Photos by Jack Sossman
In recent weeks, it has become clear to this Baltimore native that an art form often overlooked in contemporary urban scenes is re-burgeoning in his hometown. Theater and other performing arts once thrived in this city. Baltimore’s architecture makes that evident: a number of Charm City’s neighborhoods contain slowly decaying theaters which, decades ago, were abandoned or converted in favor of other forms of entertainment. Recently, however, it seems that Baltimore arts communities’ DIY spirit has spread into the ancient tradition of performance. The resounding success of Valhella, the Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s interpretation of the Norse myth, Ragnarok, is a clear example.
Even if rock opera or metal music wasn’t necessarily their thing, the BROS’s coordination and implementation of materials for costuming, set design, and audio/visual presentation was met with constant cheer-laden applause from enchanted audiences, even garnering sold out performances and repeat attendees. The popularity of such a production had me wonder what else this city has in store for theater. Incidentally, I had to look no further than my own neighborhood watering hole, Dionysus, for the answer. A night of barstool banter introduced me to Alex Hacker, a part-time bartender and full-time playwright who will soon make his theater debut. His play, “This Bird’s Flown: A Travesty of Antiquity,” is based on the Trojan War, and will premiere at the newly renovated Yellow Sign theater.
I was floored by Alex’s success in ambition: among the myriad production companies cropping up, I’d never heard of anyone writing his own play and seeing it through to production. I never thought I’d meet a writer/director/actor (short of John Waters) in this city. Granted, Alex’s unasumming candor has no trace of such prolific standing or any of John Waters’ eccentricities, but it may actually be that humble disposition that helped him find his niche here as a DC/Virginia transplant. Intrigued by his motivations and filled with questions on just what it takes to not only write and put on a play, but also to Do It Yourself, I sat down with Alex to hear his thoughts on a widening avenue of art in the Baltimore Renaissance: a theater performance revival.
How long would you say you’ve been a writer?
Alex: Since I was fifteen. I was writing poetry back then (both laughing) That’s where it began.
How long have you been in Baltimore?
Alex: Four years.
And where were you before?
Alex: Northern Virginia, DC, and College Park. I went to school there for a while. And a lot of this play comes out of that. I was a musician in DC, played in a handful of indie-rock bands. Then in my mid-twenties I decided it was time to go to school and I wanted to focus on writing but didn’t want to go into a writing program. I just thought my time would be better spent doing something in a foreign language and something in literature. Somehow I ended up doing Greek and Latin and getting a Classics degree. And when I was done with that I realized it kind of fucked with my head in a way, because doing that stuff and then trying to write after you’ve spent four years enmeshed in all the classics, which are too often put on pedestals, as a writer is was bad for me… It took a while to get over that. I mean, it’s been ten years now and it’s taken that long for me to actually treat this material the way I’ve treated it in this play, which is pretty irreverent. People look at that stuff like it’s untouchable and that’s just wrong. I just wanted to fuck with it and play with it.
What made you want to be a playwright?
Alex: Oh shit, you want to go there? (both laughing) Well first, I always wanted to be a writer, but I never really thought of playwriting. But then when I moved to Baltimore a few years ago I was writing fiction, for myself mainly. Well, not just for myself, with the idea of doing something with it, but without the structure to work within. I was writing stuff and leaving it off and going back to it. And then my friend Mason Ross cast me in the UnSaddest Factory’s 10-Minute Play Festival a couple years ago. I acted in that and a friend saw it and said I should do more acting. That got me involved in a show at the Strand theater, just a bit part, and then they were doing another play that I read and loved and so I auditioned and got the part I really wanted. So one thing led to another and it just started making sense to me, the whole infrastructure of the theater and what it provides. I mean for me, I can be hard on myself and lose motivation, and for this play having people like Craig Coletta at the Yellow Sign being so supportive after writing a short play with them [last] December, to go and say, I want to do a full length play in May, I’ll have it written by March and being given that kind of timeframe I knew I had to actually get this written and that helped a LOT.
Do you feel like the infrastructure of theaters revolving around a deadline is what helped?
Alex: In some sense, I mean you know the show must go on. But also in terms of just working with other people and getting them involved. It’s just more rewarding in a way than sitting in your room writing all day. Knowing some of the people who would be involved while I was writing and keeping them in the back of your mind helps. I did hold auditions but there were definitely people from Yellow Sign that I wanted to work with again after working with them late last year in a couple other productions. It all helps to make everything happen.
So you feel like the dynamics of theater work is what solidified your being a writer?
Alex: Yeah it just made sense. In a way that writing had never before. You know, it’s something that I’ve always done and wanted to do but when I started getting involved in the theater everything just kind of gelled; the ways in which I wanted to write, everything, I became more confident in what I was doing and it just made sense to me to switch over. I haven’t totally forgone fiction writing. There’re things that I want to go back to but doing this has been awesome.
In a previous conversation I heard you mention a number of the other independent theaters that are cropping up around here. What do you think is behind that growing momentum?
Alex: I don’t know what’s behind it but I think it’s great. You know there’s a lot going on. I know some of it is coming out of the Towson M.F.A program. Just the other night I was over at the Bell Foundry and some of the people there are involved at Towson. They were doing a beautifully fucked up version of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” It was in this little space outside the Bell Foundry. I don’t want to say it’s the kind of thing that only happens in Baltimore but it certainly doesn’t really happen in DC, at least not that I was privy to while I was there and it’s just awesome! The kind of shows they’re doing at the Bell Foundry, stuff from Acme Corporation and UnSaddest Factory with their 10-Minute Play Festival in June, it’s just cool to see happening. You know when I first came to Baltimore it was all about the music scene and there’s a lot of people who have been involved in that and the fringes of that now doing the theater thing.
Do you feel like there is currently a Baltimore Renaissance or is what we’re seeing just a fluctuation of fad?
Alex: I think it’s actually occurring. When I got to Baltimore, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had just quit a band that I’d been in for seven years and I just started going to shows to see what was going on around here and it was obvious to me that stuff was happening here that is NOT happening in DC that’s NOT happening in New York because Baltimore is what it is. You can afford to come here and live on the cheap and devote yourself to whatever artistic pursuit you want to devote yourself to and there are a lot of people doing that.
Perhaps that’s what’s behind the growth of these theater companies?
Alex: Absolutely, yeah ‘cause you can actually do it here. You can actually come and find space and make it happen. I don’t think there’re many places you can say that about.
What do you think makes a play successful? I realize in that question we’re kind of diving into your own perspective on, ‘what is success’ but, particularly plays what factors do you think have to be come together to make a play seem like a success?
Alex: I think first and foremost and this seems to get discounted a lot but the audience has to leave having been given something. Whether it’s pure entertainment, or whatever. I’ve definitely been at shows before where you’re just kind of… bored? (laughs) I’ll say this, one of my actors in this production asked me from the get go, “What do you want the audience to leave the theater feeling or thinking?” and I said, well first I want them to be entertained. Whatever happens after that is up to them. They can take it seriously if they want but the first thing, you know your first job [when putting on a play] pertains to the audience in front of you. They’re not there to do you a favor. They’re there for you to entertain them and give them something. That’s what makes a successful show and it doesn’t matter what level that’s on.
So you don’t think it has to do with sales?
Alex: I mean we can only get 40 or 50 people in The Yellow Sign and I like working on that level. Especially right now since this is my first full-length play. [The space] is small and cozy and comfortable and intimate and while high turnout would be great obviously I can’t expect to really make money from this.
It sounds like what you think makes for a successful play is a lack of self-indulgence from the actors or writers or directors because as you say, you’re taking into consideration the audience first.
Alex: I don’t want to totally discount self-indulgence (both laughing). We have to be getting something out of it too. It should be fun. It should be fun to do. As a director that’s part of my job is to make it fun to be a part of. And if we do that, that translates to the audience. But, there’s always a little bit of self-indulgence; it’s ACTing (both laughing) And it’s hard. It’s a lot of time and effort and commitment and work that people are putting into the show… for free! You know we’re not getting paid to do this. I mean, we’re charging ten bucks for entry but that’s going directly into the theater so we can afford to put on more shows and do things like purchase proper lights and stuff. But at the end of the day everybody should have a good time. Cast, audience, crew everyone involved and that’s important. This is a fun play we’re doing, I don’t want to say that I’m not serious about it but even the ones that are serious productions should be a good time and nothing should get in the way of putting on a good show whether it’s self-indulgence or any other considerations.
You’ve been hosting “42” a monthly open-mic stand-up comedy night for half a year now, do you feel like that has had any influence on how you were writing this play?
Alex: Not in a direct way. When I started hosting the open-mic comedy thing, I had done some acting and I had gone to the Wham City comedy night and thought, here’s this new thing so I wanted to see how I would do at it and it went alright. Certainly not super great and I knew there was stuff I could work on so when the opportunity to host the open mic at Dionysus came up I just grabbed it cause I figured if I was doing that every month it would force me into it and I found after a while that writing stand up is really fucking hard! (laughs) But then as I was doing that I found I wanted to tell stories that weren’t necessarily suited to the context of an open mic. They weren’t blatantly funny, you know? They were a little more subtle so when I started writing this play some of the humor that got put into it is loosely based on what I learned from some failed open mic material because I felt like some of the humor I could get across is more involved than some of the one-liner stuff that works at an open mic. So I definitely learned from it but almost in a negative way. It’s just a different kind of humor.
So if you had to characterize the style comedy of “This Bird’s Flown” what kind of adjectives could you give me?
Alex: Well I wouldn’t call it a comedy all around. It’s more of a multi-genre beast, but I wanted to have comic elements in it ‘cause while I was writing it stuff just screamed out at me to have it in there. Some of it’s just very irreverent humor. You know, taking something that is not really funny and making fun of it. Some of the other elements are just absurdist in a way. Stuff that you just don’t expect coming based on the mood of the play and where it’s going then suddenly something breaks out and it’s just… I’m a big fan of fucking with things like that (laughs) There were times when I was writing that I didn’t want to take myself too seriously and so any time I got to that point I would try to do a 180 to deflate that severity.
Did you attend “Valhella”?
Alex: I did.
What did you think?
Alex: I thought it was great! That was the first show by them that I’ve seen. I had heard about previous shows and the impression I get is that every year they just get better at what they’re doing and that seemed quite obvious to me. That was quite a production. The set, the costumes: it looked fantastic! The music was fantastic and integrated perfectly. In the past I’d heard there were sound problems but it seems that was all smoothed out. Yeah everything was integrated really well.
Being a musician I sometimes can’t help but stack up my work against other people in the same scene or genre. How do you think “This Bird’s Flown” stacks up against something like “Valhella”?
Alex: I don’t want to say it’s the opposite but my focus is entirely different in the sense that in working on this play, I knew it was going to be in a much smaller space and the epic material that I’m using is really at the core in an entirely different way than what they do. I’m not sure I really believe in epic or can endorse its values so that’s a part of it. I wanted to throw some of that into question. I don’t really have a budget or many materials to work with except actors and a script so it was a big emphasis on teasing out whatever dramatic or comedic elements I could while framing it in a modern context and playing with that to find parallels in our culture. I mean, what people seem to forget is that the actual events in these ancient epic stories were fucked up! (laughs) Especially in cinema that seems to get glossed over you know, you really lose the sense that that’s fucked up and not something that needs to be romanticized.
Where do you think the Baltimore arts are headed?
Alex: I don’t know where it’s headed. I’ll say that I like where it is and I hope that it remains a scene in which someone like me can have an idea and see that idea through from an idea into writing a play that gets produced… Let’s put it this way, I hope it’s not headed to the point where that becomes impossible because that’s what I love about it right now. I love the fact that there are other people doing that here and that this is a town in which DIY art is going on all over the place. I mean that’s the scene I came out of in DC. Originally when I was 19 I wanted to be in a band and labels were sprouting up all over the place and there were all of these great people doing great things and half of us didn’t know how to play (laughs) and we were putting out records and going out on tour and it was fucking awesome but then by the mid-nineties that was dissolving and then by the time I left, that was long gone. Then when I came to Baltimore I got a real sense of that again and it felt good. I couldn’t be happier about being here.
Do you feel like the rest of the country or world’s art scenes are not DIY? Does Baltimore somehow emphasize more of the self?
Alex: Well…Say that again? (laughs)
I share your sentiment on Baltimore feeling like a city of DIY art but to me the phrase DIY lends to the idea that art is not done by yourself.
Alex: Well, to a degree it always is but I don’t want to comment on elsewhere because I don’t know the infrastructures in which people are working. For instance when I was in DC and I first started thinking of doing a play I started translating a Greek tragedy by Sophocles and I didn’t know anybody… well I knew people who would have done it but I didn’t know anybody in the theater scene and that seemed like a place that was a forbidden zone or something. Like, “how do you do that?” without going to school or already knowing somebody. It just didn’t seem like there was an opportunity to translate a Greek tragedy on your own and get it produced. And maybe that was me? But to a large degree you have to see that sort of thing going on around you to know that it’s possible. It’s the same thing with music or anything. [Growing up in Springfield, Virginia] When I was 18 had a guitar that I barely knew how to play and that was it so what do you do, you know? There’re no shows, there’s no scene, there’s nobody really doing anything so what the fuck? (laughs) So I started going to DC and a few months later I moved there and then suddenly I was going to shows every night. And once you see that going on, you realize you can actually do that. You don’t have to go through an institutional structure to be creative and do what you want to do. And that’s what’s great about this city and I hope that people continue to do what’s necessary politically and economically to ensure that type of thing continues.
Just going back real quick, what do think it is about Baltimore that’s fueling the emphasis on art and the idea that people can make something happen here?
Alex: Well, on that level it’s pure affordability. People talk about ‘Small-timore’ all the time but, it’s still a city and you can come here and you can afford to live off bartending a couple nights a week and still devote a lot of time to a craft. You know, that’s impossible in DC without some economic backing. There’d be no way I could afford to work as little as I do and live in DC, and having that extra energy, having that extra 10-15 hours a week, whatever it is that in other cities that you might not have… I know people who moved to New York for similar things and a good number of them aren’t really doing much because they’re busy working full-time just to live where they are. So as I said, hopefully Baltimore remains… but then whatever happens happens you know there was a time you could live like that in DC and everybody complained because people in DC complain about DC because it’s DC (laughing) I won’t go too far into that but, now people from there complain because rent has tripled, and while I still love it down there and like visiting, I don’t think I’ll ever live there again.
Sometimes it’s painfully obvious that this city has not returned to its former glory or economic prosperity. Just take a stroll east of the 1200 block of Guilford or even south on Howard from Mulberry toward the Inner Harbor and take a quick count of how many properties lay vacant. Both residential and commercial buildings, steadily decaying, their facades long forgotten and often overlooked by the majority of residents stand testament to this once thriving cultural hub. After this interview I had to wonder, “Is it possible that by reviving our theaters we could restore this city?” Surely, the sense of community building that comes from projects through theater settings couldn’t hurt and while it may take money to physically rehabilitate a building it first takes the belief that something is not only achievable but, worth doing. Here’s to hoping those with greater economic mobility can recognize the talents of people like Alex Hacker and other performers as well as the potential for further community structuring through theater in Baltimore City.
“This Bird’s Flown: A Travesty of Antiquity” opens Friday June 1st at the Yellow Sign Theater with tickets available from http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/248540