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Everyman Theatre marks first year in new venue

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On Jan. 14, 2013, a crowd gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony on West Fayette Street at the site of what had been the Empire Theatre a century earlier. With a restored, glistening facade and entirely new interior, the venue officially opened as the Everyman Theatre, new home to one of Baltimore's finest cultural assets.

One year later, the company is flourishing there.

"This was a risky move," says Vincent Lancisi, Everyman's artistic director. "It's nice to walk in the building and go 'Whew, we made it.' We made the transition from [a rented location on North Charles Street], and we made it through our first season in this space."

That space, the result of an $18 million renovation project, was inaugurated last January with "August: Osage County," the Pulitzer Prize-winning, funny/dark Tracy Letts play about a troubled Oklahoma family. (The work is back in the news now that it has been turned into a film.)

This week, Everyman presents another Pulitzer Prize-winning, funny/dark play, Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart," this one about a troubled Mississippi family. (This 1979 piece also became a movie.)

"It was the hot new play when I was a kid," Lancisi, 52, says. "All that Southern Gothic writing and the humor — Beth Henley is right up there with Faulkner and Williams. It has become a modern American classic."

Chances are, the "Crimes" production will be another success for Everyman, one of Baltimore's two professional theater companies. It has been on a roll since the relocation.

Attendance has been strong; several productions were extended because of demand. Panel discussions and behind-the-scenes programs have also proved popular and are being increased.

"The real test was not so much how people reacted to the new theater, but whether they came back for a second season," Lancisi says. "We now have more subscribers than at any time in the history of Everyman. And our [subscription] renewal rate is almost 90 percent, when the national average is 72 percent."

Since the company left the Charles Street spot, more than 600 new subscribers have signed on, bringing the current total to 5,000. For the last full season before relocating, the annual budget was $1.7 million; it's $2.6 million this season.

That growth has meant more fundraising pressure. "We had never asked donors for huge amounts of money," Lancisi says, "but we are now faced with doing that on a regular basis."

One sign of the new fiscal reality for the company was apparent at its annual winter gala last month. The ticket price was $325, about $75 more than the galas during the last Charles Street years.

"We were over-sold," Lancisi says. "The gala raised more money than ever; we netted $110,000. But at the same time, I was aware that we were leaving out a layer of Everyman supporters who can't afford that price."

So a spring fundraiser is being planned with food and wine offerings organized by prominent restaurateurs Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf. There will be $100 tickets for this one.

The new theater involves more expenses than the previous one, including a computerized, green-energy heating and cooling system that has cost more to operate than anticipated.

But the advantages of the theater remain considerable. There's room for the stage crew to build and store multiple sets at a time, for example, a luxury unknown at Everyman's previous, cramped site.

Some adjustments have been made to the theater since last year's opening, in response to audience feedback. When patrons sitting close to the stage complained of not hearing the actors clearly, acoustical panels were re-angled, and some surfaces changed from absorptive to reflective.

"Those complaints have gone away," Lancisi says. "We also took six inches off the stage to give more legroom in the first row. We've taken a wonderful space and made it better."

"Crimes of the Heart" opens at 8 p.m. Friday and runs through Feb. 2.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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