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Chesapeake Shakespeare Company ready for its next stage in life

By Mike Giuliano

6:45 AM EST, February 14, 2013

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Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is following through on the Bard's famous statement that all the world is a stage. As if it weren't enough that this Ellicott City-based theater company already uses various Howard County sites for its indoor productions, it's moving ahead with its plan to convert a former bank building in downtown Baltimore into a new permanent home.

When that new home opens in 2014, all of the company's indoor productions will be staged there. Its outdoor summer productions will continue to be done at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City.

By way of bringing the Bard to Baltimore, this theater company's staff and supporters were joined by government officials at a Feb. 10 open house held at the new site; and the public also will get a chance to see what the pre-renovation space looks like at another free open house scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 24 from 2- 5 p.m. Architectural drawings will be on display to indicate the, er, dramatic changes that are planned for one of the most significant historic structures in downtown Baltimore.

Erected in 1886 at the corner of South Calvert and East Redwood streets, the Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Company was designed in the architectural style known as Richardsonian Romanesque. Its extremely solid brick and stone exterior walls seem suitable for a castle, which certainly made it seem like a safe place for Baltimoreans to deposit their money. Those strong walls ensured that it survived the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, which destroyed almost every other structure in the immediate area.

After the bank branch closed in 1993, the building became home to several nightclubs, which pumped loud dance music onto a banking floor turned dance floor. The most recent of the clubs, whose lounges included a basement-level, eyebrow-raising "Bedroom," closed late last year. A hip-hop, skip and a jump later, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has bought the building and is ready to start construction.

Having served as a banking floor and a dance floor, the main space on the first floor is being converted into a 250-seat theater.

"This space is really tall in relation to its width," observes architect George Holback, whose firm Cho Benn Holback and Associates is doing the renovation.

Indeed, there are imposing 33-foot-tall Corinthian columns that support an elaborately carved and painted coffered ceiling. That extreme height will enable the theater to have three levels of seating. It's a seating configuration that's providentially similar to what is known about the original Globe Theatre in London, where Shakespeare's plays were first produced.

Building such a lofty theater inside an old bank building comes at a price, namely, $6 million. Chesapeake Shakespeare Company already has raised $3 million toward the project, says company treasurer Scott Helm.

He adds that construction is scheduled to start this April and last into early next year. Not wanting to jinx the projected opening date, he notes that the new theater will "open not April 1, maybe the 2nd."

Founded in 2002, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company did "Twelfth Night" as its first show and plans to do the same play when it opens the new theater in 2014.

Company officials hope that its loyal Howard County audience follows it into Baltimore City, and correspondingly hopes that Baltimoreans welcome their new neighbor. The proximity of Center Stage, the Hippodrome and Everyman theaters has company and civic officials alike talking about a theater district in downtown Baltimore.

"The good news is that Howard County and Baltimore City are very closely tied. It's not like other cities and counties that are at war with each other," Helm states.

"We can have a positive impact on our great city of Baltimore," says Chesapeake Shakespeare Company artistic director Ian Gallanar. He adds that performances and educational activities will "have the place buzzing."

The 19,000-square-foot building provides enough room for such buzzing. Besides the stage itself, there will be company offices and dressing rooms. Of particular interest to many patrons will be a lengthy bar.

And families with small kids will appreciate a stage-adjacent "family room" that's being placed within a steel-walled room that back in the 19th century was advertised as a "Burglar Proof Money Vault." That way the crying babies inside the family room won't compete with the shouting actors on stage.

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company invites the public to a free open house on Sunday, Feb. 24 from 2- 5 p.m. in its future home at the corner of South Calvert and East Redwood streets in downtown Baltimore. The theater's next indoor production is Shakespeare's "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," running Feb. 22- March 17 at The Other Barn, at 5851 Robert Oliver Place in Oakland Mills in Columbia. This summer the two outdoor shows at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City are "Antony and Cleopatra" and "The Taming of the Shrew." For more information, call 410-313-8661 or go to http://www.ChesapeakeShakespeare.com.