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Making a Scene

Hampden's AXIS Theatre Is Shooting the Works With a Production of the Expensive, Taxing Angels in America. Can Such Bravado Turn This Tiny Stage Into a Major Player?

Sam Holden
Kahlil Joseph Lowery rehearses his role as Belize in Axis Theatre's Angels in America.
Clockwise from left: Steven Antonsen, Kahlil Joseph Lowery, director Brian Klaas, and Randolph Hadaway rehearse at AXIS' Hampden theater.
AXIS actors Bethany Brown (foreground) and Patrick Martyn
Patrick Martyn (left) and Steven Antonsen

By Michael Anft | Posted 9/2/1998

On a muggy, midsummer, midweek night more suited to a barbecue or a ball game, seven people perspire and trade dialogue atop a scuffed skeleton of a stage in a rehabbed raincoat factory under the Jones Falls Expressway. Ceiling fans wobble and a couple of fluorescent lighting tubes on their last legs flicker as a stage manager moves hospital beds around actors who read lines from photocopied pages. The actors occasionally look up to heed the words of a thin young man--the director--who paces in front of a music stand below the stage.

It's a scene repeated dozens of times in Baltimore each year: actors, directors, and stage managers hashing out playwrights' words for little or no money and perhaps even less hope of fame, doing it mostly just for the love of it. What makes this late-July rehearsal different is the drama behind the drama being played out under AXIS Theatre's black ceilings, inside of its dented, dark green walls, and in front of its 68 red seats. Brian Klaas, AXIS artistic director--the guy behind the music stand--has chosen Angels in America, Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize--winning "gay fantasia on American themes," as the opener of AXIS' seventh season, which starts Sept. 10. It's roughly akin to the Orioles starting the year with a tripleheader. Against the Yankees.

Logging in at nearly seven hours in length, (AXIS will perform the play in halves, except for two in-toto Sunday performances, Oct. 18 and Nov. 1), with eight hyperemotional acts and 270 pages of dialogue, Angels in America explores in tense, almost soap-operatic fashion such troublesome facets of American life as AIDS, racism, persecution--and the quaint notions of citizenship and responsibility. Kushner's play, which opened on Broadway in 1993, may occasionally preach, but there's no question it's big and supercharged--not to mention expensive and time-consuming to produce.

Which is why most larger theaters shy away from it, and why small stages on tight budgets don't even consider it. And why AXIS, a favorite among a small group of adventurous Baltimore theatergoers, hopes this production becomes its defining moment.

"Angels is the only play that could take us to the next level," Klaas says. "If we don't start getting a [larger] audience now, we may never get one." A bigger regular crowd would mean more subscribers, larger productions, some cash reserves, eventually maybe a new playhouse and union wages for actors. But that's down the road--if the play sells.

"Of course," Klaas adds, "if the show bombs, it could kill us. But we all have to take risks."

AXIS' risk includes a $28,000 budget for Angels--about what the theater generally spends on an entire season--and a rehearsal schedule that began June 6 and runs four or five days a week until the show opens Sept. 10. Performances continue until Nov. 8, meaning the theater's total time commitment to Angels adds up to five months, twice as long as for most shows.

"The response from the theater community to our doing Angels has been great," Klaas says. "But that doesn't mean we don't worry that we've bitten off more than we can chew."

Enjoying a Thai lunch a month before the show is slated to open, Klaas manages a smile after uttering those words. "I can't show any of that," he says. He means anxiety. "I'm the one who has to stay calm amidst all this, act like I'm in total control of all the details. The last thing I want to do is make the actors panic. I may be roiling inside, but I don't want anyone to see that."

In other words, amidst all the nervous anticipation surrounding AXIS' decision to take on what Klaas characterizes as the largest piece "in size and scope" in American theatrical history, there's also the work to do. There's a play to produce.

Director's Notes

Under the lights, including the ones that can't decide whether to work or not, the play is "blocked"--the movements on- and offstage edited and sketched out. The director corrects an actor's pronunciation of "appellate." As a cast member purposely overemotes after the rehearsal of a wrenching near-death scene--acting out as a way of release--the director jokingly tells an appreciative cast, "No mime!" The production's dramaturge, whose job it is to research the history and context of a play and its subjects, tells the actor portraying redbaiting gay lawyer Roy Cohn that the archconservative was always a Democrat. "Go figure," she says. One of the rehearsal's props, a hideous orange chair, becomes "the comfy chair," a reference to an old, oft-aped Monty Python skit.

Having spent nearly two months on the show now, AXIS' Angels crew is developing an internal energy all its own: a desire to get things right, coupled with a camaraderie wrought from the emotional, sometimes physical intimacy demanded by Kushner's script--not to mention the utter anxiety of learning hundreds of lines and motions.

As the actors take a break, escaping to a faint breeze outside, next to a light-rail stop, cigarettes are on everyone's lips, save those of the very pregnant dramaturge, Joan Weber. Most actors have pieces of the script with them--they are still learning their lines due to the sheer volume of Kushner's verbiage. Talk is cheerful during the respites and the cast members toss jokey barbs at each other, but there is an undercurrent of unease.

Mark Bernier, an AXIS associate producer and the actor playing Cohn, says there's nothing unnatural about that unease. "There's always this"--he pauses and looks away--"excitement about theater, but maybe a little fear mixed in. I'm writing in my journal things like 'anxiety' and 'controlled anxiety.' But it is under control."

"But it is overwhelming," interjects Patrick Martyn, a real-estate lawyer by day who by night is inhabiting Louis, Angels' conflicted leftist who leaves his AIDS-infected lover. "There are times during the day when it comes to me. I think everybody's very jittery about what's going on. The prospect of failure is very real. But that's just part of the excitement."

Other, more minor worries also nag at the actors. Stephen Antonsen, who portrays Cohn's closeted lover Joe Pitt, fears the understudies might not be getting enough rehearsal time. And associate producer Bernier is concerned that the theater's new central air conditioning might not be ready by opening night.

But though the actors suffer the stress of plowing through as many as 40 pages of dialogue per rehearsal, the cast agrees wholeheartedly that Klaas and his calming approach make their jobs easier.

Randolph Hadaway, who plays Prior, Louis' former lover, says Klaas won't "fall apart," so the cast won't either. "It's just not going to happen," Hadaway says.

Klaas talks to actors sotto voce, raising his voice only when needed to demonstrate the way a character might say something. His collaborative approach not only makes rehearsals run smoothly, his actors say, but allows the players to grow into their parts.

"Brian doesn't spoon-feed you," says Antonsen, who is also the facilities manager at Center Stage. "He talks to you about your character on the artistic level much more than on a technical level. He trusts his actors to get the job done. It becomes a two-way trust. There are times when I don't agree with him, but I know from working with him that the end result is always right."

Klaas often asks actors to emphasize some lines over others. At other times he explains what he sees as a character's motivations, or quietly discusses Kushner's intent. Some directors loudly tear down players who don't give the portrayals the director wants; others distractedly stalk the fringes of a rehearsal space and bark commands. Klaas' approach is considerably toned down.

"Brian has a vision and you know that going in," says Bethany Brown, an AXIS regular who plays Hannah Pitt, Joe's Mormon mother, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, among other Angels characters. "But he's also very respectful of actors. Considering he's a nonactor, that's amazing."

Klaas says he's learned to talk with performers rather than order them around "simply because I don't have all the answers, or all the ideas. It's important to bark if people are fucking around, wasting time--you can't be afraid of corralling them. But it's important to create an environment where people feel safe enough to do anything."

Angels in America certainly calls for actors to do all kinds of things. Klaas' sensitivity is much valued by his actors during scenes that call for them to portray moments of greatest intimacy, such as when Brown's uptight Hannah experiences the loudest of orgasms (to the whoops and hollers of the rest of the cast members, who are in the theater's red seats awaiting their turns) when kissed by the Angel (played by Mary Anne Angelella), or when Hadaway's Prior has sex in a nightclub with Martyn's Louis. ("This scene ought to get everyone's attention," Martyn says sheepishly before pulling his pants down and bending over.)

Some scenes require negotiation and reconsideration. Angels' most technically difficult moment might be when Louis is asked to "say the Kaddish," a Hebrew hymn sometimes used as a mourner's prayer, to the dying Cohn. Louis doesn't know how to read Hebrew, but Ethel Rosenberg's ghost helps him, uttering the lines behind him. The problem is, Martyn's back is to Brown, so there are no visual cues they can send to each other. "I need some kind of mnemonic device," Martyn says. Brown, meanwhile, says she hopes the two will click into some kind of rhythm.

On top of this problem, neither actor knows any Hebrew. In his script, Kushner wrote the words out almost phonetically, but without phonemes, "so we don't know if 'a' is a hard 'a' or a soft one," Martyn says. "There are no accents either."

While he and Brown each had tapes made of Jews reading the Kaddish--one from a local funeral home--there's another issue: whether Kushner intended Louis to say the letter 't' with a 't' sound, or as an 's' like Ethel does in her Russian dialect. Before a rehearsal in early August, Brown and Martyn have a minor tussle over pronunciation. Klaas intercedes, saying Ethel can keep her 's' while Louis should pronounce it as a 't' "because it's more modern," Klaas reasons. "It's a generational thing."

Martyn is visibly relieved. Another drama averted.

But is it a cop out or a compromise? "Is he doing it because [having the different pronunciations] is a good idea?" Kahlil Joseph Lowry--who plays Prior's nurse, a former drag queen named Belize--asks. "Or, is he doing it to keep things moving forward and keep everyone together? Well, both. Brian's got an intelligent answer for it on both ends."

First Acts

Klaas, 29, a California-bred, Jesuit-educated son of a Hewlett-Packard engineer, first took up directing as a student at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which he attended to study English and literature. There he met a mentor, a teacher named William Francisco, who directed Wesleyan's theater productions. "He had this great visual sense, a real painterly way with the stage," the mild-mannered Klaas recalls. "Unfortunately, he'd be nasty and bark at his actors."

At Wesleyan, Klaas also met Jon Lipitz, a theater major from Pikesville who enjoyed Klaas' senior thesis: Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors produced in the style of a Warner Bros. cartoon, with broad physical humor. "It was brilliant," Lipitz recounts. "It was also nice to know somebody else who was as serious about theater as I was."

The two kept in touch during Klaas' internship at Seattle Repertory Theatre, where Klaas found another mentor in Doug Hughes, son of actor Barnard Hughes and the theater's associate artistic director. "From him," Klaas says, "I learned how to create this sense of intimacy with actors." When the internship ended, Klaas had little idea what to do next; he called Lipitz, who suggested he fly to Baltimore.

Since college, Lipitz had been an extra at Center Stage ("I moved furniture around," he says) and had acted in some community theaters. "But I never got the professional training I needed," he says, "and I wondered how I would get it."

Klaas remembers naively entertaining Lipitz's offer in 1992. "Jon was the only person I knew here," he says. "He said we could start a theater and not knowing any better, I said, 'Why not?'" From the start, Lipitz says, the two decided to create separate and distinct jobs for themselves within what would become AXIS Theatre. "I talked to everybody in Baltimore theater who had failed," Lipitz, 30, says. "They all said that in their theaters there was never a clear enough delineation of the duties of the artistic director and the producing director, that the split was too small."

Klaas took control of the artistic side while Lipitz, with the title of producing director, handled the fund raising and marketing. There would be no collaboration within each area. "I let Brian go ahead and put his [aesthetic] stamp on AXIS," Lipitz says. (Neither Lipitz nor Klaas draw paychecks or stipends from AXIS. Lipitz cites a current "three-year window" for working pro bono while trying to increase AXIS' audience. Klaas holds a job in computer-systems design--in which he is self-taught--at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. "I'd rather the [theater's] revenue be returned to the artists and designers," he says.)

Klaas stuck with what he had admired in theaters elsewhere. "I found myself drawn in Seattle to things that can stretch the notions of time and space in a way that only theater can," he says. "If we did the classics, we'd be just like everybody else." AXIS would go on to produce quirky and provocative plays by lesser-known American writers such as Mac Wellman, Lee Blessing, Nicky Silver.

But in 1992 there was still the small matter of getting the show up and running. Lipitz's family chipped in the bulk of the $35,000 needed for start-up and to get through the first season. Lipitz's uncle, developer Howard Brown, donated an old carriage house on Morton Street near North Avenue and Charles Street. But the headaches familiar to anyone who has tried to start a theater began to pound on AXIS' temples. The carriage house, it turned out, had an unsalvageable roof and intransigent co-owners who didn't want a theater company to move into the building.

With those hopes dashed, Lipitz and Klaas decided to move into Meadow Mill, a 200-year-old former sailcloth plant under the Jones Falls Expressway that also once housed a London Fog raincoat factory. "It was pretty much a shell," Klaas remembers. "There was a wood floor, four columns, and exterior walls--and that was it. The stage area was unlevel because of warping from floods." Early fall was marked by the the incessant buzzing of saws and the pounding of nails as AXIS' crew constructed the stage, risers, and dressing rooms. "We basically had to build the thing from ground up," Klaas says. A 12-hour trip in a U-Haul to an old movie house in the far reaches of West Virginia netted the theater's seats.

By mid-October, AXIS was ready to go, with a production of David Hirson's La Bete. The show was forced to close after one night due to a rights conflict, but a successful "backers' audition" (a final rehearsal which people can attend and make financial contributions) had netted the theater $8,000.

Klaas chalks the experience up as a lesson learned, but his bitterness over it is still evident. La Bete's publisher pulled AXIS' rights , he says, because Washington, D.C.'s Source Theater was going to mount the play later that year (Klaas explains that publishers don't like to endanger a production's success by allowing another company in the same region to do the show). "I called Source and asked their artistic director to grant us a waiver," Klaas says. "I told them, 'Look, we're a new theater company and we're going to go under if we can't do this. We won't be taking any [patrons] from you.' And [the artistic director] answered--and I'll never forget this--'You're a little fish that just got swallowed by a bigger fish. Deal with it. I have nothing further to say to you.' So much for camaraderie in the arts."

Since then AXIS has conducted six seasons, each more financially successful than the last, while gaining a small yet faithful following and semiregular critical raves. The theater hasn't been faced with an especially daunting challenge since that first tricky season. Until now.

Actors and Their Roles

Allyson Haley is responsible for the "comfy chair." She is also responsible for providing dialogue when an actor calls out, "Line!"--an appeal for some help in jogging the memory. The eight cast members are as much Haley's charges as Klaas'--or so the actors believe. "She's our house mother," Mark Bernier says. "She's a godsend," Bethany Brown adds. "She's got this maternal thing going for her. Plus she's got the projecting voice that can cut through the noise when she yells, 'Quiet!'"

Haley, 35, is Angels in America's stage manager, a thankless job that earns no applause, only a small stipend and the intangible rewards that come from being part of a show. In addition to making the actors feel at ease, even enthusiastic, and helping when they forget or flub their lines, it is the job of Haley and her crew to make sure the cast has a jug of water and to see to it that props are ready.

"What I want Brian to think is that he can take care of coaching the actors because I've taken care of the rest," says Haley, by day a crisis-intervention counselor in Baltimore City schools.

During a play's run, Haley's job becomes much trickier. Ninety minutes before a performance, she makes sure sound and light cues are ready and props and set pieces are in the right places. If any food or drink props are called for, she prepares them. After the curtain opens, Haley dons a headset in the production booth and directs her crew. The show doesn't start until all props are in place and the lights and sound are set--and until Haley gives the go-ahead.

For all of that, Haley knows what she calls her "mother-hen routine" won't make or break the play. "There's not much I can do to help the actors with what they're up against," she says. "All I can do is be consistent and give them a hug when they need it." Haley describes the Angels cast as "more focused than uneasy."

The players speak of "challenges" and "intensity." Many say their lives mirror Kushner's art in ways that help them develop their character portrayals. Donna Sherman, who plays Joe Pitt's long-suffering wife Harper, says she uses stress-inducing changes in her professional and personal life to deepen her rendering of the woman. Stephen Antonsen says that, like his character Joe Pitt, he too spent much of his life in the closet. "I lived the life of Joe," he says. "It's very easy for me to relate to him."

For others, the trick is in learning to play a different type of role than they are accustomed to. Randolph Hadaway, who plays the AIDS-stricken Prior, has appeared primarily in musicals and comedies, notably a string of local cross-dressing satires directed by Terry J. Long. "Put me in a skirt and high heels," Hadaway says, "and I know just what to do." But Prior, embittered by his disease and his abandonment by Louis, isn't exactly going to dance the night away. "You'd think that being a gay man, as I am, playing a gay man would be easy, but it's not," Hadaway says. "I've had to back off from Prior just to understand him. [Playing a serious role] is a huge challenge for me." He's responded by being perhaps his own worst critic, listening to tapes of rehearsals while driving around town as a courier, his day job. "There are a lot of times," Hadaway admits, "when what I hear isn't exactly how I wanted my lines to sound."

Brown's challenge has been to learn and research six roles at a time. She's read books on Mormonism in order to understand Hannah, visited the Lloyd Street Synagogue near Corned Beef Row to help her flesh out an Orthodox rabbi character, and "found a Russian" to use as a model for a third part. Despite this accretion of background, she says, "My task as an actor is not to overintellectualize."

Bernier's research for his part included reading Citizen Cohn, Nicholas Von Hoffman's biography of Roy Cohn.

Through all of the angst, effort, and excitement, the players talk up AXIS' atmosphere of "family" and risk-taking. "You get the feeling that what happens at AXIS is special,and that it's not being done anywhere else in Baltimore," Antonsen says. "That breeds a kind of closeness and purpose that an actor can't find elsewhere." They're certainly not doing this extremely hard work for the money: Each Angels actor receives a stipend of $750, which works out to $150 a month.

The Next Stage

Klaas and Lipitz know AXIS' future viability depends on increasing revenue. Small theaters might hang on for a while, the wisdom goes, but when times get tough, they're especially vulnerable. Baltimore's theater history is riddled with companies that started with high aspirations and ended with nonexistent bankrolls and dark stages.

But producing Angels in America is no foolhardy roll of the dice: AXIS' co-founders cite last season's opening production of Terence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion!, most performances of which were sold out, as an example of success with an ambitious show. Angels, they insist, will solidify and expand AXIS' audience.

Still, there are some clammy hands. "Our ticket sales went up 50 percent last year," Lipitz reports, "but on average only 60 percent of our seats were filled. That can--and will--get better, hopefully up toward 90 percent."

Lipitz says even without Angels, AXIS would be looking to make an upward thrust. "We've always had bigger goals than just creating good theater. Brian and I always thought we could make a living here. But more than that, right now we have to think that we have to move up or scale productions way back." Toward improving the theater's economic outlook, AXIS has raised its goal for annual private donations from $40,000 to $75,000 to match a rise in its overall operating budget from $85,000 last year to $150,000 this year. Klaas says the hope is that the many organizations that support AXIS--most notably the Abell Foundation--will be impressed that the theater has "undertaken this massive task" in producing Angels and will add more funds to their yearly grants.

By the year 2002, Lipitz says, he'd like to see AXIS working with $200,000 in operating funds, more than half of it from fund raising. He and Klaas also would like to expand the theater; they've entertained notions of renovating the space to fit in 26 more seats. And though Lipitz pooh-poohs the notion, Klaas keeps open the possibility of finding another space, perhaps in Charles Village or elsewhere in Hampden, when the Meadow Mill lease is up in three years.

If they meet their financial goals, Lipitz and Klaas plan to become paid AXIS staffers (the theater's current staff of 14 is all-volunteer) and would hire a full-time technical director as well. Another fiscal goal is to pay Actors' Equity union wages, which start at about $125 per week. "It's always in the back of our minds," Lipitz says.

The question is, Will Angels in America be the first big step toward achieving such lofty goals, or a horrible misstep that sends AXIS into retrenchment mode?

"AXIS is absolutely ready for this," answers Donna Sherman, who's seen the cutting-edge Action Theater, which she's been a member of for nine years, struggle to find a local audience. "I don't think there's any doubt that people will respond well to this play."

"This is how some theaters make their mark--by putting on a massive production and pulling it off," Klaas says. "Hopefully, the Baltimore community is ready for us to do it."

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