Last Monday, city officials pushed dozens of artists out of the Bell Foundry art space in Station North due to fire code violations. Among the unfortunate creatives suddenly left without studios and practice space were the dedicated members of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society.
The rock opera troupe affectionately known as BROS has been around since 2007 and had been working out of a leased first-floor space in the Bell Foundry building for four years. Its volunteer members built their facility up and had used it to construct their sets and decorations and, rather importantly, to practice.
The city launched its evictions days after a fire killed dozens in Oakland who were living and working in a similar DIY space called “Ghost Ship.” Officials said the fire code violations they discovered in the Bell Foundry included a lack of a valid permit, unsafe conditions, use of flammables and combustibles and unlawful removal of ceiling beams. A spokesman denied any tie between their decision to condemn the building and the Oakland fire.
Whatever it is that truly led to the evictions, the forced closure of the Bell Foundry has now left BROS without a place to hone their craft or even assemble the raw materials for their shows. As a result, the troupe is looking to get a permanent headquarters of its own that would house a performance and practice space, along with offices and plenty of other digs.
“We’re starting a campaign to build a long-term home for BROS,” said Aran Keating, BROS’ artistic director, in a YouTube video announcement for the fundraiser. “We want to work to continue to inspire people in Baltimore to build large-scale and collaborative performance and create a home for a large and inclusive community.”
In the announcement, Keating says that BROS has performed its last seven shows in seven different spaces, which is not the most convenient way to go about running a rock opera ensemble. The most recent one, “Brides of Tortuga,” played at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park. BROS managing director noted to Baltimore Fishbowl in October that its Bell Foundry space was “full to the brim with ships, boats, and cannons.”
Speaking by phone today, Keating noted that they haven’t really found a place that works well for the group’s purposes while using a host of venues.
“We’ve become an organization that’s really durable because things have been so hard for us,” he said in an interview. “It wasn’t enough that we have to manage a volunteer experience with 100 people in every show. We do it in disparate spaces. In addition to BROS headquarters, we’ve had to get band practice, tech rehearsal, musical rehearsal and building spaces for every show that we do.”
BROS’ new fundraiser seeks to provide a permanent solution for those headaches. The group, which has now been a registered nonprofit for around a year-and-a-half, has set a goal to amass $75,000 in donations. Fifty-thousand dollars of that money would go toward a “nest egg” that would reserve funds for installation of light infrastructure, audio equipment, customizing the space and decorations. The other $25,000 would go toward general operations, including equipment and space rental and production tools, according to the fundraiser’s Crowdrise page.
As for the structure they would use, BROS plans to seek grant funding to acquire a building to house its planned rock palace, which would be dubbed “The Paradise.” The group has already had renderings of the space drawn up. By its estimates, the building would require a minimum of 12,000 square feet, with at least 7,000 reserved for a concert hall and the front and back houses, and at least 4,000 square feet for a workshop, offices, storage and other rooms. Other crucial conditions include an equity stake in the property, that it sits within city limits and space for partner organizations, such as a brewery, an education or performing arts organization or a live music venue. (Full plans can be read here.)
Keating acknowledged the plans could change, but that’s the vision for now.
A major motivation for the effort is the desire for the Baltimore Rock Opera Society to finally be in control of its future. In the video announcement, Keating noted that being pushed out of Bell Foundry “was not the first time that BROS volunteers have put hard work into to a building where the owners were ultimately unable to get it up to code.”
What he was referring to is the BROS’ old space in the former Autograph Playhouse, a movie theater once located on 25th Street. “We started sweeping up the rat shit, cleaning the walls…turning an abandoned theater into a usable space where we hosted three full-length rock operas over the course of a couple of years,” Keating said. “Similar to the Bell Foundry, the owner was happy to collect rent from us, but not spend the money to make the building code-compliant.”
They worked out of there from 2010 to 2013. Just before the final show, the city fire marshal showed up and said authorities needed to shut down the space because it wasn’t code-compliant. The fire marshal’s office let them hold the final show, but the owner “never got the building up to speed” and eventually sold it, Keating said.
Now that they’ve had to leave the Bell Foundry behind, BROS is seeking help from developers and grant-making organizations for a new building. However, he said that because BROS has less than two years of audited experience as a 501c(3) nonprofit, there aren’t many organizations willing to provide them with money.
Meanwhile, developers in the city have expressed interest in creating a space for them, but have been unwilling to commit, Keating said. The whole ordeal has become frustrating.
“We’ve proven we can have an impact on the city of Baltimore. We’re at the point where it’s like, ‘do you want the grassroots thing to stick around or not?’ If you want it to stick around…we want the big money donors to start stepping up.”
Facing these challenges, the Baltimore Rock Opera Society is currently limited to raising through private donations (enter the new fundraiser) and ticket sales. So far, the effort officially announced only this morning had raised nearly $4,000 by 4 p.m.
Lauren Aycock Anderson has played in the band, composed music and sang in BROS shows for several years, including the most recent one, “Brides of Tortuga.” She described the closure of the Bell Foundry space as “heartbreaking,” but noted that they are a resilient ensemble that has overcome obstacles before.
“The whole attitude of BROS is to be epic and do something that’s different from the norm,” said Anderson, a musician and licensed therapist and coach for creatives by trade. “This is a huge, huge challenge, but I think that BROS in general faces challenges head on, and we do what we can to keep the rock opera happening.”
As for their colleagues from Bell Foundry, Keating said he hopes the artists there can pull something new together.
“There needs to be another space like that where musicians and artists have a space where they can express themselves,” he said. The rock opera troupe would also love to have a stake in that effort, he said.
For BROS, the eye is toward the future. “Our people are ready to get this going,” Keating said.