Last July, it seemed every corner of Olney Theatre Center for the Arts was a stage, and everyone was trying to find room to read lines.
One of the oldest professional theaters in the county, Olney was juggling five shows in performance or rehearsal, from Shakespeare's "As You Like It" to Athol Fugard's "The Road to Mecca."
"Some rehearsals moved outside," said Debra Kraft, the theater center's managing director. "And when it rained, we moved into the lobby and shared [space] with the box office. Meanwhile, three different rehearsals might be going on on the porch, along with board meetings and people sewing costumes."
By August, however, things had changed. The theater's fund-raising campaign had brought the completion of the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theater Lab. That space, which has adjustable seating and can accommodate 75 to 125 people, was available for rehearsal and performances.
The lab, said artistic director Jim Petosa, is "miraculous." He used it for rehearsals of "Death of a Salesman" before moving the actors to the 450-seat main stage theater.
"The set for ['Salesman'] is one of those huge sprawling epic sets," Petosa said of the theater's current offering. "A year ago, I would be rehearsing this play on the porch in shrunken dimensions and explaining how this would be for actors when imagining space completely different from what they'd be performing in. And then I'd have two days to adjust to the main stage."
Since fund-raising began in February, three area families contributed $100,000 apiece to the theater's immediate goal of $1 million by year's end. The theater hopes to raise $14 million within a decade and to add several structures to the 14-acre property off Route 108.
Among smaller-scale projects, the funding will help construct another 400- to 450-seat main-stage theater, an outdoor amphitheater, a cinema to show independent films and new administrative offices.
Shelley Mulitz contributed $100,000 on behalf of her family to build the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, named for Mulitz, her husband, Tommy, and other family members. "I thought this was a major venue in our area, and we wanted to be part of it," Mulitz, 44, said of the Olney center.
Silver Spring residents Maggi and Bob Root, who contributed $100,000 for the amphitheater to perform Shakespeare in the summer, said the theater's outreach programs motivated them to give money.
Theater officials and actors visit area schools every few months to teach students how to appreciate theater, Kraft said. But Olney also uses young talent, as he did last March when 190 high school students appeared in the chorus of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."
But even then, the children, who were rotated 30 a night into the chorus, "lined up in the kitchen waiting to go on" because of limited backstage space, Kraft said.
"We need a new performance space, because the old one is really beyond capacity," Kraft said. "Stress fractures nearly closed us down two years ago [at the current theater]."
Petosa has been meeting with the firm that would design the proposed main stage, Robert Lamb Hart of New York, to discuss his ideas for the building. Petosa said he envisions a space similar in size to the current main stage but different aesthetically; the main stage now is a converted barn.
"The mission is to create an audience space where their experience with the play can be more intimate," he said. "It'll be two-tiered, with a balcony and orchestra and more contemporary feel."
Olney officials said the new main stage is likely to be completed by 2002.
Kraft and her board figured a quick civil-engineering fix would not be as effective in the long run as a comprehensive redesign for the 60-year-old site, which started as a pavilion for summer shows.
During the last two years, money for renovation and expansion also has come in from public coffers. In April 1998, the state and county each granted the theater $1 million, with the state funding requiring Olney to match it. The money Olney has raised so far is part of the Maryland mandate.
Still to be determined is the fate of four acres abutting the theater center to the west. Theater officials hope it will be a restaurant to augment the center's expansion. "Let's just say our 100,000 [annual] visitors would really appreciate it," Kraft said. "No doubt, it'd create a destination point."
Lawrence A. Shulman, a real estate lawyer in Rockville representing the land's owners, TORE LLC, said a restaurant is as much a possibility as a bed and breakfast or artists' studio space. "It's all preliminary," Shulman said. "The property is planned for an 185-seat restaurant and planned for 30 bed-and-breakfast kind of rooms. But there is no specific plan at this time."