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Opening Up To a New Audience

Buck Jabaily and Philip Arnoult. Photo by Arianne Teeple
Buck Jabaily and Philip Arnoult. Photo by Arianne Teeple
The story behind Baltimore’s newest entry in the contemporary theater scene begins with two Hollywood actresses.

Philip Arnoult found himself drinking champagne one evening in Washington, D.C., with Cate Blanchett and “Indiana Jones” actress Karen Allen. Blanchett, Allen and Arnoult were toasting the Oscar winner’s performance in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at the Kennedy Center last summer.

The conversation turned to Arnoult’s own work when Allen told him that a friend of hers in Baltimore wanted to meet him because of his legacy of having founded the Theatre Project 40 years ago.

After a two-hour meeting with Jane Brown, the president of Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, the idea for a new theater that can tap younger audiences was borne – with backing from the Towson nonprofit.

Arnoult, 70, has partnered with J. Buck Jabaily, 27, a founding member of Single Carrot Theatre for the new venture. Baltimore Open Theatre will host regional, national and international theater and dance in the fall.

Arnoult and Jabaily are scouting for spots in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District and the west side that can hold the new theater. (See related story). Baltimore Open Theatre will have an initial $600,000 budget, including $50,000 in seed money from Robert W. Deutsch. The foundation also gave it a $150,000 challenge grant. Individuals and corporations will contribute the rest.

The foundation committed to the idea because it though that an internationally renowned theater veteran and an energetic 27-year-old was an “unbeatable combination,” Brown says.

Arnoult, who also runs the Center for International Theatre Development, will bring work from South America, Russia and Eastern Europe to Baltimore. 

“Wherever you go in the world, you can mention his name and he’s known as the best in contemporary theater,” Brown says of Arnoult. “If it can have an impact on young people going forward to revitalize our culture, we feel like that’s a great investment.”

Shows will be free and promoted via social media in an effort to draw younger fans to the theater, whose average audience member is middle age.

“What excites me is building a new audience by having the right mechanism for having a conversation about the theater,” Arnoult says.

He envisions hosting chatrooms where people can talk about performances before and after a show. Arnoult says he also imagines hosting mini-conferences to discuss whether Baltimore Open Theatre’s ideas can be replicated around the world. With the help of D.C. political scientist Blair Ruble, Arnoult hopes to establish the Institute for Arts in the City as a separate nonprofit.

The inspiration for tapping a younger audience comes from Arnoult’s travels and work in Eastern Europe with the Center for International Theatre Development.

“Eastern Europe didn’t lose their audiences,” says Arnoult, who says he believes it is because arts performances cost next to nothing there.

Ticket prices that cost anywhere from $20 to $75 is a huge barrier to drawing younger fans, Arnoult and Jabaily say.

“We have an opportunity to create a diverse and international audience,” Jabaily says.

Providing art on the cheap is especially crucial during a depressed economy, the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation’s Brown says.

“A lot of people can’t afford art in this economy and art is supposed to be raising our spirits.”

Instead of charging theater troupes to rent space, Baltimore Open Theatre will pay $6,000 to theater companies to host performances for a two-week run.

The theater will have a staff of about eight to start out and a 15-member board. It has selected four of those board members so far. They included activist and actor Jake Goodman, New York choreographer and director Barbara Lanciers and Christopher Ashworth, founder of Charles Village software firm Figure 53 LLC. It will also include Jabaily, who recently stepped down as executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance to start the new theater.

Brown says she expects Baltimore Open Theatre will shed a new spotlight on Charm City as a cultural mecca – just as the Theatre Project did four decades ago.

“When the Theatre Project was young, Baltimore was nationally known as an exciting place for contemporary theater.”

Photos by Arianne Teeple

Buck Jabaily and Philip Arnoult

Philip Arnoult

Buck Jabaily

Philip Arnoult and Buck Jabaily

Philip Arnoult and Buck Jabaily

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