You can find them surviving against all odds in the vacant spaces of Baltimore City. In church basements, warehouses and abandoned storefronts, they subsist on scraps and inhabit the forgotten nooks and crannies, moving from place to place in search of viable conditions.
They are not Baltimore rats. They are its small theaters, existing in a liminal, unpredictable space between the city’s long-standing community theaters and its larger arts institutions.
Last year, as theaters emerged from the pandemic and attempted a return to normal, three of Baltimore’s small theater companies lost their permanent spaces. Stillpointe Theatre was asked to vacate its on home on Maryland Avenue because the building was being sold. Baltimore Shakespeare Factory launched a GoFundMe campaign to fund their 2023 season after their lease was terminated at St. Mary’s Community Center, a building equipped with a Shakespearean stage from the days when it housed the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. Rapid Lemon Productions’ lease with Motor House was terminated last year.
These three theaters joined the bulk of the city’s smaller theater companies, which are tasked with a constant search for suitable, affordable space. Securing venues can be a full-time job, and the money spent leaves little for companies to pay artists and staff. Even long-standing community bastions like Arena Players and Fells Point Corner Theatre face different but equal challenges in maintaining and updating their buildings. The quest to find, keep and maintain a theater is an ongoing struggle — and one that has only become more difficult since the pandemic.
When Single Carrot Theatre landed in Baltimore from Colorado in 2007, they settled in a rustic warehouse space called Load of Fun, which would later become Motor House. Before that transition in ownership, the ceiling leaked, the bathrooms could politely be described as sufficient, but the Carrots were able to afford an office, rehearsal space and a small storefront theater. From those humble beginnings, Single Carrot eventually graduated to a permanent home at Mr. James’ Tire Shop on North Howard Street. The expense of that space necessitated a “Save Single Carrot” campaign in 2018 that provided a temporary financial solution, but ultimately the Carrots decided to shift their mission completely out of the unaffordable home. COVID arrived shortly after and, in January 2023, Single Carrot announced it was closing for good.
In an impact report published this spring, Single Carrot reflected on its successes and the insurmountable challenges that led to its decision. In 2017, at the same time that monthly costs for the facilities were exceeding $6,000 a month, one of its top-grossing productions was taking place on a bus. “Promenade: Baltimore” was a collaboration with the Hungarian company Stereo Akt that put audiences on a vehicle touring Baltimore neighborhoods where planned improvisations blended with the city’s streets and inhabitants. It inspired the company to give up their permanent home and shift their mission to creating site-specific productions in various Baltimore spaces. A main driver of this decision was the desire to spend the money they were paying for their physical venue on their workers instead.
“We literally couldn’t stay at Howard Street,” said Single Carrot Artistic Director Genevieve de Mahy. “If we stayed, as soon as COVID hit, we would’ve closed.”
In the short period between leaving the space on Howard and being forced to cease operating during the pandemic, the new mission was successful, if challenging. “With a theater of Single Carrot’s size, we had the resources to find a space, but not always an ideal space,” de Mahy said. “Having enough advanced planning capacity to find the right kind of space became an issue.”
Rapid Lemon Productions’ Artistic Director Max Garner faced a similar problem. After the company received the email from Motor House exercising a right-to-terminate clause in their lease, Garner began an exhaustive search for available and affordable places to stage shows. Options such as rental houses and academic venues tend to be cost-prohibitive, and theater companies are often happy to rent their venues to other theaters to help pay their mortgages, but scheduling is a challenge. Nonetheless, Garner was able to mount a staged reading at Strand Theater Co. this year, and Rapid Lemon’s long-running “Variations On” play festival took place this June in MICA’s BBOX theater, which is available for rent to outside companies during the summer.
Even for theaters with large budgets, such as Baltimore Center Stage, making theater in a post-COVID world has been a new kind of challenge. Affordable ticket prices are essential to growing and keeping audiences, but those audiences have not returned in the same numbers, and smaller theaters don’t have the resources to accommodate the resulting rate increases and scarcity of space. A typical budget for a show for a smaller theater can range from $4,000 to $8,000, and even Single Carrot, a theater with the largest budget of the small theaters, struggled to keep its new mission of site-specific theater productions alive after COVID.
“The quest for affordable space has always been difficult,” de Mahy said. “But now doing something costs more money. Venues are trying to make up for lost time. Theater just doesn’t generate as much revenue as a concert or a karaoke night.”
Laura Malkus, Single Carrot’s development director and the board president of Fells Point Corner Theatre, wrote in Single Carrot’s impact report: “I have never seen a small theater so adept at institutional fundraising. We had a 90% win rate with grant applications. And still that extraordinary success resulted in barely enough to pay three full time staff in one year, let alone produce any theatre.”
The story of Baltimore’s small theaters and space struggles is an old one. Vagabond Players has existed for more than 100 years and occupied no fewer than eight different places before finding its home in Fells Point in a building that could be leased in the 1970s for $1 per month. Fells Point Corner Theatre was born in 1987 when two theaters that lost their venues combined and moved into an old firehouse on Ann Street. Founder Bev Sokal worked diligently with the city to secure funding to turn the building into the theater that it is today. Malkus continues that work in a fundraising landscape that is wildly different.
“Baltimore City’s funding sources have gotten narrower and narrower and narrower,” Malkus told The Baltimore Banner. “Center Stage started as a community theater group and it had passionate funders who helped them to grow and now, they [funders] want you to be at a level where they think you’re a safe bet before they invest that kind of money in you, so you’re not going to get there.”
The city’s grant for cultural spaces is paid as a reimbursement, so a small theater company would need a cash reserve in order to even consider applying. And not having a physical home can prevent smaller theaters from receiving funding to obtain one.
“There is still a psychological effect both for funders and for patrons that if you don’t have a space, you aren’t successful,” Malkus said.
Fells Point Corner Theatre has an unpaid staff and only started paying artists in the last five years, but part of its mission is to rent out its stage at an affordable rate to other theaters.
There is a real disconnect between the going rental house rates and the business of theater. To stay alive, small theaters must choose between paying for space or paying its people. And finding affordable space and available grant money requires the efforts of an unpaid volunteer doing the work of full-time staff. And yet, Baltimore’s theater artists continue to tirelessly produce theater in whatever space they can find, working for minimal stipends and modest profits that go directly into the next show’s budget.
Until they can’t anymore.
Single Carrot “closed because the structure of us ever being able to grow and be sustainable was never going to happen,” de Mahy said. “The philanthropic support and the financial support to let theaters and cultural institutions thrive don’t exist here [in Baltimore] and they all are funneled to the largest institutions disproportionately.”
Courtney Proctor is a Baltimore-based freelancer who covers the region’s theater industry.