Early in the renovations at the former Town Theatre movie house on West Fayette Street, a member of the architectural firm was hoisted on a cherry picker and spotted something beneath the grime up at the top of the facade of the century-old building. It was a single capital letter: "E."
"Everybody got such a kick out of that," said architect Diane Cho of Cho Benn Holback + Associates. "It was very kismet."
That "E," left over from the first commercial establishment on that spot in 1911, a vaudeville house called the Empire Theatre, would fit just fine for the new owner — Everyman Theatre.
This week, about 18 months after work on the $18 million renovation project started, Everyman, a 22-year-old professional Equity company with an admired corps of resident actors and designers, opens its new home to the public.
It's a bold step for Everyman, which is increasing its annual budget from $1.7 million to $2.3 million and adding four staffers (for a total of 19) as a result of the move. And the opening of the company's new home makes a major addition to the city's West Side.
"More theater is better," said Jeff Daniel, president of the Hippodrome at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, located around the corner from Everyman. "It's going to have an impact on the neighborhood, the Hippodrome and the new Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District. Happily, that impact couldn't be more positive for every one of them."
There is a lot of history behind the Everyman property. After a couple of decades, the Empire was refurbished and renamed the Palace Theatre, where the burlesque entertainment proved so risque for Baltimore that the place was shut down in 1937.
The building was turned into a parking garage before resuming as an entertainment destination in 1947, this time as a 1,550-seat cinema, the Town, which was shuttered in 1990.
Bank of America and the Harold Dawson Trust turned the building over to Everyman for the sum of $1 in 2006. A fundraising campaign drew major contributions from the city, corporations and foundations, as well as numerous private donors. Enough money was collected early on that the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 slowed the project only slightly.
"The magnitude of what we did was especially incredible during a bad economy," Tresselt said.
Historic preservation tax credits helped with the project; that also meant maintaining the original walls and roof. "That left no room for expansion" Cho said.
On Monday morning, the next chapter of the site officially begins with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of the original white facade, where its Corinthian columns now gleam again. Inside, the soaring lobby is covered with textured wallpaper in a bold raspberry shade and animated by drawings of set and costume designs from past Everyman productions.
"This way, we sort of bring the old theater with us," said company artistic director Vincent Lancisi.
That's the only physical connection to the old Everyman, a nondescript, low-ceilinged, converted bowling alley on North Charles Street the company rented for almost 20 years.
"We had 10,000 square feet of usable space there," said managing director Ian Tresselt. "Now, we have 34,000."
The new performance space has walls and seats covered in a dark, rich aubergine shade, creating a look Cho describes as "a little velvet curtain-y." The room has a calming, welcoming effect, achieved economically.
"That's just stained plywood on the walls," Tresselt said. "The floors are recycled plastic bottles. The handrail is reclaimed steel. It's very eco-friendly."
Everyman is wasting no time showing off the most important element of the facility. Lancisi's choice for the inaugural production is the Baltimore premiere of Tracy Lett's 2008 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, "August: Osage County." This epic-length work calls for something the company could only dream about before — a three-tiered set.
"At Charles Street, one floor would have been the limit," Tresselt said. "We could not have done a play like this in that space; it would not have served the play. Here, the 'August' set is complete with an attic level. This theater opens up the canon of work we can do."
While the theater is vastly different from the old one (a state-of-the-art lighting grid and substantial backstage scenery shop with abundant storage are among the new features), that doesn't mean that the audience will experience a drastic environmental change.
Seating capacity has increased modestly, from 170 to 253. There are only four more rows than in the old house, and the first row in the new theater brings the audience even closer to the stage than was the case before.
"I don't feel overwhelmed by this space," Tresselt said. "It still feels very intimate to me."
Bruce Randolph Nelson, a longtime Everyman artist who is in the "August: Osage County" cast, had the same reaction after starting rehearsals there.
"I think what's most impressive is that they have continued the direct connection with the audience that we had before," the actor said. "The stage took some adjustment for the actors. It meant speaking a little differently, being crisp with consonants, because, for the first time, we have height. But we don't have to speak out more."
The intimacy at the Charles Street facility was mitigated by the presence of several thick columns that presented sightline problems. No such drawback in the new theater.
The former venue had other issues, including too few restrooms, especially for women, and a single, tight lobby. In the new building, in addition to a generous restroom allotment, there are two airy lobbies and some "conversation nooks." There's a full-service bar, too.
The mezzanine lobby, with its high front windows ("We wanted people inside to relate to the front facade, to be able to see the Corinthian column tops," Cho said), has room for cozy tables and a baby grand piano. It looks like a chic urban lounge.
"The lobby is not just a place to pass through on the way to the show, but a destination place," Nelson said. "I'll be visiting the bar after showtimes."
Before performances, patrons can drink and nosh on food purchased from Charm City Gourmet's food truck parked outside (table service will be available for those disinclined to order food on the street). There are also plans to provide the option of crab cake deliveries from Faidley's Seafood at nearby Lexington Market.
Throughout the building, decorative sconces dot the walls, each with a shade emblazoned with faces of the actors who have performed with Everyman.
"They light up, and there's my mouth," Nelson said, adding with laugh: "For the actor who thinks it's all about him, that's very exciting."
The Everyman building includes an expansive rehearsal room on the second floor, soundproofed so one production can be rehearsed there while a main-stage performance is taking place directly below. Lancisi envisions using the rehearsal room as a black box theater in the future (it will be put into service for this week's gala parties and meals).
A room with 30-foot high, exposed brick walls on the third floor could become yet another rehearsal/performance space one day.
The administrative area on the second floor emphasizes the family atmosphere the company has long cultivated. Lancisi and Tresselt have offices just outside the rehearsal hall, with windowed doors that open up to a common break room. In a nearby room, personal lockers for the actors have been installed, a few feet from where staffers have their desks.
"One of the greatest compliments I got from Vinny [Lancisi] was when he said, 'It feels like home.' That makes me happy as an architect," Cho said.
It's a home without a mortgage. The building construction is paid for, and the company is $120,000 shy of the $2 million reserve fund that is part of $18 million renovation project's budget.
"It's wonderful to have someone invest $18 million next door," the Hippodrome's Daniel said. "They didn't move into the neighborhood with hat in hand. They come with assets and benefits. And they're so eminently likable and wonderful to work with. It is wonderful to have a partner in crime like Vinny."
Speaking of crime, although there has been no major uptick in crime on the West Side, recent incidents, including an early morning shooting outside a nightclub in October, have added to a perception of an unsafe neighborhood.
"People were very vocal about that when the theater project started," Tresselt said. "But the subscription numbers do not indicate that anybody went away. We have more subscribers that last year. We're just under 5,000; the goal is 5,200."
With the theater company bringing its audiences into the local mix, the neighborhood could change considerably over the next few years. In addition to the Hippodrome, the area also includes the EMP Collective, an edgy venue for contemporary artists and musicians.
"The Bromo Tower District is going to become a place you want to be," Daniel said. "Now we need to recruit some restaurants and wine bars. I can see it happening."
On the other side of town, Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the city's other Equity house, Center Stage, is also welcoming the opening of the new Everyman.
"It just makes me smile," Kwei-Armah said. "I'm just overjoyed for Vinny, for Everyman, and for theater in Baltimore. All eyes are now on Everyman, so I've got to get my game up, and that's no bad thing."
The Everyman company will have an opportunity to step up its game in an inaugural season that includes three more Baltimore premieres including Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage" starting in March. That all of this activity will unfold in the company's own handsome space delights Everyman veterans.
"To watch this old boarded-up space, which smelled like it had not been opened in forever, turn into all of this, a space custom-designed for us, exceeds expectations," Nelson said. "There is a lot of pinching yourself, a lot of jaw-dropping. And to work in a place that once did live theater, to retain the 'E' from the Empire Theatre — it's all perfectly cyclical."
If you go
Ribbon-cutting: 10 a.m. Monday at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St., followed by a public tour of the facility; free admission.
Pay-what-you-can: Preview performance of "August: Osage County" at 7 p.m. Tuesday
Previews: 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday ($38 to $45).
Gala-priced performances and receptions: Friday and Saturday ($200 to $400).
Regular performances: Begin Jan. 22 and run through Feb. 17 ($10 to $65). Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.