Chesapeake Shakespeare Company: The charming Bards of Baltimore
By Nelson Pressley,
In less than 10 years, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has become a winsome local poster child for the classic outdoor, family-friendly theater experience.
Before a recent Sunday night performance of “Pride and Prejudice,” which is being offered in repertory with “Romeo and Juliet,” you could drop the kids at a face-painting table, catch a Jane Austen lecture under a tent and watch a sword-fighting demonstration in a grassy area by a hot dog cart.
After all that, founding artistic director Ian Gallanar, in a short-sleeved baseball shirt and flip flops, welcomed the overflow crowd. Then the show itself played out against the backdrop of the CSC’s summertime stage: the stone ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute, a girls’ school built in 1837 just up the hill from Ellicott City’s ultra-quaint historic district.
“Oh! I can’t see!” chirped an ad-libbing actress, squinting into the setting sun as Austen’s marriageable Bennett sisters cheerfully swatted a shuttlecock back and forth.
The CSC’s future, however, lies in a Baltimore nightclub two blocks from the Inner Harbor, where the current aura is a little different. A disco ball looms high above a semi-sticky dance floor. Sultry backlighting illuminates rows of liquor bottles. Downstairs there’s a basement bar called the Bedroom, where patrons can loll (a safe verb) on mattresses within curtained alcoves.
Such adults-only particulars will be stripped away when the CSC takes possession of the building next year, leaving the bare bones of the Mercantile Trust Building. Two stone columns soar upward in the main room, an 1885 bank space that is on the National Register. A mezzanine looks down over what will be a thrust stage, with the audience on three sides. Capacity will be about 250 to 300.
The expansion into Baltimore is a major development for a $540,000-budget troupe that has grown steadily since it opened a decade ago with a “Twelfth Night” that Gallanar says was attended by about 100 people — not per night, but altogether. The move is also part of what is shaping up as a significant shift in Charm City theater, where an indigenous professional scene has yet to flourish. The moment the CSC opens for business, it will be the third largest company in town.
“I think there’s some momentum,” says Gallanar, sitting in a coffee shop with managing director Lesley Malin. “And I think a little bit of that may have to do with an eye or two glancing over to Washington and seeing what’s happened there the last few years, saying maybe we can do that.”
Center Stage has long been the big dog in Baltimore, and the recent appointment of the charismatic British playwright-director Kwame Kwei-Armah as artistic director has plainly energized the community. But the city’s second-most successful troupe, Everyman Theatre, is making huge strides of its own, converting an old burlesque-turned-movie house near Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the Hippodrome into a 250-seat theater scheduled to open in January. Gallanar and Malin are quick to credit Everyman founding artistic director Vincent Lancisi for guidance as they searched for their own space downtown.
Says Lancisi: “Anytime we can welcome another professional theater in town, it’s an exciting time in Baltimore. I call it a movement.”
For Gallanar and Malin, it’s been some time in the making. Gallanar had run a theater in Minneapolis and a touring operation based in Texas that familiarized him with the mid-Atlantic. Working on Shakespeare in Minnesota had been “life-changing,” he says, and when he looked for a next step after the Texas experience, he thought of Baltimore: “Here’s a great American city that doesn’t have a Shakespeare festival. Let’s go there.”
Malin had been in New York managing the Lark Play Development Center, where she remains on the board. Her husband had a job offer in Baltimore, which suited them both; neither wanted to start a family in New York. (Malin, like Gallanar, has a child slightly younger than the CSC.) For fun, Malin auditioned for that 2002 “Twelfth Night.” She was cast, and quickly started working in the new troupe’s office.
“I thought it could really be something,” says Malin, who manages the non-Equity company’s budget and currently appears as the fretful Mrs. Bennett in “Pride and Prejudice.”
Until recently the CSC performed one or two of its four classics a year indoors at the Howard County Center for the Arts, a converted elementary school where the company is headquartered. Since 2010 the indoor shows have been at Oliver’s Carriage House — yet another historic building — in Columbia.
But the bulk of the audiences have come to the summer and fall shows at the PFI ruins, where the troupe’s casual aesthetic may be at its most natural. Gallanar is after an effect that he initially identified only as “not stuffy.”
What that has meant is a more open relationship between actors and audience. Performers are routinely in contact with the audience before and after performances. Sometimes they sit with the audience and watch.
“That’s a little jarring to people sometimes,” Gallanar laughs, “when they turn around and one of the actors in the show is watching the show. It’s an attempt to demystify the process and to say we’re all in this work together. We all have our part in this.”
The next part for Gallanar and Malin will be raising more than $4 million to renovate the Mercantile building — bought for the CSC by a donor for $1.25 million — and provide an operating cushion for three years as the company’s budget likely doubles. Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, says there is “across the board support among city agencies” for CSC’s move; the troupe already plans to offer daytime performances of “Romeo and Juliet” for schools two months each year.
The output, like the budget, will just about double; seven or eight shows a year are forecast, including summer shows continuing outdoors at PFI. “We’re going to need more involvement,” Gallanar says. Audiences will have to increase from the current 12,000 to 20,000 a year. And while 60 percent of the company’s income is earned, more support will be needed.
“Our eggs are not in as many baskets as we would like,” Malin says of the CSC’s contributed income. “That’s one of the things we hope the expansion to Baltimore will help change.”
The sturdy red brick building is an inspiration. Like the ruins, it already has age and style and open space for actors and audience. (It even has a genuine bank vault with seven-foot-thick walls where, Malin suggests, discontented kids will be able to retreat during performances.)
“That’s what we learned at PFI,” Gallanar says. “We embraced the environment, rather than converting it into something else. And that’s what we saw in this building. This building can be what it is already.”
Pride and Prejudice
Romeo and Juliet
Through July 29 at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah’s Lane, Ellicott City.
Call 410-313-8661 or visit ChesapeakeShakespeare.com.