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Baltimore theater companies in a building boom

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Vincent Lancisi stands in a pile of rubble sweating under his hard hat, while all around him — board by board, pipe by pipe and hammer blow by hammer blow — a theater is taking shape.

It's still nearly eight months until the opening of Everyman Theatre's new home in the old Town Theatre, the former vaudeville palace downtown that is undergoing a $17.7 million transformation, and it's starting to look like a performing space. Last week, the stage went in, and Lancisi, the troupe's artistic director, can barely contain his excitement.

"When most men turn 50 and have a midlife crisis, they buy a red convertible," Lancisi says. "I'm getting a theater. I'm looking to giving our artists and our audiences the setting and the theatrical experience they deserve."

It isn't just the exposed brick walls of one particular jewel-box stage that's giving Lancisi such a thrill. It's the revitalized live theater scene for the entire Baltimore area.

The Town is merely the project currently closest to completion in what is proving to be a construction spurt in the Baltimore area for performing arts spaces. The changes already are starting to affect the kind of fare that local audiences will see on stage.

"I think Baltimore is on the cusp of a cultural renaissance," Lancisi says. "We've always had great theater, but now there's getting to be a critical mass."

In addition to the Town, projects that either have been completed recently or are in the works include:

•The newly rechristened Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, which reopened last fall after a $12.9 million renovation. The bigger, deeper stage enabled the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre's main company to perform locally last week after an absence of 18 years. It will also allow the venue to bring back Cathy Rigby's technically challenging "Peter Pan" to Baltimore for the first time since the 1990s, when it was performed in the old Mechanic Theatre.

•The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, which plans to move into the 1885 Mercantile Trust Building at Redwood and Calvert Streets in 2014 after a $6 million face-lift. The 250-seat theater will be the next step, artistic director Ian Gallaner says, in the evolution of his 10-year-old troupe into a fully professional company.

•Columbia's Red Branch Theatre, which broke ground April 30 on a building project that will double the size of its existing performance space at 9198-H Red Branch Road. Stephanie Williams, Red Branch's owner and executive producer, estimates that she'll need a six-figure budget to transform the existing 96-seat space into a 200-seat theater with a lobby and reception space, a backstage and two classrooms/rehearsal areas. She expects construction to be completed later this year or early in 2013.

Center Stage, where artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah says he's "fully committed" to finding space inside the company's building at 700 N. Calvert St. in the next few years to construct a third theater with 50 seats that will feature new and avant-garde works.

"There is so much momentum in Baltimore right now, in terms of people having a sense of what the possibilities are," says Teresa Eyring, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, the trade organization for American nonprofit theaters. "It's pretty exciting, actually."

Why Baltimore? Why now?

The reasons can be difficult to tease out: The economy has improved slightly, helping to revive projects that have been in the works for years. Local arts groups have begun planning joint programs aimed at drawing patrons — and dollars. And finally, there's been a gradual realization that theaters built in the past weren't the correct size.

Baltimore's building boomlet is typical of what's happening with theaters nationwide, Eyring says.

"When the economy tanked for the second time in 2008, a lot of theaters put on the brakes and proceeded cautiously with plans to expand," Eyring says. "I'm not seeing a lot of new building going on right now, but I am seeing a lot of renovation."

A Baltimore native, Eyring thinks that several of the city's smaller troupes are coming of age at about the same time. And that, she thinks, is pushing the building boom.

"When small and midsize companies have established themselves, they need to support their artistry by continuing to grow," she says. "Building projects don't happen unless there's a sense in the community that they need the work that a particular troupe is doing, and they need a space in which their shows can be performed."

Partly, the construction is a response to an oversight that occurred in the second half of the 20th century, when lots of 2,500-seat halls were built to accommodate touring Broadway musicals.

But when the nation's regional theater scene exploded, the nonprofit troupes staging Mamet or Shakespeare had nowhere to perform. These theater companies could never fill thousands of seats for each performance. They needed venues of between 100 and 500 seats, and those halls simply didn't exist.

That's why, from the very beginning, Red Branch's Williams planned to create a theater that would also benefit other arts organizations. She says she has a waiting list of groups eager to stage shows in the expanded hall.

"There's a dearth of smaller performance spaces for rental in Howard County," she says. "We want to be the arts facility for the area and rent out our theater for dance recitals, voice recitals and concerts."

And it's possible that Red Branch's spiffy new digs won't just give some troupes a place to perform — it could also increase the number of overall productions taking place in Howard County and the audience to enjoy them..

In nearby Washington, for instance, there was unprecedented building in the past five years, in which six of the district's largest companies moved into new or renovated homes that cost more than $250 million to build. Since then, theatrical activity has increased in the area by about 20 percent, according to the organization theatreWashington.

"The same thing is starting to happen here," says Chesapeake Shakespeare's Gallaner. "I think Baltimore is about 10 years behind Washington. Momentum is so important. I never know why it occurs. But we have it now, and it's contagious."

If Baltimore's theater scene has been a bit slower to take off, it's partly because Washington has two assets that Charm City lacks. Baltimore doesn't have a conservatory-oriented graduate theater program that floods the local performing scene with aspiring young actors, directors and designers. Nor has Baltimore created an umbrella organization that raises money exclusively for the arts.

It might be that a performing arts fund has never gotten off the ground here because arts organizations have tended to isolate themselves instead of banding together to combat common problems.

"The only thing that ever held Baltimore back is Baltimoreans," Lancisi says. "As much as this is a charming city, this is a new day. It's time for us to talk to one another."

He's already started doing just that.

On a recent weekday, Hippodrome president Jeff Daniel could be found touring the Town, wearing a hard hat emblazoned with the black-and-white Everyman Theatre logo. The two men meet frequently for coffee, and when Gallaner was hunting for a new building, he consulted with them both.

For his part, Daniel has demonstrated that he's as eager to promote local arts organizations as he is to import the newest hit Broadway musical. He knows that the future of his own venue depends upon it.

For instance, Daniel persuaded the owners of nearby vacant buildings to provide temporary gallery space for local artists.

"The Hippodrome has been alone in this neighborhood for too long," Daniel says. "And that's the fun part, running into someone at Starbucks and coming up together with a crazy plan to make something different."

Eyring sees a shift in thinking, not just in Baltimore but in society at large.

"There was a time when arts organizations thought that if they collaborated with one another, they'd have to donate staff time and it wouldn't generate much revenue for them," she says.

"But, there's been a change of mindset. There are just fewer boundaries than there once were. Maybe it's because of the Internet and maybe it's because of globalization, but the world is just a more social place now than it once was. Some of that is starting to find its way into organizational practice."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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