Theater of Place.
I was born on the Fourth of July in 1968 in what I consider one of the most American cities in the United States: Baltimore. It was a time of tremendous transformation for the city. Huge stretches of blight became gentrified, quaint shopping and tourist attractions right in front of our eyes all throughout the 1970s. A thriving population that made it the 7th largest city in the country the year I was born dropped by almost 19% in the 1970s and 80s, even as (to my young mind) life in Charm City got better and better. The National Aquarium! The Inner Harbor! The Orioles! What wasn’t there to love?
As an adult, of course, I understand that the story of Baltimore during that era isn’t quite as simple and clean as it seemed at the time. But that’s the era in which I fell in permanent love with the city, and for that reason, I’ll probably always see it with rose-colored glasses.
Of course, I do have a present-day relationship with Baltimore, too; I live only a half-hour away in the suburbs of DC, and I visit all the time. I’ve had my car broken into, I’ve seen decay where I didn’t know it existed, I’ve seen places I treasured a long time ago be torn down or fall into complete disrepair… so I understand it’s not a dreamscape. But still… every single time my car nudges off 95 North into the city, and the landscape of Baltimore blooms into view, I feel a fresh sense of homecoming… or maybe of belonging. I continue to love the city with everything I’ve got.
Visiting Baltimore now feels a bit like going back in time. Everywhere I go there are historic echoes: memories from my own childhood, of course, but also the deep resonance of history. The Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Charles Street, for example, takes me back not only to a eulogy I delivered there when I was a young man, but three hundred years into the past when the church was first founded, its pews filled with lions from American history: Supreme Court justices and signatories to the Declaration of Independence. The Tiffany windows and Italianate bas-reliefs inspire story after story after story. I couldn’t suppress them even if I wanted to.
My relationship with Baltimore probably explains why I’ve written about the city for so long and so often; beginning with the crude sketches and poems I banged out on the typewriter I kept in my basement when I lived in the suburbs of the city. My master’s thesis—I got an M.A. in poetry from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins—was a collection of poems inspired in large part by the neighborhoods surrounding the Inner Harbor. My first play, THE TREEHOUSE, is set in the suburb I grew up in, and my later work includes a fable that takes place entirely on the U.S.S. Constellation. Not long ago I had the chance to write a short film about listening to the national anthem at Camden Yards for Centerstage, and it might have been the most emotionally fulfilling experience of my creative life.
All of this is to say that when Dominic D’Andrea offered me a chance to contribute to the Baltimore One-Minute Play Festival, I honestly never even considered writing about anything other than the city itself. I mean: I could have done anything! But it just never occurred to me. As those who attend the festival will note, I wrote about the National Aquarium and, for the second time in my career, the U.S.S. Constellation. (I will admit: I am obsessed with that ship.) I like what I wrote, and I hope others do, too.
Actually, the truth is… I didn’t write about either place. I wrote stories set in those places. But I can’t shake the feeling that without those places, my stories wouldn’t exist. Ancient Romans believed that certain meaningful structures—churches, for example, or homes—were protected by a genius loci, a spirit that was often depicted in great detail in elaborate icons. I think I may treat certain inspirational places as if they’re home to a fabula loci—a complex, continually-evolving story complete with manifold characters, themes, and plots, any thread of which would repay a listener’s attention.
What does that mean, exactly? I’m honestly not sure. I know that I spend lots of time trying to conjure a place before I start writing. I browse through as many images as I can find; I sometimes create a Pinterest board of images, then leave the board open in a browser while I write. I read whatever I can about the place: non-fiction, preferably, thought fiction will do. And I spend a lot of time looking for symbols I can integrate into whatever story I end up telling: points of focus that might have found their way into all the narratives that ever unfolded in a particular location, like the metal fence that surrounds the original Washington Monument (yes, that’s in Baltimore) or the cobblestones that make up Thames Street in Fells Point. They often end up being significant for me.
I really wish I thought I had it in me to do for Baltimore (or at least for part of it) what August Wilson did for Pittsburgh’s Hill District. I’m daunted, however, not only by the enormity of the project, but also by the inevitable comparisons to Wilson’s work of immense genius… comparisons in which I would certainly come out on the short end. (The younger me—the kid with the courage to stand up at a very young age and deliver that eulogy in the Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church—is shouting “Come on, come on, do it!” as I write this blog post.) Perhaps I’ll get old and foolish enough to try it, even on a smaller scale, though I think it’s more likely that I’ll just keep letting the lived story of Baltimore—the one I experience every time I visit—just continue to play out in my head: a theater-for-one version of Wilson’s Century Cycle.
Nah, I’ll never stop writing about Baltimore and its fabula loci. I’m in love—the kind of love that wants the whole world to know. And I probably will be forever.
Baltimore’s First One-Minute Play Festival in partnership with E.M.P. Collective is Feb 9th and 10th at 8PM at E.M.P. Tickets are $15 and available here. The Sunday performance will livestream on New Play TV.