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Arts Collective EMP Ready For Next Act in New Space

EMP Collective's Eric Bowers, Nolan Cartwright and Ken Jordan
EMP Collective's Eric Bowers, Nolan Cartwright and Ken Jordan - Steve Ruark
The chaotic, enchanting collage of video, live performance, masks, music, fast food and visual arts was staged. Televisions tumbled across the stage. A young corpse, resurrected, screamed at the audience. Ken Jordan, playing a man who’d already chewed his foil-wrapped burger sighed and said, “Just show me something I haven’t seen before.” 


In the afterglow of the success—or perhaps the flickering of dozens of televisions, the artists sprawled in the space to plot their next act.

Welcome to EMP Collective, a multimedia arts experience that can include cinema clubs, Artscape after-parties, gallery openings, music, live talk shows and movies produced in 48 hours show at the Charles Theatre. Audiences leave entranced, scratching their heads or grinning broadly as if they’re in on a singularly subtle joke. There’s lots of laughter.

EMP Marketing Director and classically trained musician Katy Dubina explains that its goal is keeping up with our ADD culture.  Dubina’s mouth twists into a sly smile. “You might not know what’s going on, but you’ll know it’s cool.” “You might not know what’s going on, but you’ll know it’s cool.” - EMP Collective's Katy Dubina

During the first six months of 2012, EMP has staged more than 40 events, playing with and to nearly 1,000 audience members who come to see the “all-inclusive, awkward and amazing” performances as Producing Director Maggie Villegas deadpans. Its $25,000 budget last year came from donations, ticket sales, a Kickstarter campaign, private fundraisers and grants. EMP members anticipate doubling that this year.

The all-volunteer organization is now hashing out the details of lasting: the paid staff and the permanent home. By the end of the month, EMP will move into its new, second-floor space at 307 Baltimore St., just directly above their current 5,000-square-foot home in the Faust building.

EMP’s initial move to the first floor of the Faust building was funded with a Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. Operation Storefront grant. Intended to populate empty storefronts and abandoned buildings in downtown west Baltimore, Operation Storefront accepted twelve applications for long- and short-term operations from artists to bookstores, ten of which came to fruition. Other recipients have included D Center, Everyman Theatre Education and Outreach and clothing store Jody Davis Designs

Downtown Partnership spokesman Mike Evitts says Operation Storefront’s goal is to enliven vacant first floor spaces and create energetic street life. Arts organizations like EMP are crucial to creating activity at all hours. Indeed, EMP is at the heart of the city’s latest arts district, the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District, which includes a wide section of downtown Baltimore’s west side.

Jimi Kinstle of Pumpkin Theatre too lauds the Collective’s focus on young artists and the “flexible space” that adapts to an unspeakably wide variety of shows. “It’s a great little SoHo feeling.”

Steven Krigel, Single Carrot Theatre resident stage manager and EMP contributor, says EMP are the people “who always say ‘yes.’”  “It doesn’t matter where the idea is coming from, they’re always getting the best from people” and producing “quirky, inclusive and talented” shows. 

EMP has come a long way since 2007 when Florida State University students Villegas, Carly Bales, and Brad Cartwright opened a series of short plays scrambled together with live bands “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Tallahassee. Then Villegas and Cartwright moved to Baltimore to work at the Baltimore Opera Co. and met Dubina.

Normally, it’s not over until the fat lady sings, but for the EMP arts collective, that’s the moment it began. When the Baltimore Opera’s curtains closed in 2009, EMP’s opened with former Baltimore Opera staff Maggie Villegas, EMP’s producing director, and member Brad Cartwright teamed up with Villegas and Dubina.

Perched on leather bar stools at Waterstone Bar & Grille, Villegas’ and Dubina’s eyes gleam as they envision a Baltimore where nothing “prohibits us from walking from one neighborhood to another.” They lean forward. Their voices pulse.  “It’s not just buying tickets, the curtain going up, the curtain going down, and walking away. It’s the whole experience,” Dubina says. She says they collect artists. “All kinds, all forms, we’ll take it.” 

EMP is ready for its spotlight. 

Rachel Wilkinson is an avid traveler and Charm City resident who lives in Arcadia. She teaches English at Loyola Blakefield High School and at UMBC.

Photographs by STEVE RUARK
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