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The Next Stage

Theater Seeks Funding to Live Up to Its Name

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 1/3/2001

Situation desperate, prospects brilliant." mAugust Strindberg employed this phrase more than 80 years ago. Sitting in his book-cluttered Mount Vernon apartment, Action Theater's 38-year-old artistic director, Tony Tsendeas, borrows the Swedish writer's sentiment to describe the future of the itinerant troupe he founded 15 years ago.

The brilliance, Tsendeas says, is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, his company's creepy, atmospheric stage version of the famous German expressionist film of the same name. Adapted by company member Robb Bauer and directed by Tsendeas, Caligari played to standing-room-only crowds during its summer-1998 run at Goucher College, and went on to receive City Paper's nod for Best Play of the year. Now Tsendeas would like to take the show on an international tour.

"We've got theaters in London, Paris, and the Netherlands who want Caligari," Tsendeas says. "At first we said we'd be there, but then we've had to call back and say, 'Look, don't count on this right now.'"

That's where the desperation comes in. Like most small theater groups, Action is chronically short on cash. Tsendeas says he needs $35,000 to $40,000 to get Caligari across the Atlantic. Much of this money is needed to convert the play's scenery--which includes 17-foot-high rolling walls--into a form than can be broken down and packed into shipping trunks. He also needs to replace the multimedia production's aged, clunky video- and slide-projection equipment with modern portable gear. "It's a difficult and frustrating situation to have these offers on the table, and have business and money problems prevent us from getting the production together," he laments.

The financial woes have led Action's creative team to one conclusion: After years of being an artist-run company, it's time to pass the administrative and fund-raising reins over to trained hands. A first step was taken five months ago, when the company hired a part-time development director. The goal for the new year is to establish a board of trustees for the nonprofit theater.

"To put it bluntly, we need philanthropists," Tsendeas says. "We need people who are connected to people who have money, or [who] have money themselves."

Action's emphasis on original works and what Tsendeas calls "popular avant-garde theater" may make the company's quest for financial backing problematic. "We are a harder sell" than more traditional troupes, he says. "We are asking philanthropists to back a slightly edgier pony. The type of work we're doing tends to be little bit more experimental and on the edge."

Action was founded in 1985, while Tsendeas was attending Towson State University. In 1987, the company merged with two other outer-edge dramatic groups and took on the name Impossible Industrial Action Theater (which was simplified back to Action Theater in 1997). Over the years it has staged works by David Mamet, Edward Albee, Caryl Churchill, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and local playwright Thomas Cole. Since 1994, it has also been visiting Maryland schools to perform a repertoire of youth-oriented plays--including Mondo Shakespeare, Tales From the Brothers Grimm, and Poe Live!--for thousands of students each year.

If Action's repertoire sets it apart from other local theater companies, so too does its interest in touring. In 1997, the troupe took its production of BeckettLand to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest theater festival in the world. During this month-long event, hundreds of theater companies descend on the Scottish city to showcase works. It can be risky move, as theater companies pay their own way to attend the festival--including leasing their own stage space--and hope to recoup expenses at the box office.

"We love Baltimore and we certainly want to be in Baltimore and present work here, but we wanted to measure ourselves by different standards," Tsendeas says of the Edinburgh trip. "We wanted to put ourselves in a different context and see how well we fared, and we wanted to expand the audience for Action."

The Edinburgh production of BeckettLand, an adaptation of five short Samuel Beckett plays, fared very well indeed, earning rave reviews (including five stars from one of the Scotland's largest papers, The Scotsman). London magazine The Stage nominated Tsendeas for a Best Actor award. The show's success led to relationship with a Dutch theatrical agent, and in 1999 Action took BeckettLand on a nine-city tour of the Netherlands.

"When we're on the road, we're being cultural ambassadors for Baltimore," Tsendeas says. "There were so many people that came up to me [in Europe] that said, 'So, you're from Baltimore?'--as if they thought Baltimore didn't have an arts scene. If a city wants to be a player in the world, it's important that people think of it as an exciting place rather than a cultural backwater. I just need to convince financial backers of this."

Action will be on the road again this August, taking BeckettLand back to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Tsendeas would rather return with Caligari, but the smaller, road-ready BeckettLand will cost only about half as much to get up and running overseas. Meanwhile, Action is developing four new productions, including a Tsendeas-written play, The Project. He describes it as an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion wherein "a black professor boasts he can turn any homeboy into someone who can present themselves as an articulate member of the educated middle class." Clayton LeBouef, a Center Stage vet who had a recurring role as Capt. Barnfather on Homicide, is interested in playing the professor, Tsendeas says.

As these new projects develop, the company will be present staged readings of the works through late spring, at roughly six-week intervals. The first such peek at the works-in-progress is scheduled for Feb. 24 at a yet-to-be named venue.

"It seems that if you don't have a full-scale production up and running people tend to forget about you," Tsendeas says. "We don't want that happen. And we hope our reading series will allow funders to get in on the ground floor and watch a production take shape."

For more information about Action Theater's staged readings, call (410) 523-6004 or check out www. actiontheater.org.

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