Traveling theatre company provides thrills, skills, and adventure
Jesse Baxter experienced his first trip abroad as a 13-year-old, traveling to the Dominican Republic with his church youth group, and he caught the bug. The travel bug. If you’ve had a great adventure overseas, you’ll know what I mean. It’s that itch that starts almost as soon as you get off the plane. You feel like you could start packing as soon as your laundry is clean again, and your eyes are little out of focus until you know where you’re going next. He returned to the DR the following year and two years later experienced life on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, also with a mission team from his church.
When he came to Messiah College, he naturally sought study abroad opportunities—the only effective treatment for the travel bug. The theatre major spent a semester in England during his sophomore year. “It was during that trip,” says Baxter, “that I committed to myself to making at least one major trip every year for the rest of my life.” With foresight, he knew that his circumstances would determine how he would interpret “major.” For instance, he says, “If I was broke, maybe a major trip would be to Canada.”
His junior year, Baxter’s cross-cultural experience was a semester at the Philadelphia Campus. And before that year was over he was making plans for a senior January-term in Ireland at the Gaiety School of Acting in 2002 and a final May term touring Portugal.
Clearly, his condition was chronic. Since graduation in 2002, Baxter has traveled to Czech, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Croatia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.
After studying theatre at Messiah, Baxter moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. His first paying gig lasted 6 weeks, giving him time to get settled in the city and to find work with several national touring companies which focused on educational projects for young audiences. In a production titled “Revealing the Mysteries of Math” he played Renee Descartes with, he says, “a ridiculous French accent!” Other tours also were aimed at young audiences, and Baxter traveled the nation as a 9 -foot-6-inch tall giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
While he loved seeing the country and felt fortunate to be working in his chosen field, he couldn’t help feeling that something was missing. "Theatre is a two-way street,” he says. “The audience is just as important as the actors. But, we weren’t engaging the community. We were just driving into town, performing, and getting out. We never really got to know the audience. We never connected with the communities we were performing in.”
Meanwhile, a dream of his which had been with him for years was still lying under the surface. Baxter knew that he wanted to start his own theatre company one day, but he also knew that his company would have to be different somehow. He didn’t want to start another company that was like all the rest. "I studied these companies while I was in them," he says, "noting what they were doing right and wrong. I just kept thinking about what my company would be.”
He then connected with Jim Knipple, a friend from his undergrad days at Messiah College. Knipple had started Run of the Mill Theatre in Baltimore and invited Baxter to come to work on a show there. The August 2006 production, "Variations on Fear," involved playwrights, tech crews, and actors from Baltimore’s theatre community, “a real diverse crowd” according to Baxter. It was here that he first experienced the power behind community connection. His vision for his own theatre company began to take shape. “Some pieces of this puzzle came together in my head,” he says.
Baxter ran into another friend from Messiah, Ryan Keith, and was glad to hear that things were going well with Keith ’s ministry, Forgotten Voices International http://forgottenvoices.org/home/. Forgotten Voices is nonprofit organization that helps local churches in southern Africa care for the children in their communities who have been orphaned by AIDs. Baxter had been following what Ryan was doing in Africa, and he said to Keith, “What if we gave these forgotten voices a voice?” He talked with Keith about the possibility of bringing professional actors to Zimbabwe to perform plays that the children themselves had written. It would be a means of giving expression to what was in the hearts of children in a country ravaged by poverty, famine, and disease. It was, according to Baxter, one of those “random good ideas” that he never expected to turn into something real.
A few months later, Keith contacted Baxter to tell him that the ball was rolling. Keith had received promises from school teachers that within a few months they would have scripts written by the children of Zimbabwe. Baxter’s vision was going to become a reality. But, he knew he couldn’t do it alone.
By Susan K. Getty
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