For the past 12 years, the name Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has been most associated with its outdoor productions in summer and fall, reached by trekking up a hill to the rustic ruins of Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City. Audience seating typically involved folding chairs or blankets.
This week, the company inaugurates a striking new home in downtown Baltimore that suggests a hip version of the famed Globe Theatre in London where Shakespeare's own company performed.
Players "will have their exits and their entrances," as the Bard says, on a thrust stage, tightly enveloped by three tiers. There are 260 red, padded, ergonomically designed benches for patrons.
"It's Globe-ish, but comfy," says Lesley Malin, Chesapeake Shakespeare's managing director.
Instead of dingy shipping containers and portable lavatories set up on the park grounds in Ellicott City, actors will now have use of honest-to-goodness dressing rooms and restrooms. There's plenty of space for costumes and scenery, too.
The facility was created out of the handsome, dark red-bricked Mercantile Trust and Deposit Co. at South Calvert and Redwood streets. This 1885 Romanesque Revival-style structure survived the 1904 fire and, more recently, unsuccessful incarnations as a restaurant and nightclub.
The building's richly painted ceiling and grand interior columns remain in its new theatrical guise, complemented by inviting cocktail bars on two levels, one with a baby grand piano for post-performance entertaining.
In a nod to the past, the company found a vintage teller's window to install at the box office in the small foyer of the front entrance.
Preservation Maryland, one of the country's oldest historic preservation organizations, has taken note of the renovation project.
"We think it's fabulous," says Doug Harbit, development director of Preservation Maryland. "We're giving it our Phoenix Award on Oct. 14, an award reserved for preservation projects that demonstrate innovative adaptive reuse of a historic structure. I think the theater is an exciting and vibrant addition to the Baltimore theater scene."
Chesapeake Shakespeare is not abandoning its Howard County roots; a summer show will continue to be presented at the ruins. But the company's primary focus has shifted with this move into Baltimore. The operating budget, previously about $600,000, has doubled; the number of productions is increasing, too.
Founding artistic director Ian Gallanar and other staffers started considering a new direction about five years ago.
"We were inching up on [audience] capacity at the park," Gallanar says, "so we started asking ourselves: Do we want to stay at this size or do something else? In Howard County, we were providing our audiences what they wanted. Why change that dynamic and force them indoors? What if we could continue to provide that and also open another place?"
The company had tried out various indoor spots in the county for non-summer productions but found them lacking. Heading off to Baltimore did not seem sensible, since the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival had been in business there since the mid-1990s.
Then, as if through a Shakespearean twist of fortune, an opportunity arose. When the cash-deficient Baltimore Shakespeare Festival unexpectedly shut its doors in 2011, the Chesapeake group cast a fresh eye on the city.
"The loss of Baltimore Shakespeare Festival was tragic," says Everyman Theatre artistic director Vincent Lancisi, "but it left a niche that Chesapeake Shakespeare Company will fill beautifully."
The $6.7 million theater project — the company has about $1 million more to raise — began with the purchase of the Mercantile structure in May 2012.
"Where else could you purchase a historic downtown building for $1.2 million, except maybe Detroit?" Malin says.
Construction started in August 2013 and finished 12 months later. A ribbon-cutting ceremony on Monday will be followed this coming weekend by a black-tie gala, a family festival and performances of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"To have all this happen so fast is a little mind-boggling," Malin says.
To see the theater take shape so soon after last year's opening of Everyman Theatre just a few blocks away is also remarkable.
"I truly believe that we're seeing the beginning of a golden age of theater in Baltimore," Lancisi says. "I already consider Single Carrot Theatre established. Small theater companies are cropping up and getting traction. And there's the incubation project on Howard Street with Annex Theater, Stillpointe Theatre Initiative and others," which plan to convert abandon buildings into theater venues there.
The arrival of Chesapeake Shakespeare in Baltimore means more work for actors (the company pays everyone, though not Actors' Equity union scale) and more choices for theater-goers.
In addition to "Midsummer," there will be two more works by the company's namesake during the inaugural season: "Richard II," opening late October in what is believed to be its first-ever Baltimore staging; and, opening in April, "Romeo and Juliet," which will have regular performances and student matinees (the company plans to provide an educational production of "Romeo and Juliet" every spring).
Also on the lineup this season will be a couple of 1890s classics, Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" and Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," running in repertory in February and March with a shared cast.
Rounding things out during the holidays will be a dramatization of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," which the company expects to bring back every year. "Our version will be set in Baltimore in the 19th century," Malin says. "It won't be a hon Christmas," Gallanar adds.
This is the first time Chesapeake Shakespeare has ever offered a subscription season. Gallanar says the bulk of subscribers so far are coming from the city and Baltimore County.
Lancisi does not see the new company in the vicinity as a threat to his own customer base.
"I'm not worried about audiences at all," he says. "And I'm so thrilled for Ian and Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. It's a seminal moment for the organization. Nobody knows better than me what a new theater means. Life will never be the same for them, in a very positive way."
Gallanar has been savoring the changes.
"Building a theater is exciting enough," he says, "but the part that keeps surprising me is that we got to custom-build one to our purposes."
Those purposes include a desire to capture some of the flavor of performances at Shakespeare's Globe, which had an open-air roof and where audiences were close to the action. Although the Ellicott City location allowed for some of that, the new facility takes the concept much further.
Theater-goers and performers will likely be very aware of each other's presence.
"Our style has always been about connecting personally to audience members, so the idea of having the stage surrounded by them was an easy decision," Gallanar says. "The bench seating is certainly conducive to that, too."
And house lights won't always be off during performances, Malin says, another throwback to Shakespearean practices.
"Chesapeake Shakespeare had a vision of a modern interpretation of the Globe, which was outdoors, raucous, a place meant to be for the people," says Khanh Uong, senior associate at the architecture firm of Cho Benn Holback and Associates, which designed the space (and Everyman Theatre).
The Mercantile building fit Chesapeake Shakespeare "perfectly," Uong says. "As soon as I saw it, I told them, 'You guys were meant for each other.' It's the only type of theater company that could have inhabited this space."
The structure already had the equivalent of a mezzanine and balcony inside, lending itself to the vertical Globe style.
"We wanted to get people as close to the stage as possible," Uong says. "There are maybe three or four bad seats where you might have a column [in your way]. Every seat is going to be a different experience."
As for hearing what's onstage, preliminary tests have been encouraging.
Chesapeake Shakespeare "actors are used to working outdoors and projecting," Uong says. "And the company wasn't worried about having pin-drop acoustics, with no ambient city noises."
Ellicott City performances invariably were accompanied by the sounds of a passing train.
"Now we have sirens," Malin says.
The company is prepared for other sounds, too. When the architects confronted the ground floor bank vault in the building, they decided to make use of it.
"It was turned into a family room where you can take your kids if they get a little antsy," Uong says.
There, children will find assorted costumes and props to play with and the cool vault door to study, while parents can follow the performance on a TV monitor.
As for those out in the house, they will find an unusual diversion as well. One of the bars — both are inside the theater — will remain open during shows.
"You can get up and go for a drink if you like," Uong says. "It's meant to be a very festive atmosphere."
The whole building seems to give off a festive vibe, as if it is celebrating its unlikely revival as a theatrical house. Audiences are likely to celebrate, too.
"As Ian says, we want people to experience Shakespeare on their terms," Malin says, "not ours."
If you go
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company inaugurates its new theater at 7 S. Calvert St. with "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Sept. 25 to Oct. 12. Tickets are $15 to $48.
There will be a black-tie gala at 6 p.m. this Saturday. Tickets are $250 (includes play and reception). A Grand Opening Family Festival will be held at 1 p.m. Sept. 21. Tickets are $25 to $75 (includes play and children's activities).
Call 410-244-8570 or go to chesapeakeshakespeare.org.