We’re on a 7,000-Year Mission: The “Stupidly Huge” Rise of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society
In 2009, the Baltimore Rock Opera Society staged their first original production, Gründlehämmer, which ”takes place in the mythical land of Brotopia, a once prosperous agrarian Kingdom where the melody of an electric guitar wields power enough to tend a field of crops, to heal the sick, or to smite an enemy.”
Janky but grandiose, the show quickly found an audience ready to follow the BROS down the rabbit hole of excess and faux self-seriousness. Four years later, and the group has five major productions to their credit. They were also instrumental in the revival of the once-dilapidated Autograph Theatre on 25th Street and are now raising money to renovate a more permanent home at the Bell Foundry in Station North and to fund tours through the Northeast.
I interviewed BROS members Chuck Green, 31, and Joe Martin, 26, about the rise of the group.
BFB: I remember seeing flyers around when BROS was being formed, and I wasn’t totally certain it was a real thing. The rock opera is not only a niche genre, but it seemed like the productions would be too involved to sustain as a grassroots / DIY-type venture. How did the group form and what were you expecting (or hoping) it would become?
Chuck Green: It was formed by four Goucher grads [Jared Margulies, Aran Keating, Eli Breitburg-Smith, Dylan Koehler] and a music monster [John DeCampos],with whom I work closely every day. They got all enthusiastic about putting on a stupidly huge rock opera. Then pulled together, pooled credit cards, and just went and did it in an effort to explode the mostly rigid foundations of the arts universe in Baltimore. I’m really talking about theatre here. I think Baltimore’s theatre universe has been mostly rigid, with, of course, many notably awesome exceptions. This is compared to other cities I’ve experienced this sort of art in. In New York, for example, taking in some theatre can mean many things, a lot of it on the looser side of the term theatre. Many improv groups and performance art collectives thrive there, and until recently that wasn’t the case here. They have always existed, but weren’t what Baltimore thought of when it thought of “theatre.”
They ended up effectively budding a tumbleweed of super enthusiastic creative collaborations which come together as rock operas every year, of which five major ones have happened. The idea is to make an impossibly huge and insanely involved show, with true rock and stupidly over-the-top tropes and effects at its core, with whatever free time you have and money you can raise. And this attracts tons of new volunteers every year. I came on a few months before the first show went up, and I’ve been in the thick part of the meat ever since.
CG: Honestly, that show is Gründlehämmer, the first show produced in 2009. Every one since then has just been a bigger, deeper, and more expensive monster, exploring new directions and picking up new talented Baltimoreans. Valhella, though, really seemed to seal the deal for BROS in the arts world and prove that we are never stopping.
BFB: What kind of budgets do you work with at this point?
CG: Every show has seen a bigger budget. Gründlehämmer was made with two or three thousand dollars, Valhella with more like $10,000. So it’s been a growing scale. We raise funds with a yearly party called the BRO-Down, and by making fundraising videos and launching campaigns on the Internet, and also by just having donations open all the time. People see our shows and sometimes just deposit a few hundred dollars in our account. These turn out to be very important, and everyone should keep doing that, because we have to sell our belongings when they don’t, and all we really have are a couple of buckets, a toothbrush, and a minotaur robot.
BFB: There are so many aspects of a rock opera performance. How are the responsibilities — music, libretto, art direction — delegated?
CG: That’s a structure that has come together within the last year, actually. As it started out, everyone doing the writing also just wrote the music and found band members, or found someone to write the music like I did with Lunastus. Now, we have secret cave meetings and examine our network and decide who to approach. (We’re working on getting druid robes with disgusting embroidery emblazoned on the back of them for these meetings.) As an example, for Murdercastle, roles came together in the second half of 2012, with the creative minds behind that show, John and Jared, reaching out to all of us BROS and tapping us for what we’re good at. We all then had department head meetings to find the other people who are good at our things and help us out. There is no shortage of talent in the BROS anymore, much less (much, much less) a shortage of good ideas. We have a pitch party every year now to hear what all those ideas are, so we can choose the next rock opera. Valhella and Murdercastle were both discovered this way.
JM: I like to think that the shows begin as wild ideas that exist in the same realm as the gods. Perhaps they are akin to the Platonic Universals. We are merely mediums who must channel these ideas and bring them to Earth and make them possible for the human body and mind to experience.
BFB: You occupy the Autograph Playhouse on 25th, right? When did you move there?
CG: We got in the door in 2010 because we were looking for a place to perform the BROS Double Feature (Amphion / The Terrible Secret of Lunastus), since the 2640 Space would only let us have one weekend (no hate there, they are not a rock club or opera house, it wasn’t conducive to our model). That theater on 25th had a for-sale sign, so I pushed to get us in there to look at it, despite the owner telling us we wouldn’t like it for rent. It was dilapidated. He was right; we could not rent that place. But we just happened to be in there the same day as Billie Taylor, a woman from D.C. who just up and bought it. She approached us because she wasn’t sure where to go from there. We came in and renovated the house and backstage in exchange for free rent, and after the biggest sweat job of our lives, opened the Double Feature a few months later in spring of 2012. We’ve been in there since then. It’s worked out well for us.
JM: We only rent that space when we need it for a show, which is inefficient and expensive when we need to spend months building and rehearsing. The big project now is the Bell Foundry. We still have to pay rent, but we’re here full time and can work harder and better than ever without getting in anyone’s way.
BFB: What’s BROS’s schedule look like, post-Murdercastle?
CG: We have yet to publicly release the next rock opera, so you’ll have to wait until the fall.
JM: Looking forward I would hope to see BROS become the most sought after theater experience in the city and possibly elsewhere. We plan on touring next year and I think we can blow the doors off of every venue we hit. I hadn’t considered the possible success of a DIY rock opera group either, but mostly because I had never heard of one before. Maybe we can garner interest in other towns and inspire the creation of more collectives. Maybe we can take over the planet. Or other planets. We’re on a 7,000-year mission; I think this is possible.
The BROS’s next production, Murdercastle, will premiere on May 10 at the Autograph Theatre. Visit their Indiegogo page to donate to their Campaign for Cash.