A year into the pandemic, when most people were perfecting their sourdough starters, Ann Turiano and Makeima Freeland were working on a new recipe. Taking everything they loved about theater and resolving to eliminate what they found problematic, the duo created Sisters Freehold, “a non-profit social enterprise to train emerging artists.”
Sisters Freehold aims to be something distinctive from a theater company. Billing themselves as “fertile ground for something new,” their goal is to cultivate local artists as well as eliminate the barriers to a career in the theater.
Turiano and Freeland met at Notre Dame of Maryland University through a production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” that blended a cast of professional actors with students — an origin story that became the template of the Sisters Freehold model: The enterprise is built on the idea of co-mentorship between experienced and emerging artists.
Also born of the desire to enact actual change following the cultural reassessment that accompanied the country’s racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd, co-artistic directors Turiano and Freeland are passionate about being the gate openers, rather than gatekeepers, of Baltimore theater.
“Here in Baltimore, our stages don’t reflect the communities they want to serve,” Freeland said.
“We’re thinking really critically about people in Baltimore who want to do this who are not white,” Turiano added. “What, actually, are the barriers to success in this?”
Some of these barriers include the affordability of childhood dance lessons or arts camps, as well as the cost of theater tickets. “People don’t even have a chance to see where they fit in because they’re not exposed to it,” Freeland said. “I mean, it’s a luxury and everybody can’t afford that.”
Many theater artists who grow up with access to training ultimately migrate to towns offering the possibility of making a living in the industry. In Baltimore, a theater career is a labor of love. “In other places, you can actually have a family and a career and work in theater,” Turiano said. “What would it look like if we had a functional ecosystem in Baltimore theater? That would be transformational.”
The name Sisters Freehold is borrowed from the St. Mary’s City estate of Margaret Brent, North America’s original feminist. “Freehold” in property terms signifies total freedom of ownership and use; Brent’s land grant in the 1600s was the first made to a woman in Maryland, and she petitioned the state assembly for the right to vote because of it. Honoring her legacy, Turiano and Freeland seek to offer ownership of their theater to all and increase participation by changing the rules.
“That’s what this is all about, fair chances,” Freeland said. “I found my way in and now I’m here to open the gates for other people.”
Sisters Freehold debuted in November 2021 with “The Sleepover,” an online, interactive theater experience necessitated by COVID-19 and created with the help of the community. During the devising process, input was solicited from social media followers and performances took place on Zoom. The company’s first in-person performance followed in September 2022 with the Baltimore premiere of “Us/Them,” a show about how children process trauma.
Abigail Cady is the program director of Horticulture Playwrights Workshop, which originated at Cohesion Theater Company and now makes its home at Sisters Freehold.
Horticulture follows the co-mentorship model with two playwrights each year: one more experienced and one newer to the craft. “The idea is that the two playwrights can learn from one another,” Cady said. “The more experienced person can show these are the rules as they are, and the newer person can question why are these the rules? The push-pull from that, I think, makes both artists stronger.”
Over the course of the year, playwrights work with a dramaturg and a director to bring their work to life in a public staged reading. This season features readings at the Zion Church of the City of Baltimore on April 29 and 30 of “Fire Runners” by Sharea Harris, directed by Lauren Erica Jackson, and on May 13 and 14 of Julia Marks’ “Tofana,” directed by Katie Hileman.
Freehold Intensive for New Directors, or FIND, is a program launching in 2024 with a cohort of three directors and will closely follow the model of the playwrights workshop. “We want to train directors because directors now become artistic directors later,” Freeland said. “That’s a good pathway to the people in charge.”
“If we want to transform an industry, where do you start? You look at the leaders and how they got to where they are,” Turiano said. “We believe firmly that there should be a different way to get to become a leader and that could lead to a dramatic transformation in American theater.”
FIND will honor work and family obligations with a hybrid schedule, pay its directors to learn, and culminate in a networking showcase to launch new directors into Baltimore’s theater community. The program is the practical actualization of the Sisters Freehold value of redefining readiness.
The beginnings of FIND are already being enacted as Sisters Freehold starts production of its latest offering, “The Code Switch,” a world premiere from playwright Shakill Jamal. Résumés and headshots, the traditionally required staples for a career in theater, are not fundamental to the work that Sisters Freehold is doing, so the job posting for assistant director for the show said no prior directing experience was required and CVs were optional.
“We can perhaps treat it more like a craft,” Turiano said. “You don’t need to actually have the credentials, the degrees, have read the books, taken the classes. There is a pathway to readiness that doesn’t necessarily look like NYU or Towson or anything else.”
“Do you really think on the other side of the world — before it came all over here in Western culture — do you really think they cared if you had a résumé or not? No, they just wanted you to be a part of the experience,” Freeland said. “This is a collaborative effort. Who’s to say you can’t take part in this thing that thrives off of collaboration? That’s what theater is, that’s what it wants and that’s what it needs, and it has everything to do with everybody.”
“Code Switch,” directed by Raven Lorraine Wilkes, is slated to debut in July 2023. The show asks the question: If you’re enough as a person, why should anyone code switch at all?
Sisters Freehold is serious about living its values. Turiano and Freeland have zero hesitation about cancelling a production if it doesn’t align with the company’s values and, in fact, have already done so in their second year. Their avenue to growing audiences is by growing theater-makers. “The doing of it is what gets you to believe in it, so getting more people to do it will make more people believe in it,” Cady said. “If theater’s going to survive and continue in any meaningful way, we have to spread the gospel.”
Freeland, Turiano and Cady view Baltimore as fertile ground for cultivation. “We see ourselves healing theater in the city in a new way,” Freeland said. “We’re cultivating. We’re growing in our backyard. We’re here.”
Courtney Proctor is a Baltimore-based freelancer who covers the theater industry in the region.