Rain Pryor: Drought buster for Baltimore’s Strand Theater?
By Nelson Pressley,
BALTIMORE — You probably don’t know the Strand Theater Company in Baltimore. Tiny joint, converted storefront in the Station North area, 55 seats, just entering its fifth season.
The person who just took over leadership of the Strand might ring a bell, though. Rain Pryor, Richard’s 43-year-old daughter, is now running the ship.
And while Pryor is candid about volunteering “to pimp my name” to get the shoestring troupe a little more visibility, her theater bona fides are strong. Pryor is currently enjoying off-Broadway success with her solo show “Fried Chicken and Latkes,” an autobiographical monologue with jazz music featuring Pryor’s takes on her famous father, her Jewish mother, showbiz and more.
“Fried Chicken” was not a critical hit when Pryor took the Strand job for no money earlier this year. Jayme Kilburn founded and ran the Strand as a troupe focused on women’s issues and female artists, but moved on to other pursuits. Pryor, nudged by friends, applied and was hired by the cash-strapped company, which operates on just under $30,000 a year, according to new managing director Elena Kostakis (another new hire, also volunteering, for now).
In August, Pryor’s solo show got one of those business-boosting reviews in the New York Times, which called her a “robust, ebullient performer” with “an outsize presence built for Broadway.” According to Pryor, Broadway types have since popped in to inspect the show, which is currently running Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.
Meantime, Pryor is directing the opener of the six-show season she has chosen for her Baltimore company. The play, Dylan Brody’s “Mother, May I,” began performances Thursday.
So you could say it’s complicated right now for Pryor and the Strand.
Board President Aaron Heinsman says, “She’s a mother, an artistic director and a producing artist in her own right. She’s spinning a lot of plates. So far, it’s working out.”
“She’s a force of nature,” says Kimberley Lynne, theatre events coordinator at the University of Baltimore’s Spotlight UB Performing Arts Series, where Pryor has acted and directed several times. Lynne says Pryor is scheduled to direct Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” during the spring semester.
Underlining how hands-on the head of an emerging company with no staff or budget often has to be, Pryor greets a visitor with a shout-out from the scruffy theater’s bathroom, which she is scrubbing to a ship-shape shine.
“That’s the challenge,” the agreeable Pryor says repeatedly and in many contexts, sitting on the dining room-living room set of “Mother, May I” (which the company is billing as a “sad comedy”).
Pryor has actually been in Baltimore since 2006, when she fled Los Angeles. She had a book published that year, “Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love and Loss with Richard Pryor” (the place to look for details of that extremely complicated relationship). Richard Pryor, who suffered from multiple sclerosis in his later years, died of a heart attack at 65 in 2005.
“My dad died, and it kind of woke me up,” says Pryor, who inherited her father’s tight smile and warm, slightly surprised eyes. “I can stay here [in L.A.] and end up like those kids of celebrity parents. But something’s going happen. Somethin’. I don’t know, but sumpn’. L.A. kind of breeds that.”
She had some friends in Baltimore and found it affordable but still close enough to New York to stay connected to showbiz, even though she was backing out of a scene where she had enjoyed a measure of success (notably with ABC’s ‘Head of the Class” and Showtime’s “Rude Awakening”). Pryor is married to Baltimore policeman Yale Partlow, 34. They have a 4-year-old daughter, Lotus, who recently came to see Pryor’s show in New York.
“Now, she wants to direct me,” Pryor laughs. “I said, ‘What did you think of the show?’ She said, ‘It’s great. I think you need some new songs.’ ”
For a period, Pryor was a stay-at-home mom. Then she briefly taught theater to middle school and high school kids, an experience that she did not enjoy. (She blames the system, not the kids.) Then she got her courage together and tackled stand-up comedy — tough, Pryor says, because it isn’t natural to her (though she is funny, and creates characterizations lightly and easily in conversation). Inevitably, some audiences expect her to somehow naturally step into her father’s shoes.
“No, I’m still working it out,” she says. “I’m still new at this.”
The solo show — a monologue with songs that she has been working on for some time — is more comfortable for her, and she was thrilled by the critical reception.
“That was crazy. I cried,” she says with a gentle laugh. “I was like, are you sure they’re talking about me? Are you sure it’s not someone else’s show? . . . I was so afraid to have an off-Broadway run in New York. Doing festivals, it’s safe. No one really reviews a festival, and if they do, you don’t care. It’s a festival.”
The escalating attention comes with costs, starting on the family front. Pryor says that as the New York gig ramped up, her husband’s nervous response was, “What’s happenin’? What’s happenin’?” This is Pryor’s second marriage, and she colorfully dishes up her relationship tensions with a quiet, mock-melodramatic whine: “It has to work! I can’t do it agaaaiin! Especially with a chiiild!”
And for the Strand: Is Pryor’s rebooted performing profile a plus? Or is the drain on her time, which includes not only family but also some teaching and directing in Baltimore, too much added stress and distraction in a season that Kostakis describes as “pivotal”?
“That’s the challenge,” Pryor says.
The season she has planned includes locally grown material (Susan McCully’s “Inexcusable Fantasies,” Deletta Gillespie’s “What a Girl Wants”) and work from New York (Rock Wilk’s solo “Broke Wide Open,” scheduled off-Broadway next month), plus Pryor’s own play “Colorism” next spring. Kostakis wants to build the subscriber base with this slate, which expands on the previous Strand mission while keeping a focus on women.
Meantime, Pryor has been present in the neighborhood, strengthening the local connections. She refers to the shop owners around North Charles Street by first name; the Strand is a block north of the well-established Everyman Theater, which will relocate to a new space near Inner Harbor by January. (Station North is what you might call “transitional”; there are trees growing out of the upper floors of the derelict building across from the Strand.) Pryor says she’s been telling people, in a way that a theater’s neighbors aren’t always told, “Yeah, come. You might dig it.”
Still, running a company is a little different from the kind of self-producing Pryor has done before.
“I’m not a follower . . . I know how things should be run. I don’t care that this is 55 seats. I’ll still run it like it’s an Equity house,” Pryor says.
She makes no bones about the fact that things need to change soon for the Strand to move up. “Not to be selfish,” Pryor says slowly, considering, “but if this doesn’t bear the fruits of what I know it can in the amount of time I see it, then I need not be here. I want to see what’s going to happen. Again, when you enter something that someone was the founder of, and everyone wants change, but they don’t want change — it’s like Obama, That’s how I feel.” She laughs. “It’s like, ‘Great, you’re going to blame me for the budget, but I came in with no budget!’ ”
Yet she also sees the richness of the challenges, even as she unleashes a bitter “Ha!” that blows away any notion that the kids of the famous comic have a luscious trust fund to see them through. “We got left nothing,” Pryor reports, amending that to a small sum that came as a surprise. But she praises the work ethic, and credits the simple wisdom of self-help gurus:
“I have done what they said to do, and I have built this life here in Baltimore. And my show ended up off-Broadway. So I’m kind of like, ‘Oh, they were right. If you visualize it, and work toward it, and put action toward it every day, it can happen.’ ”
Mother, May I
by Dylan Brody. Directed by Rain Pryor. Through Oct. 12 at the Strand Theater Company, 1823 N. Charles St., Baltimore. Call 443-874-4917 or visit