On Christmas Day in 1911, the Empire Theatre opened in downtown Baltimore as a vaudeville house. Look to the peak of its colonnaded Greek facade — the Empire is on Fayette Street, steps from Inner Harbor and around the corner from the Hippodrome — and engraved in the stone you’ll see the letter E.
Conveniently, that now stands for “Everyman” as Baltimore’s respected Everyman Theatre spends this holiday season tying a bow on an $18 million renovation of the historic building. The Empire has seen phases as a burlesque house, an indoor parking garage and a movie palace that opened with “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1947. But it has been closed since 1990 — the year Everyman began producing plays.
“It’s been waiting for us,” claims Artistic Director Vincent M. Lancisi, who founded Everyman. “If you believe in that stuff, as I do.”
Construction continues, but the Everyman staff has already spent several weeks settling in. The grand opening is planned for next month, when Everyman will christen the stage with a new production of the sprawling, explosive drama “August: Osage County.” Lancisi alternately grouses (mainly about costs, which he can itemize down to the light bulb) and beams (endless space, tons of gleaming new equipment) as he guides a tour of the 21st-century amenities surrounding his new 256-seat venue.
The story of a theatrical outfit moving out of a storefront and into legitimate architecture and design has been told often in Washington, but it’s just beginning in Baltimore. The evolutionary arc is familiar:
●Plucky troupe takes root in a run-down part of town. Since 1994, Everyman has been producing in a small space two miles north on Charles Street; the venue had 170 seats, awkward structural columns in the middle of the room and 11-foot-high ceilings.
“I like to watch the actors sweat,” a longtime patron recently wrote to Lancisi. This was a love letter to the little theater’s intimacy.
That block on Charles Street was 80 percent vacant when Everyman moved in. Now it’s reasonably aglow as part of the up-and-coming Station North Arts and Entertainment District.
●Find a niche; get noticed. The niche part has been easy because the theatrical competition is still fairly thin in Baltimore. Lancisi has been free to program standards: big American dramas by Arthur Miller and August Wilson and recent hits that for most locals don’t warrant an expensive schlep to New York.
This season’s slate features major, if obvious, titles by Pulitzer- and Tony-winning writers — Donald Margulies’s “Time Stands Still,” Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Top Dog/Underdog.” All, including “August: Osage County,” are Baltimore premieres.
The notice gradually swelled as Everyman staked its reputation on local actors. Baltimore’s big gun, Centerstage, often hired out-of-town talent, but last month Everyman regular Bruce Nelson starred there as Edgar Allan Poe. The actors are such a core component of Everyman that ghostly images of their faces are burned into the wall sconces inside the theater and along the roomy corridors. Oversize banners featuring more images of company members will soon be unfurled between the soaring columns outside.
●Parlay your reputation as a civic asset into newer, bigger digs as your city redevelops. Everyman’s new neighborhood is designated as the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District, an area just north of Camden Yards and anchored by the Hippodrome, the glorious 1914 vaudeville house that was lovingly renovated as a Broadway tour stop in 2004. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, currently of Howard County, aims to open its own space in this arts district within two years.
Lancisi gushes as he talks about the public support behind the move. Bank of America sold Everyman the Empire building for $1. State and city funding has been available through grants, bonds and tax credits, and the responsiveness in terms of infrastructural support apparently has been inspiring.
The building’s renovation cost is around $11 million; only $126,000 or so remains to be raised on the $18 million project. The lead donations were in hand as of 2007, just ahead of the 2008 economic crash: “Otherwise, this might not have happened,” Lancisi says. The company will emerge with a $2 million reserve fund to help cope with the increased cost of running the much bigger facility.
Upticks in creature comforts include lounges on the mezzanine and basement levels. Charm City Catering will supply food, and plans are afoot to have crab cakes from nearby Faidley’s — renowned for its jumbo lump — delivered to the theater.
The performance space itself, with seat cushions and walls in a deep shade of aubergine, features seating that is sloped but not stadium. (“I hate stadium seating,” Lancisi confides.) The back row is no higher than the actors’ eyes onstage, which the director hopes will help keep acting in the natural key he prefers.
Lancisi is directing the first play on the new stage himself, and he’s going big. “August: Osage County,” Tracy Letts’s 31 / 2-hour saga, unfolds over three levels of a bickering family’s old Oklahoma home. (The large cast will include company members Nelson, Deborah Hazlett and Wil Love, as well as D.C. stage star Nancy Robinette and former Woolly Mammoth linchpin Rob Leo Roy.) Lancisi says set designer Daniel Ettinger teased him: “You finally get a space where you can do a two-story set, and you do a three-story set?”
All moves upward and outward are risky, but this transition has been calculated to be more of a smooth glide than a dramatic leap. The annual budget is increasing only modestly, from $1.8 million to $2.3 million. For now, the season is expanding from five plays to six.
And while the enormous new rehearsal room might someday be the troupe’s second stage, Lancisi is in no hurry. He’s happy to watch the subscriber base continue to blossom, climbing to nearly 5,000 and renewing at a 90 percent rate.
As Lancisi says, reflecting in the bright December daylight that fills the airy, nearly finished lobby, “it’s Christmas.”
by Tracy Letts. Jan. 16 through Feb. 17 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St., Baltimore. Call 410-752-2208 or visit their Web site.