Corner Theatre ETC
Activities, History and museums
Corner Theatre E.T.C. (Corner Theatre) was an American experimental theater in operation from 1968–1987, a not-for-profit cultural organization located in Baltimore, Maryland, which provided resources for new playwrights, designers, directors, actors, dancers, and other artists seeking alternative means and avenues for self-expression, and social and political commentary. Throughout most of its nineteen-year existence, Corner Theatre ETC remained dedicated to the presentation of original plays, while encouraging a confrontational approach to production.
The Corner Theatre Experimental Theatre Club (Corner Theatre E.T.C.) was created in the immediate aftermath of a Monday night lecture given by New York's La MaMa founder/artistic director Ellen Stewart at Center Stage, Baltimore's resident Equity theatre.
The major thrust of Ms. Stewart's discussion was a challenge, directed at those in attendance, to create a Baltimore version of her own New York - based experimental theatrical facility. Local producer/director Leslie Irons subsequently met with Ms. Stewart and was granted Cafe LaMaMa's repertoire of original plays. This accomplished, Irons next assembled a group of artists who shared his interest in the creation of a new and radical performing arts center: Cliff Pottberg, Mac Lang, Marie Stewart, and Joe Harris. Funds were quickly raised and Corner Theatre ETC opened its doors at 853 North Howard Street with their inaugural production, an evening of two one-act plays: Birdbath by New York playwright Leonard Melfi and Baltimore playwright C. Richard Gillespie's The Burial. For the duration of the theatre's existence, Corner Theatre saw its mission as threefold: 1. The production of original, hitherto unseen plays, 2. affording local directors and other theatre artists a "laboratory" environment in which to experiment with unconventional theatrical techniques, and 3. to occasionally abandon the idea of presentational theatre altogether in exchange for quasi-theatrical "happenings." At one such event, Changes, audiences were led - one at a time - through a twenty-minute sojourn into the black light world of super-sensory awareness, a sort of late 60s hall of mirrors and confrontation. In order to avoid legal problems which might potentially arise due to the presence of nudity and profanity in many of their productions, Corner Theatre's charter listed the organization as a club and not a theatre company per se.
Encouraged by the high level of interest - both public and press - in the company's efforts, Corner Theatre presented two new works by an energetic and imaginative local actor/school teacher named Gordon Porterfield - Authors and The Earth Is Dead - in an evening of one-acts under the umbrella title Ratsfeet. Thus began a relationship between author and theatre that would yield, over the next seven years, a series of increasingly rich (if occasionally profane) evenings of locally produced, locally-written theatre. By the year's end, Leslie Irons had moved away from Baltimore and the theatre he had founded.
Baltimore theatre artist Larry Lewman, along with several friends - Charles Vanderpool, Louis Mills and Richard Marie - took over the physical operation of Corner Theatre in late 1969, bringing a new level of professionalism to the operation. For the role of artistic director, Lewman enlisted an experienced local director, John Bruce Johnson. Within months, a new and remodeled Corner Theatre announced Gordon Porterfield's new full-length play Universal Nigger, a multi-media presentation which depicted an African-American Christ's movements through the stations of the cross. This controversial and highly confrontational show, which attracted the largest audiences the fledgling theatre had yet seen, provided a production model for Corner Theatre for years to come. In an article published in The Paper, Bruce Johnson called the production "a sensation," adding that audience demand for the show was so great that even after another production had moved into the theatre's Thursday - Sunday performance slot, Universal Nigger continued playing on Wednesday evenings for two additional months. Later that year, Brooklyn's Chelsea Theater Center acquired the rights to Universal Nigger and produced it in their own space for New York audiences, under the direction of Robert Kalfin.
In June, 1970, Lewman resigned as artistic director and the company moved its operations to 891 North Howard Street, with the premiere of Tegaroon, by Wallace Hamilton. Bruce Johnson continued as artistic director and a new managing director, Richard Flax, was brought on board. Megan Terry's much-acclaimed political rock musical Viet Rock, under the direction of Michael Makarovich, played to SRO audiences following its inaugural production by the Open Theatre, performed at La MaMa in New York in 1966. The following year, HERE - an adaptation of the original Change, written and directed by Dick Flax - began a successful run. In October 1972, Corner Theatre acquired the rights to London playwright Charles Marowitz's An Othello for an American premiere.
It was during the Johnson-Flax period that Corner Theatre presented its richest offerings overall, with talented playwrights, actors and directors eager to participate in the new and challenging works being scheduled: New York playwright Kit Jones' Watchpit, directed by Michael Makarovich, was one of these. Makarovich also staged two Gordon Porterfield one-acts: The Catcher Was A Fag and I And Silence Some Strange Race; as well as an original teleplay entitled Tigers, among many others. Another Porterfield magnum-opus, whatisoneholycatholicapostalicbrownandstinksuptheuniverse, was directed by Bruce Johnson, as was the playwright's subsequent evening of thirteen short one-act plays, Gnomes. January 1972 saw the directing debut of future Sundance awarding-winning filmmaker Steve Yeager with the premier of Lee Dorsey's Pigeons. In April 1973, John Bruce Johnson suffered from a heart attack and was unable to finish directing Gordon Porterfield's latest evening of one-acts, entitled Wolves. Director/playwright C. Richard Gillespie took over the production, which received excellent reviews. Another production, Inconnue, written and directed by Hugh M. Jones, was an extravagantly didactic physical realization of Artaud's The Theatre and its Double, featuring a bravura performance by actress Judy Rowe, as well as a remarkable original musical score by Baltimore composer Chuck Wagner.
By 1974, both Johnson and Flax had moved on to other ventures, and the full operation of Corner Theatre was turned over to Foster Grimm, a young local director who had recently staged three one-act plays by New York playwright Robert Karmon under the umbrella title Karmon. The theatre's emphasis changed somewhat under Grimm's leadership, allowing for an increasing number of established plays to be presented. The physical facility went through a change as well, with many improvements in sound and lighting. A loose relationship was formed with the theatre department of Towson University, which lasted for several years and created an influx of new talent. Playwrights such as Thomas Thorton, Stanley Keyes, James Secor and Martha Keltz came onto the scene, offering such titles as Gangsters, Oil Rich in Mosby, Psychopathology In Everyday Life - A Family Play, The Exorcism, and Cagliostro. New directors also came into the mix: Foster Grimm himself directed a series of Sam Shepard plays, while future filmmaker Brad Mays directed, while still in his late teens, a series of Ionesco one-acts, Brian Friel's Lovers and John Whiting's The Devils. He also appeared as an actor in Gordon Porterfield's Wolves, as well as the playwright's final Corner Theatre offering, Chancre. Some years later, in 1987, director Mays and playwright Stanley Keyes - both now living in New York - joined forces to create a feature film comedy based on their mutual experiences at Corner Theatre - Stage Fright, which had its world premiere at the 1989 Berlin International Film Festival. Physical production at Corner Theatre reached a pinnacle of sorts with 1976 with Steve Yeager's inspired and resourceful staging of C. Richard Gillespie's Marguerite, starring Linda Chambers, James Hild and John Bruce Johnson, and featuring an aggressive electronic score by recording artist Vangelis.
In 1977, Corner Theatre lost its lease and Foster Grimm ultimately resigned as manager. The theatre then came under the control of local director Barry Feinstein and producer/actor Bruce Godfrey, who moved the operation into yet another location, at 100 East Madison Street. There, the theatre continued, in one form or another (though without its experimental edge), until the company ultimately merged - for financial reasons - with another Baltimore playhouse, the Fells Point Theatre, to form the Fells Point Corner Theatre in 1987.
Interestingly, Fells Point Corner Theatre presented Snow, a play by Gordon Porterfield, under the direction of Lance Lewman, in 1999. The play received top honors at the Baltimore Playwright's Festival.
From its inception but most particularly during Foster Grimm's tenure, Corner Theatre offered film screenings, ranging from Dionysus in '69 and The New York Erotic Film Festival to 16mm films by future underground film legend John Waters: Multiple Maniacs, Mondo Trasho, and Pink Flamingos. The theatre also sponsored gallery showings by local artists and photographers and offered its performing space to such outside theatre groups as the Baltimore Afro-American Conservatory Theatre. Workshops in human exploration were also sponsored, as were classes in acting, comedy, directing and playwriting.