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Ryan Whinnem, Co-founder of Mobtown, Leaves Charm City

I frequently get requests for articles from readers – Will you come review our play?  Will you interview my director?  But I have never gotten more requests than I have for the article you are now reading.  I have been deluged with requests, tributes, anecdotes and what amounts to love letters for one Baltimore theatre artist.  That man is Ryan Whinnem, who this month departs Charm City to pursue opportunities at Catholic University and beyond.

 

Anyone who keeps their fingers on the pulse of theatre here knows who Ryan is.  Several years ago, he and a group of friends from college formed what is now Mobtown Players, where he has served as that company's everyman – acting, directing, producing – he does it all.  His goal was to create an outlet for Baltimore artists to be creative and to include all segments of the community. Under his guidance, Mobtown has certainly achieved that goal.  Time and time again, they promise thought provoking, exciting, and legitimately cutting-edge shows, and time and time again they succeed.  With a Mobtown production, you never really know going in what you are going to get, except that it will be quality and challenging. 

 

With the closing of the double-bill of Baltimore Playwrights Festival plays, SOD and The Return of the 5th Sister, which he directed, Ryan now turns over the reins of Mobtown to a new set of leaders.  They have big shoes to fill.  But I suspect that Ryan Whinnem has made more than sure that Mobtown's future looks brighter than ever. 

 

Below are some of the many quotes I received on Ryan's behalf.  As you will see, Mr. Whinnem is loved and respected.

 

Erin Riley, Mobtown Theatre: 

"This is a hard [time] for us.  [Soon], Alex Willis will officially be taking over the AD position with Carlos Guillen [as] Managing Director and me… well, I'm just the Development Theater Geek.  While this is a wonderful change and exciting transition for us, it also means ...Ryan Whinnem will be gone.  I don't mean to make it sound like he's going to die of an inoperable brain tumor, and I know DC is just down the road, but he has made a significant contribution in all of our lives at Mobtown.  Mine especially.  When I left the theater to be a teacher after college, I missed it every day.  Three years later, when I was feeling fatter, rusty and much older... Ryan Whinnem gave me another shot, just like he has for so many other people.  He takes every wrinkle, every extra pound, every mullet, every mohawk... you name it.  And he uses it.  He has always wanted to reach out to the women of our community, the gay community, the African-American community... again… you name it and he's thought about them.  But to sum it all up, he wants to make theatre into a big comfy blanket that will cover all of us."

 

Tess Polhaus, Actress:Ms. Pohlhaus has worked with Ryan several times, and is currently over in Scotland at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. 

 

"Ryan is a wonderful director to work with. As an actor, I find him very approachable during the rehearsal period.  He always has a clear, original vision and follows through on what he says he is going to do. He's willing to take risks, which I really respect as a theatre artist."

 

Marc Scharf, Baltimore Playwrights Festival:

"Ryan Whinnem is one of those rare individuals who not only has vision, but also has the intelligence, talent and tenacity to create what he has dreamed. It takes a certain kind of personality to found a theatre company and to keep it going and what is most remarkable about Ryan to me is that he has never retreated into a "bunker mentality" – he is always open and generous with everyone in this theatre community. For example, when two participating theatre companies in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival lost their spaces, Ryan jumped right in without being asked and hosted both of their productions at Mobtown.  A lot of people consider theatre people to be, shall we say, "flaky," – Ryan is a theatre artist who can always be counted on.  I admire his courage in following his dream and I will miss the hell out of him as I think a great, great many people will."

Kimberley Lynne, Mobtown Players, writer of The Return of the 5th Sister

"Ryan Whinnem has the gift of the critical eye of a theatrical director but he is also granted with a greater rarer asset of instilling into others a
confidence in their own abilities, granting them the confidence needed to deliver their individual strengths into the big community pool that is
theatre. That gift, the ability to lead others, is what an artistic director must have and have in buckets."

Mark Squirek, Mobtown Players, writer of SOD

"He is like Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. He holds everything together and no one appreciates how much he has done until they realize the show is over. Even then, they are not sure. Other directors would be crowing over their accomplishments or placing the blame for failure on someone else. Ryan just smiles and asks you if you want a beverage.

 

He has the super-power to make people believe what they have inside themselves. It doesn't matter whether the person is an actor or a tech person or a board member. Ryan is inspiring and than quietly moves onto the next problem or celebration. Several years ago I got a call asking if I could fill in as Lord Capulet in a production of Romeo and Juliet.  The production was opening outdoors at Patterson Park in two weeks and an actor had dropped out. Everybody but Ryan, the caller and director, was worried. For two weeks I watched him calmly navigate the egos of fretting actors and the perils of outdoor tech concerns. During this whole process he never cracked. Everyone else came close, he never did. You can disagree with his casting choices, his lighting choices, his script choices, but you will never doubt him as an artist or a person. Ryan is a rarity in theatre. He knows a lot, and understands how little he actually knows."

 

Alex Willis, Mobtown Players:

Ms. Willis will be taking Mr. Whinnem's place as Artistic Director of Mobtown Players.  She directed their production of Inventing van Gogh. 

"I've known Ryan for years and have always respected his work--his reputation for innovation and quality is richly deserved--but it wasn't until last spring that I actually got a chance to work with him.  I found our artistic collaboration extremely fulfilling.  His ability to rise to a challenge makes me work harder, and his working process makes better theatre."

 

 

And now a few words from Ryan himself.

1.  What is the reason for your departure from Mobtown Players and the Baltimore theatre community? Why is now a good time?

 

Well, quite honestly, I've been trying for some time. I've sent my resume a few places, and to my surprise, found out that in the past eight years, I actually had gained experience. A friend of mine in the program at Catholic asked me if I wanted to join her down there. She mentioned my name to the head of the department, and... there you go. It's always been a goal of mine to make a living doing theater, and it had become increasingly apparent that Baltimore is a hard place to make that leap. It can be done, sure, but it's difficult.

 

I feel like I'm leaving Mobtown Players in very strong shape. We've had one of most successful seasons ever with our eighth season, which, very luckily, brought us Alex Willis. After shows, over beers, Alex and I had many discussions about our theories of theater and what we wanted to achieve, and I had never met anyone who more closely fit with the Mobtown model. In addition, Carlos Guillen, who has been with us for six years now, has taken over managing director duties. And Erin Riley, who has been helping out in just about every capacity for the past few years, is our new Director of Development. I feel like the ship is sound, and it's ready to take on more challenging waters.

 

2.  What was your goal when creating Mobtown Players? How successful do you feel the company (and you) have been in attaining that goal?

 

To get the chicks!  Have I succeeded?  I don't kiss and tell.  Honestly, I think one of the things that made the theater company work was that we all had come from a similar background, and we all had similar ideas on how to make theater. The founding members were, for the most part, Hopkins grads from the early 90's. Theater at Hopkins at that time was... well... challenging. We had an AV room, ten lighting instruments, and our closets. So we knew how to make theater from nothing. And our goal was to create challenging theater where we would creatively let the seams show.

 

And yes, we have succeeded. We've received awards and accolades for our productions, and I think we have a solid reputation in the Baltimore area. There are some days where I feel like creating theater from nothing has focused more on the "from nothing," but I have a feeling that feeling will change in the theater company over the next few years.

 

Just a few days ago, I was screwing around at work, and I typed Mobtown Players in Google. One of the hits was a page in Wikipedia "Theater in Maryland." And in the article, we are cited as being a professional theater company, along with CenterStage and Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Technically, we're not. Well, more than technically. But just the fact that we are perceived that way, I think, is a small testament to our success.

 

3.  Looking back, what do you think has been the company's biggest success?

 

Well, the obvious answer is Hedwig. Wow. Terry just did such an amazing job with that show, and it still floors me that Jordan just... walked in off the street. But before that there was the Comedy of Errors and Hungarian Trilogy stretch, way back last century, where we would just dance around and snicker, "another sold out house." Then there's shows like PLPD, which was poorly attended, but people still remember Volpone, and Midsummer Night's Dream. Countless others.

 

But! There's something else that I think is an even bigger success. When we first started out, we wanted to create a company of artists that were stretching themselves, or perhaps trying new things that they weren't allowed to elsewhere. Just a few days ago, Carlos Guillen, our new Managing Director and resident sound guy confided to me that he had learned so much about music from composing music for our productions. And it shows with the brilliant music he composed for SOD and The Return of the 5th Sister. What makes me prouder than anything is that there are a group of artists in Baltimore who say, "Mobtown Players- that's where I got my start." Or even that we are the theater company that gave them a chance and cast them in a role that they never thought they'd get. That makes me very happy.

 

4.  What do you think has been your biggest (or most meaningful) personal success in the theatre and the company? 

 

I guess I answered that above. 

 

Well, no. For me, when Mobtown Players started eight years ago, I kept being told that "Baltimore is not a Shakespeare town." And with our first production, Hamlet, I believed that, but even by the end of that show, we were drawing in crowds. But with Comedy of Errors, we sold out a week in advance. We showed that people could *want* to see Shakespeare. We did that again with Midsummer Night's Dream. And yes, we came on the scene when the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival very wisely handed the reigns to Jimi Kinstle. And just before Chesapeake Shakespeare started drawing in humongous crowds (I know- I remember coming out on stage opening night last summer and actually jumping back at the number of people in the audience). But I'd like to think that Mobtown has helped in that revolution; we don't have a lot of money, but our approach has, I think, shown some people what can be done with Shakespeare (or Johnson) to make it a bit less stuffy or archaic.

 

5.  Is there anything you wish you had done? If so, what and why?

 

Well, I wish I could have made it my job. I hate to put it in so practical terms, but yeah. Bookkeeping just doesn't get my juices flowing.

 

In terms of the theater company and what it's done? I wish I could have gotten more people to come out and see our stuff, but we've done alright. It's always nice to see a line out the door.

 

In terms of myself, I wish that in the process of growing, we hadn't pissed off so many people. I guess it's an inevitability of being a business entity, but it always strikes me hard in the gut when somebody thinks we've done less than we could. Because everybody is working their asses off to make sure that we do good theater. Sometimes, things slide because there's only so long you can keep that pace, and sometimes you need to stop for a beer. Or three. I think Noel (Schively- my partner in crime) may have seen the brunt of that- even some from me. I don't think this company would still be around without Noel. He has been a rock, and he has been beating the Mobtown drum even harder than me. We couldn't have done what we did, I couldn't have done what I did without him.

 

6.  Where do you hope to see Mobtown Players in the next few years?  

 

Well, in two more years, we will be celebrating ten years on the Baltimore Theater scene. I know Alex wants to concentrate more on contemporary texts, and I think the possibilities there are very exciting.  I think, in the next few years, Mobtown Players will become a staple of the Baltimore Theater scene, much like Theater Hopkins, Fells Point Corner Theater, and CenterStage. I know we are starting to become known outside the Baltimore area; I think it all adds up to an era that is ripe with possibilities for this theater group.

 

I'd, of course, like to see it grow. And keep doing challenging theater. And keep taking risks, not just with material, but also with people, in what we're asking them to do and how we're using them. I think that's essential.

 

7.  Tell us about your successors. What do they bring to the table in terms of carrying on Mobtown tradition and in making it grow for the future?

 

Alex Willis, our new Artistic Director has... you know... I've never seen her resume. She could have been lying this whole time. Except I did see her name on the City Paper's 10 Best list last year. And a few other times. She's been directing at Fells Point Corner Theater for umpteen years (if I had my guess, that's what she would have said on her resume- umpteen years). And she can hold her beer. All good traits in a head of this theater company.  Carlos Guillen has been our Tech Director for the past three years, and before then, our resident sound designer and occasional lighting designer. He is one of the calmest people I've ever met, and he has the funk. Plus, he is able to spend amazing amounts of time answering emails and calming people down. Add these together, I would leave him in charge of coordinating the space... and... whatever else the Managing Director does. Noel Schively knows better.  Erin Riley has been a teacher, a theater professional, and, just an amazing resource for this company since joining us three years ago in Romeo and Juliet. She just keeps showing up to the theater saying, "Guess what- I found us some money." We thought we'd make it official. In addition, she is starting an education wing, something we've wanted to do for... ever. I think Erin will add the magic touch to bring this company to the next level.

 

8.  What is the state of theatre in the Baltimore area? Explain.

 

I just taught a class at the Creative Alliance on how to write a ten minute play with my dear friend Chris Stewart. What I told my students is that they may not know it, but they lived in one of the best cities for playwrighting. With the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, and companies like Unmentionable, Spotlighters, and Theater Project, it's actually- I don't want to say easy- but there's a lot of resources for new and established playwrights. And I think that makes the theater scene healthy- I'd like to see that get even healthier- I'd like to see a lot more theater companies take chances with "new" playwrights. Rich Espey, Mark Scharf, Kimberley Lynne, PS Lorio, Joe Dennison- all amazing playwrights who make Baltimore their home. All playwrights who can say they've had world premieres at Mobtown. 

In addition, Baltimore has its own brand of theater that I haven't seen in other cities on the level I've seen here in Baltimore. Fluid Movement, "vaudeville" shows like Trixie Little and Rahnan Sentences. These sorts of one weekend shows, in and out. It's not Ibsen, and it's not meant to be. I think you'll see a lot more of this in upcoming years, and I think it's good. Some people may see it as eroding the Institution of Theater, but I think that Theater (capital T) could learn a thing or two from these shows.

 

I think what Baltimore lacks is a theater going audience. Too often I've seen people show up to a theatrical show (not just mine) expecting to see a movie. And that's not what theater is about. So people say, "Well, why would I plunk down 10 or 15 bucks to see theater when I could spend 10 bucks to see Johnny Depp swagger around." It's a different art form. It's like asking, "Why would I buy a painting when I can snap a photograph?" And I think it's the challenge of the theater scene to get these people to come, to show them what theater can be. 

 

In short (HAH!), I think the scene is ready to be bigger, to be a bit more innovative, and I think, if this can happen, in the next five or so years, you will hear the term "Baltimore Theater" mean something on more than a local level.

 

9.  How do your future plans leave you in terms of being able to be a part of the theatre scene again some day? Do you hope to return?

 

Well, the practical answer is, "If there's a job." I want to direct, and I want to live in relative non-squalor. A bunch of theater directors just shot milk out their nose: the two don't necessarily go together. I'm probably going to try and make a name for myself in DC, which would make it close enough to get jobs here in Baltimore. I love Baltimore, and would love to come and direct here in the future. And if there were a JOB job, best of both worlds.

 

10.  You have many (and trust me there are many) fans and admirers. Why do you think they are so passionate about you and your leaving? What final thoughts would you like to leave them with?

 

I think it's because I gave them loads of money.  And I dance for them. They clap their hands and say, "Show us the monkey!" and I dance for them. These were happy years.  I remember when I was in college, I was at a party at my Aunt's house. I was the youngest person there. There was an older friend of hers, in his late thirties, slight gut, receding hairline, and we struck up a conversation; I told him I was a freshman in college. He looked up at the ceiling, and sighed, "College. Oh man. I loved college." He took a sip of his soda and told me, "These are going to be the best years of your life."  I remember being sad about that. Because I thought, if the best years of my life are over at 22, I've still got a good fifty, sixty years left. I just want them to keep getting better.  The past eight years have been amazing. Just earth shatteringly amazing. I think when I look back, these are the years I'm going to look back on fondly. Sure, I had no money, but I'll remember the parties we used to throw in the old apartment before we had a space to call our own, parties that would go on until the sun came up. I'll remember Opening Night of Midsummer Night's Dream when people just... kept coming. I'll remember standing O after standing O of Hedwig. 

 

Yes, I hope it still keeps getting better, but I think it's going to be more in the work. The work will keep getting better. As I finish up this question, I'm already half packed, already have keys to my new place in DC. For at least the next three years, I'm visiting Baltimore, and that's just... weird.

 

I just want to say thanks for making the past eight years the best eight years of my life. 

 

Thank you, Ryan for your amazing contributions to Baltimore theatre.  You've made it a better place for being here.  Best of luck in all of your future endeavors!

 

PHOTO courtesy of Mr. Whinnem. 


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