's quite different than if you tell me from out there on the sidewalk.'' He gestured toward the door, which opened up on 36th Street.

Malle underlined this by allowing the 20th-century American actors to gossip about auditions and the weather before slipping into their roles as 19th-century Russians chatting about tea and vodka. Because this was chamber drama, they were as conversational inside the play as they'd been outside it. And when the talk turned from vodka to romantic denial and betrayal, this naturalism became visceral.

"Julianne Moore--who plays Yelena [in the play/film]--found it terrifying to perform without the usual distance from the audience,'' Gregory explained. "Some in the audience found it frightening, too, because if you're sitting at a table and someone opens up their deepest secrets, it almost produces a deep sense of shame. It's like being a kid and overhearing your parents say something you weren't supposed to hear.''

"Here you have no advantage of distance to hide anything that might be lacking," Horwitz says of the PWT space, "whether it's the acting, the costumes, or the makeup. They're all under intense scrutiny. On the one hand, that can be very intimidating. On the other hand, it can serve as a motivation to provoke the actors and designers into giving their very best because they know everything that can be exposed will be exposed."

Horwitz met Robinson in 1976 in Bethlehem, Pa. She had moved there from Baltimore the year before because her husband had accepted a teaching position at Lehigh University. Her second week in Bethlehem, the veteran actress was hired as director of the Pennsylvania Playhouse, a community theater with an active young actors training program. A year later, when she was trying to cast an Oberon for A Midsummer Night's Dream, she remembered a striking young actor who had been a guest artist in a Lehigh University production of Richard III. That was Horwitz, a recent graduate of Moravia University's theater program.

"Artistically, we completed each other," Horwitz remembers. "We had very different training and different approaches, but we found that we always ended up in the same place about what was important and what was good enough. When you're on the same wavelength like that, over time you develop a shorthand for communicating and you're able to work more efficiently and economically. Whenever we'd finish a production, we'd go out to a diner and after the seventh or eighth cup of coffee, I'd ask, `Who am I next?' She'd say, `Christy Mahon' or `Hamlet,' and I'd say, `Let's do it.'"

In 1978, the two collaborators officially incorporated the Performance Workshop Theatre, which soon launched touring productions of Hamlet and A Touch of Harry, a one-man show based on Henry V. Horwitz was awarded Best Actor, for Harry, at the 1978 International Festival of the Arts in New York, and that led to an invitation to join the British Theatre Association's "summer intensive" training program. In the following year he had an acting fellowship to train in London with the National Theatre and Shakespeare Theatre.

"It was a time when you could see Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, even Laurence Olivier regularly on London's stages," Horwitz recalls. "It was a great opportunity to contrast the British approach to acting with the American approach that I was already familiar with. The British spent hours on technique--getting the physical instrument and the vocal instrument just right--and only then brought in imagination. In America it was the opposite. There the emphasis was to first get to the inner, emotional core and then bring in the technique. I've always felt fortunate to have had both kinds of training."

Even after working with some of the best directors in England, however, Horwitz still missed Robinson, who combined the British and American styles better, he felt, than almost anyone. So he returned to Pennsylvania in 1981 to help Robinson install the PWT at the Bethlehem Arts Theater, a renovated bowling alley. That lasted until 1985, but then Horwitz was pulled away again by another offer he couldn't refuse: a scholarship to get a master's degree in theater at Temple University.

In 1987, Robinson moved back to Baltimore so her husband could run the Maryland Industrial Partnership in College Park; soon she was teaching theater at UMBC and Villa Julie College. After Temple, Horwitz got a teaching job at Long Island University--he even invited Robinson up as a guest artist--but he still missed their regular collaboration. So in 1993 he moved to Baltimore, took a part-time teaching job at College Park, and approached Robinson with a script he'd fallen in love with: Gille Segal's The Puppetmaster of Lodz. It's the story of a Holocaust survivor who refuses to leave his rented room outside Berlin as he builds and manipulates marionettes in an effort to come to terms with his traumatic memories.

Robinson liked the play but not the translation, so she commissioned an entirely new English version. She also commissioned Robert Smythe of Philadelphia's Mum Puppet Theatre to build a new set of puppets and to train Horwitz as a puppeteer. She drafted one of her former UMBC students, Greg Schraven, now the PWT resident designer, to create a set that had not a single right angle. The PWT worked out a split-ticket deal with Catonsville Community College and opened the show there in 1995. The PWT was back in business.

Because they couldn't take the Catonsville stage until just before opening, Robinson looked for rehearsal space and a real-estate agent friend told her, "There's room in the old jail." The former Southern District police station, just two blocks south of the Cross Street Market at Ostend and Patapsco streets, had been taken over by the South Baltimore Learning Center. The nonprofit organization, which prepared students for the GED test and offered computer training, was trying to rent out its small basement, accessible by a flight of concrete steps down from the sidewalk. Robinson grabbed it.

For several years, it was just a rehearsal and storage space as PWT looked for a permanent home at a rent it could afford. Then, in 1997, Robinson had an epiphany. "When I was in Ireland," she explains, "I saw Martin McDonagh's A Skull in Connemara at the Druid Theatre in Galway. It's a world-famous theater, even though it only has 40 seats. I came back to our rehearsal space and asked Greg, `How many seats can you get in here?'"

The answer was 28. That number presented a daunting financial challenge, but Robinson and Horwitz plunged ahead nonetheless. The PWT had a home at last and opened the renovated space in 1998 with Egon Wolff's Paper Flowers.

"You can see it on people's faces when they come through a door for the first time," Robinson chuckles. "They look at our room, and you can almost hear them thinking, How are they going to do Macbeth here? But when the lights go down, a magical space appears, and people are drawn into it. When the lights come back up at intermission, it's just a basement room again. They have to walk across the stage to use the bathroom and have a cup of tea. People ask if it's OK to walk past the scenery, and we tell them, yes."

"You can't make much money on 28 seats," Horwitz acknowledges. "But we pursued it anyway. People are always giving us suggestions about a larger space we could move into, but they don't have suggestions for how we might pay for it. We decided to work with what we had, and what we discovered is that the theater that works in this space is very exciting."

For all the artistic advantages provided by its intimate dimensions, chamber drama also presents considerable financial challenges. When you only have 28 seats to sell--or 60 or 100--for a particular performance, it's hard to bring in enough money to pay for rent, utilities, costumes, sets, brochures, and stipends for the cast and crew. Being small does mitigate those costs--rents are lower, sets are simpler--but almost all chamber theaters lead a perilous existence.

"All small theaters struggle," acknowledges Elaina Telitsina, executive director of the Baltimore Theatre Alliance. "That just comes with the territory. You can always do popular shows, because people will always come to see a familiar show. The challenge is to do original work, things that are risk-taking. Every time you do a show that's never been done before, you take a risk in how the audience will respond."

That risk is heightened in Baltimore, Robinson points out, because productions rely so much on word of mouth. As a result, small theaters often have half-full houses at the beginning of the run and then have to turn people away from sold-out shows at the end of the runs.

"In some ways a small space is a big advantage," Theatrical Mining Company dramaturge Terry Kenney adds. "Not all community theaters are well attended, especially when you're presenting new or unknown plays. At 28 people, we're half-full and the Performance Workshop is sold out, but 28 people in a 100- or 200-seat theater looks almost empty. It's always a morale boost when you sell out, even if it's only 28 or 45 seats."

At the Spotlighters, executive director Fuzz Roark says the budget for royalties, costumes, and sets for a production is usually $2,000-3,000. When you add in the overhead for rent, utilities, and salaries, the theater has to clear $2,000 a week just to break even. Even if Spotlighters sells out all 86 seats for 15 performances, it still needs grants and program advertising to get into the black. An all-volunteer organization such as the Fells Point Corner Theatre can save on stipends, but the PWT insists on paying every member of the cast and crew something.

The PWT does get some help from foundations and individual donors, but for the most part it survives by keeping costs low. Though everyone is paid, no one is making a living from the PWT. Robinson is supported by her late husband's pension; Horwitz does voice-over work and gives private lessons on acting and dialect; Lyons does part-time teaching; Schraven has a full-time job at UMBC.

From its origins in Pennsylvania to its current incarnation in Federal Hill, the PWT has always included actor training as part of its mission. Horwitz teaches private classes and the occasional master class; Robinson teaches the advanced actors, and other teachers--often cast members from PWT productions--lead the high school, introductory, and intermediate courses. The fees do help defray the theater's overhead and provide company members with additional income, but tuition is kept low and class size is limited to 10.

"I've always looked at this theater as I would a teaching hospital," Robinson says. "The students are getting the equivalent of conservatory training at very affordable prices. And the courses result in people who have the skills to contribute to our theater. Our new production of Oedipus grew out of the advanced class, because the students wanted to do some work with classic Greek theater. I began to look for material and found Ellen McLaughlin."

McLaughlin, who was the original angel in Tony Kushner's Angels in America, is a New York actress and playwright who has rewritten several classical dramas into modern language. For Oedipus, she has abandoned the traditional strophe and anti-strophe structure of Sophocles to focus more on the social and psychological problems--and no one has more psychological problems than the man who gave his name to Freud's "Oedipus complex."

"In her writings McLaughlin talks about the contemporary reverberations of Oedipus," Robinson says, "his sense of exile and the way that alters his self-identity. Once he's handed this terrible prophecy [that he will kill his father and marry his mother] he can no longer reside with the people he thought were his parents. He becomes unmoored as so many modern refugees are. It reverberated with me, personally, because most of us have somewhere along the line felt as if we've been thrown out of the familiar and the certain into the unfamiliar and the uncertain."

McLaughlin does use a Greek chorus in her Oedipus, and at an early rehearsal Robinson worked with the chorus members: Lyons and Amy Dawson. Sitting in the front row, the director was just a few feet from the two barefoot actresses, dressed in black with translucent blue scarves draped across their shoulders. Robinson emphasized precision in the choreography but also demanded less regularity in the unison speeches. "I'm not hearing enough differentiation in volume and tone," she said. "It's too much, `bop, bop, bop.' We need to soften it up, to demasculinize it."

She wanted the chorus to be less like the stern archetypes of most Greek drama productions and more like flesh-and-blood human beings. The chorus members, after all, are surrogates for the citizens of Thebes--and by extension for the Baltimoreans in the audience. At one point in the show, the chorus members actually sit in the seats with the audience and deliver their lines from there.

"The chorus feels as if it's part of the audience," Horwitz says. "And the audience feels like it's part of the chorus. That's one of the powerful strengths of this space--audiences feel as if they viewing the action from inside the universe of the play, not from outside. And it strengthens the themes of Oedipus, because all the confrontations between the characters take place in public, so each accusation, each defense, is addressed not only to the other character but also to a public that might lend or refuse support. It's a play about community as much as individuals, and in this theater, the audience really is part of that community."H

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