Baltimore’s historic 1885 Mercantile Trust and Deposit building has spent most of the 21st century remodeled as a mega-nightclub, ripe for hundreds of revelers grooving to deep beats. Yet when Ian Gallanar and Lesley Malin saw it, they dreamily pictured it as an update of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
Now “Shakespeare” is the dominant word on the smartly refurbished stone building’s new marquee at Calvert and Redwood, barely two blocks north of Inner Harbor. That’s where the 12-year-old Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, known for outdoor summer performances in Ellicott City, is making its move into Baltimore.
The $6.7 million project gets its ribbon-cutting next month, with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wielding the scissors. Performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” begin days later, which is why CSC artistic director Gallanar and managing director Malin are closing the door behind them in one of the new dressing rooms on the basement level and turning off the lights. In the dark, resident costume designer Kristina Lambdin demonstrates a set of fairy wings with flickering light bulbs that she’s just made in the company’s modest new costume shop across the hall.
“I love it,” Gallanar enthuses to Lambdin, one of several longtime company associates that CSC has been able to bring on staff full-time with this company expansion.
The CSC’s dramatic entrance into Charm City is the latest indication that Baltimore theater is moving into — what else to call it? — a new stage. Last year, Everyman Theatre completed an $18 million relocation from its small Charles Street home to a smartly renovated vaudeville house near the Hippodrome. The Everyman architect firm, Cho Benn Holback and Associates, also designed the CSC’s appealing retrofit of the Mercantile Trust building, and has been tasked with thinking about a new plan for Center Stage — Baltimore’s flagship regional theater — that could include a new 99-seat venue.
“I’m just so pleased that the theater community in Baltimore is expanding and getting slicker and bolder,” says Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah.
Last January, Single Carrot Theatre — created in the middle of the last decade by University of Colorado graduates who thought Baltimore would be a good place to start a company — opened a 99-seat stage a few blocks south of the Baltimore Art Museum, sharing the building with the restaurant Parts and Labor. Baltimore’s young-ish crop of DIY troupes is making strides, too. In July the Baltimore Development Corporation approved plans for three buildings on North Howard Street to be sold and operated as a center for several up-and-coming organizations, including EMP Collective, the Acme Corporation and Annex Theatre. Local developer Ted Rouse is involved, and the project’s price tag could reach $7 million.
“If block after block of D.C.’s downtown could be revitalized over the years, there is no reason why Baltimore can’t enjoy something similar,” critic Tim Smith wrote in the Baltimore Sun, praising the Howard Street initiative.
That project falls within the Bromo Tower Arts District, one of three state-designated arts districts in the city. (Station North and Highlandtown are the others.) The proposal awaits approval from the mayor’s office, which could come within the next week or so, according to Dan Taylor of the Baltimore Development Corporation.
“It’s really what we are shooting for, the type of project we would like to see,” Taylor said. “It starts to knit together the Howard Street corridor as an arts corridor.”
“We were very high on the proposal,” said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.
Of course, new facilities often bring new risks. “It’s a big leap,” Gilmore said. “That’s why I think the collaboration on Howard Street is the way to go.”
“We wanted to take control of our own destiny,” says EMP artistic director Carly Bales, “in terms of being able to own buildings that exist perhaps even beyond the life of some of the organizations involved.”
Evan Moritz runs the six-year-old Annex Theatre, which is to be one of the three “parent” companies at Howard Street. Two years ago, Annex took up residency in the Chicken Box, a former fast-food joint in Station North, leasing the space from the city “for a song,” Moritz said. Programming and audiences have grown at the Chicken Box, but that space will eventually be redeveloped for the Maryland Film Festival.
“It’s great for us momentarily,” Moritz said. “But we’ve been hopscotching all around the city for several years now, as have many companies.”
Acme co-artistic director Lola Pierson said she loves working in the Station North church that has lately been home, even with its constraints.
“Challenge activates your creativity,” she said. On the other hand, Pierson can’t help but wonder: “What could we be doing if we weren’t spending half of tech trying to borrow extension cords? It would be great to make work where we knew the lights were going to come on.”
One catalyst driving the changes is a Baltimore audience that apparently doesn’t self-segregate into isolated communities burrowing strictly into theater, or dance, or fine arts. Current Space and other galleries are already on the strip of Howard Street where the hub is proposed; Bales, Pierson and Moritz all cite the cross-fertilization as an asset, while Gilmore said there is “a lot of market” for what Baltimore artists are offering.
“You go to these places and they’re packed,” he said.
Another catalyst: “I think enough groups have been around just long enough and are just the right size that we’re starting to feel constrained,” Moritz said. He agrees with Gilmore and Bales that way forward is ownership. The upward mobility around Station North may already be pricing scrappy troupes out.
“Everyone can see it coming a mile away,” Moritz said. “If we don’t step up and take ownership, we will not have a strong voice in the neighborhood.”
Enter the Shakespeareans.
The CSC apparently doesn’t have to worry about being priced out of their new home rent-wise. The building was purchased by the Helm Foundation, run by Malin and her husband, CSC board member Scott Helm; the foundation put in $3.3 million. (Malin said more than $5.5 million has been raised overall, with $1.1 million to go.) Gallanar and Malin said the lease calls for CSC to pay $10 a month for 25 years.
The family-friendly CSC, created in 2002, has built a following with its spirited open-air shows staged among the ruins of the historic Patapsco Female Institute. (Those summer shows will continue to be offered at PFI; the company has been performing in the Howard County Center for the Arts — a converted elementary school — each winter.) The interior redevelopment of the Mercantile building makes virtues of the handsome three-story Corinthian columns and the striking coffered ceiling, painted bold purples and golds from its recent decade-long run as a mega-club.
The 266-seat CSC facility is a cousin of the courtyard stage created by D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth, only with a deeper thrust stage — the audience will sit on three sides — and more “vertical” feel. The railing of the third tier had to be raised to counter the dizzying sensation of gazing sharply down.
The CSC’s deliberately disarming philosophy is often to ignore the fourth wall and engage the audience, which sometimes migrates from scene to scene through the outdoor ruins with the performers. Creating that tone may be trickier with the new theater’s sharper boundaries separating performers and audience.
“It took us about 15 seconds to realize we can’t do what we do if the audience is in the dark and you can’t see them,” Gallanar said, during a rough rehearsal on the Baltimore stage,.
Gallanar plans to keep the house lights up slightly, so the audience doesn’t disappear. Further chances for friendly contact will be at the beer-and-wine bar upstairs (there’s another on the main floor), which stay open at least a half-hour after the show.
“It’s a bar, so an actor may show up,” Gallanar deadpanned.
The non-Equity company is doubling in size with this move: the staff has already expanded from five to nine full-time employees, and the annual budget is escalating from $600,000 to $1.3 million. The season is growing from four shows to seven, including “Comedy of Errors” outdoors next summer. All the selections are warhorses: “Vanya,” a Baltimore-set “Christmas Carol” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” are on the slate with four Shakespeares. For now, Gallanar isn’t worried about exhausting his audience’s appetite for the Bard, and the current commitment is for half the shows to be Shakespearean.
“We’ve budgeted very conservatively for the first year,” Malin said of the radical leap in size. “We’re not expecting to sell out.”
“It’s been in the forefront of most of our thinking,” Gallanar said. “Companies disintegrate, because it’s too stressful.”
Malin notes that even with only nine full-time staff and no real need for a scene shop – the ruins have usually been scenery enough, and designers can’t build anything elaborate on the new thrust stage – the organization is still “a little pinched for space.” The back of the stage is only a few feet from Redwood Street, so the honk and hum of traffic occasionally bleeds through to the theater.
Again, Gallanar is tranquil.
“I’m not concerned with blocking out the sounds of the city,” he said. “This is where we are. And we like being here.”
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Ian Gallanar. Sept. 25-Oct. 12 at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore. Call 410-244-8570 or visit chesapeakeshakespeare.com