By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010; E02
They wanted to change the world. They just weren't sure where to begin.
So the gang of idealistic University of Colorado theater students decided to vote for the American city to which they would move -- for most of them, sight unseen -- to create their own theater company. They had compiled a list of 50 contenders and winnowed them to five, based on variables such as cost of living and the level of local funding for the arts.
When the votes were counted, the winner was Charm City. And now, half a decade later, 10 of the transplanted kids from the Rockies are the performers and proprietors of one of the town's hottest troupes, an upstart company that's helping invigorate the theater scene and give Baltimore a needed reacquaintance with the art of possibility.
The company is called Single Carrot Theatre. Ensconced, as such outfits tend to be, on the threadbare edge of a downtown, in a funky former garage with a stage that was once a loading dock, the theater is one of those vital signs of youth-driven cosmopolitanism. It has brought to the city a chorus of new dramatic voices: Its trenchant current production of Will Eno's apocalyptic satire, "Tragedy: A Tragedy," taking place during a newscast in which the sun has set for the last time, is a prime example of the ensemble's desire to put on innovative work with socially relevant themes.
And the town is responding: Last year Single Carrot was named Baltimore's best theater company by the Baltimore City Paper. The success of the troupe, now finishing its third season, is an indicator of Baltimore's willingness to welcome untested artists who embrace the city's disheveled exuberance.
"I've always felt Baltimore suffers from an inferiority complex," says Rich Espey, a Baltimore science teacher and playwright who was so smitten with Single Carrot that he joined its trustee board -- after it finally established one. "It sometimes takes outsiders to point out we're a pretty good place."
You no doubt can find parallels for the trajectory of Single Carrot -- which regularly plays to 90 percent capacity in its tiny theater in the Load of Fun complex on North Avenue -- in many cities along the Eastern Seaboard. But something about the group's devotion to its adopted city speaks to a special brand of verve and sense of mission. Its name is derived from a saying by the artist Paul Cézanne: "The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution."
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Ah, to be young and a true believer! Brendan Ragan, a Single Carrot actor who also serves as the company's public relations director, says that he and the other Colorado students who hatched the company plan had concluded that given the limitations of Boulder, they needed to start fresh somewhere else. The main requirements were a place where the performing arts had room to grow and an audience eager to watch the progression. (Washington, for example, was considered and rejected because it had a too firmly entrenched hierarchy of theaters. Baltimore's theater establishment is essentially limited to the well-known Center Stage and the 20-year-old Everyman Theatre.)
"What was most important about Baltimore was that the art scene was on the upswing," Ragan says. "And that the current cultural climate here was not just warm to our coming, but really excited."
Still, trading the serene mountains for the streetscape of "The Wire" seems as if it could be an unnerving transition. Ah well, the young again! Out in Colorado the clear message was: That could be cool. As Ragan says: "Our friends and family were like: 'You know what? Go!' "
Go east they did, in a steady trickle, with ensemble members getting day jobs -- only the troupe's executive director, Elliott Rauh, is full time -- and doubling as members of Single Carrot's front office. For "Tragedy: A Tragedy," the cast includes the company's finance director, outreach director, production manager and board chairman.
"As an ensemble, we do all the artistic administration," says Rauh, as he leads a tour of Single Carrot's 2,500-square-foot headquarters. Behind the onetime loading dock is an all-purpose dressing room, storage area and executive suite -- meaning one overburdened desk in a cluttered corner. At the very back of the space is an uninviting but essential fixture of backstage: a free-standing toilet.
Bolstered by arts grants and the support of its audience, the company is striving to strengthen its roots even as it seeks to provide adventurous programming: The 2010-11 season includes works by relatively obscure writers, such as Andrew Irons, Gao Xingjian and Eric Coble. The most readily recognized dramatist on the roster is Paula Vogel, who'll be represented with a production of the fairly widely performed "The Long Christmas Ride Home." But even with a Pulitzer Prize, she hardly qualifies as a household name.
"One of the positives about us is that we have 50 seats. We don't have to start by saying, what's going to be a moneymaker?" says Ragan, who's taking a leave from the company to pursue a master's in theater at Florida State University.
Rauh adds that by keeping prices low -- $20 is the most expensive ticket -- the troupe has been able to run at near-capacity. Having secured a niche, he continues, Single Carrot is now hoping to find a slightly larger space. More income would permit the company to put more members of the ensemble on the payroll; grants contributing to next season's $215,000 budget are allowing Single Carrot to give part-time wages to a development director and education director.
What hopefully will remain constant is the grass-roots bonhomie the company engenders. On a recent evening, a ticket to "Tragedy" in Single Carrot's black-box space entitled you not only to the incisively staged, 90-minute production, but also to a complimentary beverage, dispensed from a box of wine at the front door. After the show, many playgoers lingered on the street in front of the theater, to talk some more. The breeze was warm, and so, apparently, was the crowd's reaction.