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We’re on a 7,000-Year Mission: The “Stupidly Huge” Rise of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society

3 Written by: | Thursday, Mar 21, 2013 8:00am

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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.

Joe Martin: I’m not sure if the name Baltimore Rock Opera Society came first, or the desire to have the acronym BROS. Every effort to produce the show was on a volunteer basis. I think the DIY ethic drew more and more people to the cause. It was a humble beginning with larger-than-life aspirations.
I did not join the group until I moved to Baltimore from Buffalo, N.Y., in 2011. When I became heavily involved I got to see the group with a full-fledged following and a small legion of volunteers. BROS was already a cult with a cult fanbase. I think we all hoped to see that enthusiasm grow to where we would attract more attention and more funds to invest in the technical side of things: better sound equipment, brighter lasers, bloodier blood, and durable set building materials. (The first sets were built from Natty Boh boxes; now we weld steel.)
We are already achieving those things and more. One year ago we dreamt of having our own place outside of the Autograph Playhouse where we could build our sets, create our costumes, and rehearse our cast under one roof. Now we are renovating part of the Bell Foundry and exist there full-time to work on Murdercastle and further the cause of epicosity.
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BFB: Was there a particular show that you felt brought the whole thing together and turned the project into the force of nature that it is now?

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.

JM: My first show with BROS was The Terrible Secret of Lunastus, the second half of the Double Feature. There was a lot of enthusiasm coming out of that show. The BROS had just renovated a rat-infested theater and built and performed two full-length shows in a matter of months. That experience showed everyone that we were capable of accomplishing huge goals, even with the odds against us.
People who came to see us perform decided that they had skills to offer. A few of those people got involved in Valhella in 2012 and helped to increase the quality of the BROS experience. We encourage everyone to get involved. In everything. Our audiences will show up in costume no matter what event we are holding. Last year’s BRO-Down was held on St. Patty’s Day. It looked like Halloween. I think it gives true meaning to calling it a rock opera society. Everyone is excited about the spectacle and the rock music to the point that they want to be a part of it.

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.

JM: Our budgets are not huge, but we try our best to stretch the money we have. When it comes to materials for sets and props we see what we can get donated. Lots of companies will give us scrap material for free. King Architectural Metals has donated a lot of steel that is not useful to them but perfect for what we’re working on. The same goes for House of Foam. Many of our large puppets and monsters are made of foam. Valhella‘s major set piece, Yggdrasil the tree, was covered in burlap sacks. Those all came from Zeke’s Coffee. Oftentimes the materials that aren’t donated are purchased at a significantly discounted rate.
Of course, a lot of things still cost money. Most of the money we have comes from the shows we put on. We sold out almost every show of Valhella. That money is funding the production of Murdercastle. When the theater renovation was happening, BROS launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to see that project through. Now that we’re working on the Bell Foundry, we need cash to buy building materials and pay rent. We also need some capital for taking the show on the road. There is another Indiegogo campaign to encourage people to donate to these causes. We do a few fundraising nights at bars as well. The BRO-Down happens annually at the Windup Space. We get a good lineup of bands to play and offer raffle prizes to people who show up.

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.

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