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Playing their part -- Baltimore's Theater Masterminds

Melissa Hickle, Board President for the Mobtown Players - Arianne Teeple
Melissa Hickle, Board President for the Mobtown Players - Arianne Teeple

The Power of Theater: Melissa Hickle

Melissa O'Brien, 30, is a member of the Gilded Lily Burlesque troupe. It's a natural progression perhaps from the clown she portrayed in Pinocchio in "the second or third grade," but to categorize Hickle as one who plays theater just for laughs is a mistake.

"I was in an improv acting troupe in high school called 'Foollproof' where I learned the power of theater. It wasn't a comedy improv, it dealt with serious issues that students were going through. We did presentations at drug rehab centers. It was kind of scary, you're doing these reflections on people's lives and people would really get worked up. It was cathartic experience for them. I saw then what theater could do, beyond just a 'nice little musical,' and that stayed with me," O'Brien says. 

A native of Carroll County, Hickle is board president for Mobtown Players. She'll also direct the first show of next season, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, by Alan Ball.

"I want it to be a place that welcomes new artists, new technical people, to be community theater in the truest sense, where everyone is welcome. When I was in the Western Maryland College theater department, it was small, so you couldn't just be an actor, you had to learn other aspects of theater -- stage management, costume design, lighting, so I was encouraged to try those things and I want to bring that spirit to Mobtown," O'Brien says. 

O'Brien particularly appreciates the variety and spirit of Baltimore theater, "the different kinds of performances, what you see on North Avenue, Load of Fun, people are always trying new things. We have the established community theater, the Everyman, Center Stage, but there are also these little groups like Glass Mind Theater, which did some shows at Mobtown last year. I want Mobtown to be an established theater, but with a community spirit, involved in the nearby Hampden community. I like the things that are being done creatively and artistically in Hampden and want to be part of that whole scene," she says.

Next season, Mobtown will present staged readings of new works by local playwrights in anticipation of full productions of those plays.

"That's unusual for a theater to do, to be workshopping a play on a Friday and then see it the next night, to get the feedback and keep the cast and the playwright working on it," she says.

Dynamic Dramatist: David D. Mitchell

David Mitchell has a cool and relaxed air, but that's deceiving. The man is in fact a two-legged dynamo.

An actor, writer, and managing director for Run of the Mill Theater, which performs at the Baltimore Theater Project on W. Preston Street. He lectures at Morgan State University's Arts Department; founded the non-profit educational theater organization, Project PLAY (Put Life Ahead of You) in New York; works with Young Audiences of Baltimore; and has amassed an impressive theatrical resume, including an MFA from The Actors Studio at The New School for Social Research as well as further training with The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre.

Whew! And it all started with Oliver Twist.

"It was my first play. I was in the 6h grade -- Oliver Twist, go figure! A local high school was putting on the play and needed orphans and I fit the bill. I don't do musicals anymore," he says.

While Mitchell strides the boards when needed, he spends most of his time "directing, producing, set making, light design. I really like creating the space for other individuals to work their craft. There's really not a lot of space available to artist these days to spread their wings, fall, trip, stumble and get up again, but they can do that at Run of the Mill," he says.

Mitchell admits that his goal of cultivating emerging artists and approaching established works that aren't regularly produced "is easier said than done," as "ultimately you have to turn a profit. Only 10 to 15 percent of revenue is ticket sales, so that means fundraising, begging for money from state institutions and private foundations. It's a constant grind, so I'm wearing multiple hats. I hustle."

He isn't ready to take a bus out of town yet, but he might jump on the MTA for creativity's sake.

"We're working on the North Avenue plays, first time in Baltimore, all stories created based on life on North Avenue. We're going to have six to eight playwrights and put them on the beginning of the North Avenue line, the No. 13, and by the time they reach the end, they'll have each crafted a play," Mitchell says of the project performed during Artscape.

Playwrights met at the corner of Wolf and Monument Streets, rode the bus, and then met the directors with whom they'd been paired by blind draw. Together each team rode the bus again for one-and-half trips before heading to Load of Fun studios at 120 W. North Avenue.

"Everyone gets off the bus, meets the actors and they all have a first read of the plays just created; there's a rehearsal the next day. Any play that we do, we like that connectivity to the community, to find some way to involve and engage Baltimore," Mitchell continues.

Sherrionne Brown: Independent Entertainment Professional

Sherrionne Brown's "LinkedIn" profile includes an intriguing description -- "Independent Entertainment Professional."

Chattiing with Brown, it's clear this seemingly cryptic title is accurate, as she's a woman of independent thought, entertaining character, and a true professional in her art.

She's also a woman of many talents. Brown, who attended the Texas Academy of Art, once spent her days applying paint to canvas, a process that taught her something about herself that has served her well as one of Baltimore's more innovative directors.

"Why directing? I like to be able to see the big picture and tinker with it. I was a painter for many years, and when you paint, you often stop and stand back, and look at the 'big picture.' As an actor, I would sit on the side and watch and want to tinker with the play, give suggestions to help the actors, to find just the right music or lighting. I have this design background, so I like to play with the mood and the set, so as a director, I'm able to 'do the entire painting' so to speak," Brown says.

A native of Arlington, TX, Brown says she and her husband "immediately took to Baltimore," the feeling of "camaraderie and family which is different from working in D.C. where things are a little bit more cutthroat, perhaps?"

She arrived in Baltimore 11 years ago just after her husband who had come to town for "a temp job. He started auditioning for shows, including Come Back, Little Sheba, at the Spotlighters  I was visiting from Texas and went to his first read-through and the director asked me if I would read for one of the actresses who wasn't there. So I'm hamming it up as the young ingénue, and when we took a break, I was asked to play Mrs. Coffman, the German neighbor. So now I have to go back to Texas and get my stuff, then back to Baltimore in a moving van in a snow storm, took eight days. I park the car at our new home and go straight to rehearsal! That was literally my start in Baltimore theater," Brown says.

Brown admits she's "drawn to the classics," noting her involvement in local productions of such mainstays as The Lion in Winter and Gaslight.

"We're about to do A Doll's House at the Vagabond and I'm very excited about doing a classic piece -- to try and make it new. Not to modernize it, but to mine the characters for something that hasn't been seen before, to find a subtext," she explained.

Also, the scenic artist in residence at Cockpit in Court and on the board of The Spotlighers, Brown seems to take especial pleasure in creating interesting sets and stages on a limited budget, allowing her creativity to take over.

"Picnic featured a realistic set; I turned one of the poles at the Spotlighters into a tree. I try to do unexpected things, not just say, 'it's a black box, there's nothing you can do with it,' but to look at the possibilities, to create something visually beautiful. I worked with [local actor/set designer] Roy Hammond on set design for Night of the Iguana. We built a bridge and transformed the Spotlighters into a jungle. People walked in and just couldn't believe it," she says.

Not Enoughness: Rich Espey

Rich Espey looks a bit like a younger, auburn-haired version of Bill Nye the Science Guy. And that's only fitting, as Espey teaches science at The Park School in Baltimore.

However, there's more to Espey than Bunsen burners and pop quizzes. He's a two-time winner of the Carol Weinberg Award for Best Play at the Baltimore Playwrights Festival and recipient of an Individual Artist Award in Playwrighting from the Maryland State Arts Council.

How does Espey reconcile his two roles (actually, three – he's also an actor)?

"I try very hard to listen to students, and observe them, to hear what they have to say. Teaching is about them, not about the teacher at all. You'll be a better teacher if you listen to what young people have to say -- you can learn an awful lot," he says.

His most highly regarded play, Hope's Arbor, which ran at the Gallery Players in New York City in 2008 following its Baltimore premiere, was inspired by his day job.

"I recall a comment a parent made to me about her daughter -- it was striking, and so the whole play grew around this little kernel. I used it in the play," Espey says.

Espey also finds inspiration in news stories, random images, and through his participation in the Playwrights Group of Balltimore and The Playwrights' Gymnasium, a process-oriented workshop in Washington, D.C.

"In both groups we have experiences, issue challenges to each other, do free and prescribed writing, just 'right brain exercises' I call them. You do a lot of thinking ahead of time and whatever you were subconsciously thinking about comes out. Some of those exercises turned into shorter plays. There's no one source of inspiration; I take it wherever I can find it," he says.

A native of Baltimore, Espey stresses the importance of creating "an active network of playwrights" in Baltimore:

"I'm fiercely devoted to Baltimore and want to make it an even better place for theater, groups like Single Carrot which chose to come to Baltimore and make it their home. I can see a growth in the theater community and the arts which is one key to making Baltimore an even more successful place. So by helping theater companies or writing interesting plays that will bring people into the theaters and create a vibrant arts community, that's my goal." 

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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Melissa Hickle, board president, Mobtown Players - Photo by Arianne Teeple
Melissa Hickle, board president, Mobtown Players - Photo by Arianne Teeple
Melissa Hickle in the Mobtown Players production of Durang's The Actor's Nightmare - Photo by Jay Calvert
David D. Mitchell, managing director, Run of the Mill Theater, - Photo by Arianne Teeple
Sherrionne Brown, actress - Photo by Arianne Teeple
Sherrionne Brown plays Gertrude in Hamlet - Photo by Ken Stanek
Rich Espey, playwright - Photo by Arianne Teeple
A play written by playright Rich Espey - Photo by Arianne Teeple

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