As the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre works to relocate from its longtime home in Mount Vernon, the organization's move could mean restoring a landmark of black history in Baltimore and adding to the growing theater district on downtown's west side.
The 54-year-old theater is hoping to move to 123 N. Howard St., the building that previously housed a Read's Drug Store where a 1955 sit-in by Morgan State University students aimed to desegregate the lunch counter. It would also be just blocks from the Hippodrome Theatre and Everyman Theatre.
James "Fuzz" Roark, Spotlighters' executive director, began looking for a new space about a year ago. The theater's lease at 817 St. Paul St. — which seats just 65 — expires at the end of 2019, and he wanted to find a space with the capacity for a larger audience and room to develop its educational programs.
Roark turned to Everyman Theatre's founding artistic director, Vincent Lancisi, who moved his theater to the same neighborhood three years ago.
"Vinny has kind of been my Obi-Wan, my Yoda," Roark said.
Lancisi suggested getting on the city's radar, and introduced Roark to Brian Greenan, economic development coordinator of the Baltimore Development Corp., and William H. "Bill" Cole IV, president of the BDC. The space is one of 16 city-owned vacant buildings in what was previously known as the Superblock, and the BDC is seeking proposals to redevelop pieces of the block.
The BDC helped him narrow his focus based on the size of each building. If the theater does move into the 21,000-square-foot Read's building, it would provide extra space for classrooms, offices and a theater shop. The additional space would provide room to expand the theater's educational programming and its audience — between 110 and 120 seats.
Spotlighters would join the Hippodrome and Everyman, bringing an established community theater to the Howard Street corridor.
"We actually kind of add a third tier," Roark said.
There, Roark said, he plans to memorialize the civil rights history at Read's Drug Store. He wants to re-create the lunch counter at the drugstore as part of the theater's cafe.
"I think it's a wonderful use of the space, and it has all kinds of opportunities for talking about other civil rights events," said Helena Hicks, who organized the 1955 sit-in at Read's as a student at Morgan State. "We do not have anything in the city — no buildings, no written history for tourists, nothing — to let people know that Baltimore has this rich history and that Baltimore has really been the foundation for civil rights for a very long time."
She said she'd like to see a tribute to the students who participated in the sit-in as part of the new theater, with other materials highlighting Baltimore's role in the civil rights movement starting in 1942.
"The nation had to catch up with us," she said. "We were there way back then."
The theater aims to raise $30,000 in an initial round of funding that it will use to pay retainer fees for architects and developers, as well as fund a study into how much money it can expect to raise in a full-fledged capital campaign. The study, conducted by Arts Consulting Group Inc., will take four to six months.
So far the group has raised about $7,000, all from individual donations.
Roark estimates the project itself will cost between $3.5 million and $5 million at minimum. The scope will depend on Spotlighters' ability to raise funds and how many of the finishing touches the group will put on themselves.
"Spotlighters has always been about the art of theater, not having state-of-the-art systems," Roark said. "It's about actors on the stage and people in the audience. ... We're not looking at becoming the Hippodrome."
Roark said he plans to hire a full-time employee to focus on development once the capital campaign launches.
Lancisi advised them to take advantage of every funding option available, including federal, state and local tax credits, grants and private funding.
"People really rallied around us because we all want this downtown to thrive, so support has come out of the woodwork in some of the least-expected places," Lancisi said.
Susan Yum, a spokeswoman for the BDC, said she wasn't aware of any other proposals for the property, though she expects more bids to roll in closer to the Jan. 15 deadline.
Lancisi, who is also board president for the Bromo Arts & Entertainment District, said he would be thrilled to have Spotlighters join the neighborhood.
"People like to form critical masses around seeking arts and entertainment and all the amenities that go with it," he said. "The more the merrier, and it's not competition but added attraction that makes this area a really vibrant district."