BALTIMORE, Md. – You probably dont know the Strand Theater Company in Baltimore. Tiny joint, converted storefront in the Station North area, 55 seats, just entering its fifth season.
The person who just took over leadership of the Strand might ring a bell, though. Rain Pryor, Richards 43-year-old daughter, is now running the ship.
And while Pryor is candid about volunteering to pimp my name to get the shoestring troupe a little more visibility, her theater bona fides are strong. Pryor is currently enjoying off-Broadway success with her solo show Fried Chicken and Latkes, an autobiographical monologue with jazz music featuring Pryors takes on her famous father, her Jewish mother, showbiz and more.
Fried Chicken was not a critical hit when Pryor took the Strand job for no money this year. Jayme Kilburn founded and ran the Strand as a troupe focused on womens issues and female artists, but moved on to other pursuits. Pryor, nudged by friends, applied and was hired by the cash-strapped company, which operates on just under $30,000 a year, according to new managing director Elena Kostakis (also volunteering, for now).
In August, Pryors solo show got one of those business-boosting reviews in the New York Times, which called her a robust, ebullient performer with an outsize presence built for Broadway. According to Pryor, Broadway types have since popped in to inspect the show.
Meantime, Pryor is directing the opener of the six-show season she has chosen for her Baltimore company, Dylan Brodys Mother, May I.
So you could say its complicated right now for Pryor and the Strand.
Shes a mother, an artistic director and a producing artist in her own right, Board President Aaron Heinsman says. Shes spinning a lot of plates. So far, its working out.
Shes a force of nature, says Kimberley Lynne, theatre events coordinator at the University of Baltimores Spotlight UB Performing Arts Series, where Pryor has acted and directed several times. Lynne says Pryor is scheduled to direct Paula Vogels How I Learned to Drive during the spring semester.
Underlining how hands-on the head of an emerging company with no staff or budget often has to be, Pryor greets a visitor with a shout-out from the scruffy theaters bathroom, which she is scrubbing to a ship-shape shine.
Thats the challenge, the agreeable Pryor says repeatedly and in many contexts, sitting on the dining room-living room set of Mother, May I (which the company is billing as a sad comedy).
Pryor has actually been in Baltimore since 2006, when she fled Los Angeles. She had a book published that year, Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love and Loss with Richard Pryor (the place to look for details of that extremely complicated relationship).
Richard Pryor, who suffered from multiple sclerosis in his later years, died of a heart attack at 65 in 2005.
My dad died, and it kind of woke me up, says Pryor, who inherited her fathers tight smile and warm, slightly surprised eyes.
I can stay here (in L.A.) and end up like those kids of celebrity parents. But somethings going to happen. Somethin. I dont know, but sumpn. L.A. kind of breeds that.
She had some friends in Baltimore and found it affordable but still close enough to New York to stay connected to showbiz, even though she was backing out of a scene where she had enjoyed a measure of success (notably with ABCs Head of the Class and Showtimes Rude Awakening).
Pryor is married to Baltimore policeman Yale Partlow, 34. They have a 4-year-old daughter, Lotus, who recently came to see Pryors show in New York.
Now, she wants to direct me, Pryor laughs. I said, What did you think of the show? She said, Its great. I think you need some new songs.
For a period, Pryor was a stay-at-home mom. Then she briefly taught theater to middle school and high school kids, an experience she did not enjoy. (She blames the system, not the kids.)
Then she got her courage together and tackled stand-up comedy – tough, Pryor says, because it isnt natural to her (though she is funny, and creates characterizations lightly and easily in conversation). Inevitably, some audiences expect her to somehow naturally step into her fathers shoes.
No, Im still working it out, she says. Im still new at this.
The solo show – a monologue with songs that she has been working on for some time – is more comfortable for her, and she was thrilled by the critical reception.
That was crazy. I cried, she says with a gentle laugh. I was like, are you sure theyre talking about me? Are you sure its not someone elses show? ... I was so afraid to have an off-Broadway run in New York. Doing festivals, its safe. No one really reviews a festival, and if they do, you dont care. Its a festival.
The escalating attention comes with costs, starting on the family front. Pryor says that as the New York gig ramped up, her husbands nervous response was, Whats happenin? Whats happenin?
And for the Strand: Is Pryors rebooted performing profile a plus? Or is the drain on her time, which includes not only family but also some teaching and directing in Baltimore, too much added stress and distraction in a season that Kostakis describes as pivotal?
Thats the challenge, Pryor says.
She makes no bones about the fact that things need to change soon for the Strand to move up. Yet she also sees the richness of the challenges, even as she unleashes a bitter Ha! that blows away any notion that the kids of the famous comic have a luscious trust fund to see them through.
We got left nothing, Pryor reports, amending that to a small sum that came as a surprise. But she praises the work ethic, and credits the simple wisdom of self-help gurus.
I have done what they said to do, and I have built this life here in Baltimore. And my show ended up off-Broadway. So Im kind of like, Oh, they were right. If you visualize it, and work toward it, and put action toward it every day, it can happen.