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It's Child's Play

Jimi Kinstle plays Cyrano deBergerac, right, in the play Cyrano deBergerac
Jimi Kinstle plays Cyrano deBergerac, right, in the play Cyrano deBergerac

As fans of "Cinderella" know, turning into a pumpkin is something you wish to avoid. Baltimore theater stalwart, Jimi Kinstle, a "veteran of the boards" for more than 20 years, might disagree.

Kinstle is artistic director of Baltimore's Pumpkin Theater, a children's theater founded in 1967 (the same year Kinstle was born) by Sister Kathleen Marie Engers as part of the College of Notre Dame's Drama Department. Kinstle, whose resume includes the whacked out performances of the "Flying Tongues" 90's improv group, the one-man holiday play, "Dickens of a Carol," and the comically manic "Complete Works of William Shakespeare," is ideally suited to his new position, as this 40something, married-with-child president of the Baltimore Theater Alliance is still a bit of a kid himself.

"I started in August [2009] at Pumpkin Theatre and learned about the rich history of this company�everyone I talk to seems to have a 'Pumpkin' story�they've worked here, brought their children here, school groups and summer programs held here, I hadn't realized how deep the roots of this theater run in the community.

"I've embraced my love for children and children's theater; when I was at the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival [Kinstle was Artistic Director for BSF, 2000-2008] I had the opportunity to train the next generation of actors. I now have even greater access to do that as the children we bring into the theater are about four to 10 years old and for many, it is their first theater experience, and what I hope will be a long tradition for them," Kinstle says.

Behind the scenes

For Kinstle, an actor, director, and producer who switched his major from mass communications to drama at Towson University in the mid-1980s ("I was going to write commercials, but I always ended up being the talent in everyone else's films and shows"), theater is not merely a passion for the stage, it's a way to succeed in life.

"There are so many lessons to learn, life lessons, in watching and engaging in theater. The kids learn about characters, consequences, moral values; it helps in team building, public speaking, skills that can be a positive force no matter what field they go in. And then they become donors," Kinstle adds with a wry lilt in his voice because, without the dollar, the curtain cannot rise.

It's an issue Kinstle is working hard to overcome as the Baltimore Theater Alliance's (BTA) president, a position he accepted in January 2009.

"Our goal last year was that no theater in the community would go under, and we were successful in that goal. But it was a rough year financially for most because it comes down to membership and foundation funding and both were down dramatically," he says.

Kinstle hopes that by bringing Baltimore's artistic theater leadership together, a solution may be found through "best practices, cooperative marketing, and very simple things like ad trade programs�you put your ad in my theater's program, and I'll put my ad in yours. We need cost cutting measures; advertising together, we can get bigger ads and more notable splashes. We want to find ways to market to subscribers and patrons, how can I sell a ticket to my show that can serve as a discount to see your show? Most nonprofits have taken big hits and have zero expectations when it comes to foundation funding and must count anything that comes in from foundations as gravy," he says.

Community theater

Nevertheless, Kinstle predicts a "resurgence" of small professional theater companies in the next 5-10 years as Baltimore is already witnessing an "uptick in small independent theater companies finding their own space, like the Strand and Single Carrot, going beyond just forming companies as we saw in the 80s and 90s, but actually getting theaters, which is a big step," he says.

For Kinstle, his passion for theater is grounded in his desire to better his community.

"I'm getting to that 'second tier'-- being a mentor to younger people in theater, and I want to give back to the community. I really want to make this a better place for my child and for future theater goers, those both on stage, offstage, backstage. Theater has grown so greatly in the past 20 years and we are primed to make a huge leap locally and I want to be part of that," he says.

Mike Schleifer, production manager at Center Stage and a colleague of Kinstle's since the early 1990s, acknowledges Kinstle's interest in his adopted town.

"Jimi's from Florida originally, but has been in Baltimore since school and he's chosen to stay. He loves the city and has certainly been a great champion of Baltimore theater. He recognizes the value of incorporating theater into the community and community into theater�it's symbiotic. He's got a really strong feeling for education, educating the next generation of theater artists and theater goers. I think his passion for community came first and that makes him a better artistic director as he tries very hard to make theater more accessible.

"He has no shortage of energy�Jimi's also inventive, imaginative and resourceful� tireless as a producer, dramaturge, actor, director. And due to his energy and longevity in Baltimore, he knows everybody, and that's critical in that (BTA) leadership role," Schleifer says.

"When I first met him, he was that guy from Flying Tongues," recalls local playwright and theater manager for the University of Baltimore, Kimberley Lynne. "First time I saw him was in a Tongues show at the Theater Project, and he just blew our minds. Things haven't been the same since. Changed everything, but in a very good way�Jimi's very much about community. It is a very honorable responsibility to bring arts to a community, and he knows that," she says.

As for his role as BTA president, Lynne believes Kinstle faces "an uphill battle, as theater has a tendency to be 'silo-ed'�the professional theaters don't talk to the community theater companies�we're all in our little groups and bringing everyone together is a great challenge, and Jimi's striving to do that. Jimi believes a rising tide floats all boats, that we really should not compete against each other. Instead, we need to partner with each other to better serve the public," she says.

The second act

While Kinstle admits that acting is "definitely my first love, then directing," he finds he has a special enjoyment when it comes to producing theatrical works.

"Producing is one step removed; with acting and directing, you are still engaged in the actual product. But with producing, there's great pride in letting other people create, watching others put their vision on stage," Kinstle says.

As Kinstle talks you can sense that he has a certain ennui about entering this "second tier" --acting less, mentoring and administrating more -- as he continues to relish roles like Cyrano in "Cyrano de Bergerac," Frank N. Furter from "Rocky Horror," Iago in "Othello" ("I had a BALL doing 'The Complete Works{of Shakespeare},' that was just FUN!" he relates), but the sheer joy Kinstle expresses in helping young people achieve on stage cannot be denied.

"My advice for young people is to play the truth, don't play the comedy�If you think you're being too loud, you're not�speak up. It's mostly about helping them find the honesty of what's going on, not commenting on it, playing the height of a character's intelligence. I give them the 'Married with Children' analogy�Al Bundy said stupid things, but he thought he was saying smart things, and that's funny. Other people's pain is our comedy. When Ross from 'Friends' gets hit in the face with a dryer, that's funny to us, but not to him, so you have to play the truth of moment," he explains.

"In doing 'Dickens of a Carol,' I had a mother and her daughter, a peer in the community, come to see the show one day. The daughter was one of the kids who came through the BSF teen performance program and was now a freshman in college in Chicago. After the performance, her mother took me by the shoulders and said, 'Jimi, I can't thank you enough for what you've done for my child. You made such an impact on her and helped guide her to where she needed to be.' That's the ultimate payoff, that's why I do it. Theater can change people's lives," Kinstle says and he's proof that it's true.

A communications professional for over 25 years, Dan Collins has been a reporter, features writer, editor and columnist since 1984, including stints with The Washington Times and the Times Publishing Group and The Baltimore Examiner in Baltimore. His freelance writing career has included his work for the Beacon newspaper as well as other publications including Baltimore Magazine.

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