The image of Prince George's County as a budding arts center could get a boost with the expected mid-month opening of the area's first full-time live theater.
The new Laurel Mill Playhouse, on Main Street in Laurel's historic district, is planning to produce nine plays each year, from one-acts to full-length comedies, dramas and musicals. The performing space, which is being renovated, will be home to an established group, the former Burtonsville Players of Montgomery County, who have been without a stage for more than a year.
Theater enthusiasts are welcoming what they hope will become the area's most ambitious and busiest venue. Prince George's has only one professional theater group, the Metropolitan Ebony Theatre, which is in residence at Prince George's Community College in Largo. MET usually performs two or three plays a year, although this fall's production was canceled and their season remains in question. There are 10 community theaters in the county, most producing about three shows a year.
Only the Greenbelt Arts Center, which has seven productions on its 2002-2003 calendar, comes close to the Laurel Mill Playhouse schedule. The new Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, stages student plays and hosts performances by visiting professional theater groups, but does not produce its own plays.
"I don't think people realize how many artists we have in Prince George's County," said Marva Jo Camp, board president of the Prince George's Arts Council. "Once you give them venues, it really starts to make us look like what we are, and that's a place for the arts and arts organizations, a place that's welcoming to artists.
"It's a big step for the county, and may help make Laurel a destination for people from Howard, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties."
That is certainly what the 34-year-old theater company's members are hoping for as they work to ready the stage and plan for the opening night performance of "Over the River and Through the Woods," scheduled for Nov. 15. The warm-hearted comedy by Joe DiPietro is the tale of an Italian American family in New Jersey trying to keep their son from moving to Seattle.
Several weeks before opening night, director Linda Bartash, artistic director of the playhouse, was doing double duty as the project manager, overseeing every detail of the stripped-to-the-foundation renovation of the 100-year-old, two-story storefront.
On an otherwise lazy Sunday afternoon, the only time during the week that noisy construction work is not underway, Bartash sat in a chair facing the unfinished, ground-floor stage and put actors Patrick Bangs and John Decker through their paces.
The actors rehearsed a scene from what was to have been the playhouse's debut production, Stephen Malatratt's chilling ghost story "The Woman in Black," which has been running in London for more than a decade. (Due to construction delays, that play opened in the borrowed multipurpose room of the First United Methodist Church on Main Street.) Bangs portrayed a stage director steering an actor, played by Decker, through his scenes. Both men read from their scripts.
Decker had earlier helped to build the stage flooring on which the men now stood.
Bartash's intense concentration was broken when her cell phone rang: It was a cast member calling to say she couldn't find the theater. That was not surprising, considering that 508 Main Street didn't look much like a theater at that point.
With opening night looming large on the calendar, the two-story building on that day was still a dusty, skeletal shell full of construction equipment and materials. Walls were stripped to the bricks. Some of the aged mortar crumbled, and the support beams were exposed. Fluorescent lighting tubes dangled from wires overhead. The air conditioning/heating system hadn't yet been installed, so the front doors were propped open for ventilation. The steady whir of large fans mixed with the sound of passing cars as the actors read their lines.
"Actually, this helps gets us some word-of-mouth publicity," Bartash said. "People walking by often stop to watch the rehearsal while standing out there on the sidewalk."
That attitude has helped Bartash turn the community theater group from a nomadic band of performers, who at one time had performed at the Laurel Lakes Shopping Center, into the proud owners of their own theater.
Over the decades, the Main Street site has been a general store, a law firm and an antiques shop. The theater will encompass both floors, with a small stage and intimate seating area downstairs and rehearsal and work space above.
It took eight months of paperwork and inspections before the theater company managed to purchase the property for $189,000, a commitment made possible by a $40,000 gift from an anonymous donor. The plan is for monthly mortgage and operating expenses to be met by ticket sales. The annual budget is expected to be between $50,000 and $75,000.
Signing the papers was just the first hurdle. The renovation fell behind schedule over the summer and the theater's debut, which had been set for early September, was put off until Oct. 4 and then delayed again.
The volunteer status of the actors, technical staff, set builders and costume designers may make Laurel Mill Playhouse officially a community theater, as opposed to a professional theater in which participants are paid, but it will operate full-time and be self-supporting. Performances will run three to four weeks with only a several-week interval between productions.
About 90 people claim membership in the theater company, with a core of about 25 members who do most of the work. Members are doing all the renovation work except the air and heating, plumbing and walls.
Bartash said the core group had been larger but turnout had fallen off because the group had "gone dark" for more than a year.
"We want everyone to participate," Bartash said. "In Prince George's County, we have a very diverse population, and I'm really looking forward to a lot of participation from everyone. I want to have an ethnically and culturally mixed group.
"Theater should be inclusive. It has to be. This theater is not going to be the bastion of some elite group," she said. "We're really trying to aim for, besides the people of Laurel, we're looking to try to crack into the audience that's around 35 to 50, to make some headway there. It seems that's the one group where people are very busy, are careful with how they spend their money, and may be looking for something a little different."
Tickets at Laurel Mill Playhouse are inexpensive, even by community theater standards: $10 for plays and $12 for musicals, with season subscriptions offered at a discount. Free, on-street parking is plentiful for the performances, which will run Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons.
"I would like to claim that it's going to help provide economic revitalization, but only time will tell," said Laurel Mayor Craig A. Moe. "I do know the theater will bring new faces to Main Street and into the Laurel Shopping district.
"And I know there's a big potential audience out there. When you see even area high schools selling tickets for their productions to more than just parents and families, you can see there's a potential audience hungry for this type of entertainment. This is an exciting opportunity."