Through June 16 at the Smirnow Theater at Johns Hopkins University.
For more information visit ironcrowtheatre.com.
Do our jobs define us? That’s the question the Iron Crow Theatre asks with its current production of Adam Bock’s The Typographer’s Dream. As the play opens, Margaret (Jenny Male), a bubbly, outspoken geographer, sits at a long table beside Dave (Steven J. Satta-Fleming), a stenographer. It is not clear to the audience that the play has even begun, especially if you know that Satta-Fleming is also Iron Crow’s co-founder and artistic director. The house lights are on, and the two sit there, awkwardly casting glances back and forth, waiting—as if to welcome the audience members and ask them to turn off their cell phones. Then, Annalise (Sarah Ford Gorman), a flustered typographer with a smudge of ink across her forehead, runs into the room and takes her seat at the table.
The house lights are still on as the actors launch into competing monologues about their respective professions. The whole thing is as awkward as the first day on a new job as the characters stumble over each other and their own words in what appear to be job-fair-type presentations. They interrupt one another and themselves in ways every bit as uncomfortable as on The Office—while bits of poetry emerge from their halting speeches. Margaret’s riffs on the wonders of geography collide with Dave’s indecision about whether “stenographer” or “court reporter” is a better word. Eventually, the chirpy promotional speeches break down entirely as Margaret complains that “they” have hidden geography in social studies. “Social Studies!” she cries in exasperation just before Annalise, the titular typographer, shouts, “It’s a goddamn business.”
Eventually, as a series of further breakdowns and flashbacks takes us deeper into these characters, it becomes clear that they are friends and that when they are talking about their jobs, they’re not really talking about the wonders of typography or stenography—they’re talking about things that run much deeper, things they can’t address directly. As Margaret rather roughly points out, Dave never uses the word “I” when he speaks, distancing himself from his own life with the second-person pronoun. But all three characters are somehow alienated from themselves and each other—none of them can grasp their own identities.
This play is a departure for Iron Crow Theatre—the production is not overtly centered on LGBT issues, unlike all those that have come before it—but it may be the perfect statement of the company’s identity at this point in its development. “It was a great moment for us to branch away from gay issues,” Satta-Fleming says. “After two years, it was time to say, ‘It’s not always going to be about queer issues.’”
While playwright Adam Bock (whose Swimming in the Shallows Iron Crow performed in 2011), most of the members of Iron Crow, and Satta-Fleming’s character in the play are all gay, the issues addressed by The Typographer’s Dream are universal. In her director’s note, Michele Minnick writes, “What it means to us to be a ‘queer theatre company’ is broader than sexuality or sexual identity per se, and a lot more about presenting plays that skew our vision just enough to allow us to see things differently—so that we might one day learn to live differently, live better, no matter who we are, what we do, or who we love.”
“We’re not going to tie it up all nicely in a little bow for you,” Satta-Fleming says. “That’s another aspect of queer.”
Satta-Fleming, a professor in Towson University’s theater department, got the idea for a queer theater company in Baltimore in 2009, when he was working with Kimberley Lynne of the University of Baltimore Spotlight program on a production of Larry Kramer’s Normal Heart for World AIDS Day. “I asked her if she’d ever done anything for Pride,” recalls Satta-Fleming. “And she said, ‘You want to?’”
Satta-Fleming put together a series of short performances collectively titled Gay Expectations. But he was left wanting more. He and the other founding members of the company felt that there was a general lack of representation of gay characters on the stage. “And when there were, they were often played by straight people,” company member Katie Ellen Simmons-Barth says. “From a performance side, there just weren’t that many roles for someone like me who doesn’t fit typical male or female roles.” So, Satta-Fleming decided to create an expressly “queer” theater company.
“From the beginning we were worried about defining ourselves too narrowly, or isolating ourselves from the rest of the community,” says Joseph Ritsch, the company’s associate director and the playwright and star of one of its early plays, Apartment 213 (one of City Paper’s Top 10 theater productions of 2010).
“But we were always broad on our definition of queer,” Satta-Fleming says. “We always wanted to include the whole LGBT alphabet soup of identity.”
“And in the end, instead of isolating us, it felt like our identity as a ‘queer theater’ helped us form a strong identity—especially among the other theaters,” Simmons-Barth says. “They would say ‘Iron Crow should do this.’”
But before they could form an identity, they had to come up with a name. “It felt like it took us six years to decide what to call ourselves,” Satta-Fleming says. “I was in despair: If we can’t even come up with a name, we shouldn’t do this!”
“But there is this line in Romeo and Juliet that says, ‘Bring me an iron crow,’” Simmons-Barth says.
“The last thing this city needed was something else with a raven,” Satta-Fleming adds. “But there is a tradition of the crow as a trickster.”
“And the iron crow is a crowbar,” Simmons-Barth says.
“We were trying to tear down people’s conceptions, so that was appropriate,” Ritsch says.
“And it is great as a logo,” Simmons-Barth adds, laughing.
Like the characters in The Typographer’s Dream, the members of Iron Crow—or the crows, as they call themselves—have to juggle a variety of identities, maintaining the original intent of creating art while also managing the business of running a theater.
When the company initially formed, it performed in the Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon. “They were wonderful, but we quickly outgrew it,” Ritsch says. Since then, Iron Crow has held a residency at the Theatre Project on Preston Street. “It’s been lovely,” Simmons-Barth says. “A great location right in the gay-borhood.” But The Typographer’s Dream is being performed at the Smirnow Theater at Johns Hopkins University, and the crows are beginning to long for a home of their own.
“It’s a challenge not having our own space,” Satta-Fleming says. “One of the problems with Baltimore is that if people haven’t been to a neighborhood before, they immediately think The Wire,” Satta-Fleming says. “It’s hard to train people to come to a new place. And we’re always rehearsing at Towson, and storing costumes in attics—it would be nice to have a more permanent home,” he says. “But then, you’re responsible for paying for it all year.”
Though with The Typographer’s Dream the company has tried to move beyond specifically gay issues, the crows continue to work with the larger LGBT community. Since their inception, they have held performances to raise money for a variety of charity organizations—generally donating funds from one show per run—and are currently working on a production with Towson University for Transgender Awareness Week. “It’s a reading of a new play called Queer Bathroom Monologues, by Sheila Cavanaugh,” Simmons-Barth says. “It’s about all the issues surrounding public bathrooms. For some people public bathrooms are a safe haven, but for others a source of confusion. This area has had a lot of problems with this, and Towson just created gender-neutral bathrooms and they are looking into gender-neutral housing, so we thought we’d help them facilitate the discussion with this play.”
But Iron Crow’s members also emphasize that though they come out of the queer community, they do not speak for it. “We know what a broad and diverse community it is,” Satta-Fleming says. “We know we haven’t told everyone’s story. A trans person’s experience is so much different from a gay man’s, and a lesbian woman’s is different from both. We’re not here saying we are the mouthpiece of the community,” he says. “Tell us what stories you’d like to have told.”