"His warning was clear when I was 6 years old, and he would have been mad that I had to struggle. There were some really dark, dark times in the early years. But he would be incredibly proud of this moment."
When Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake presides Monday over the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the terra cotta and granite building at 315 W. Fayette St., it will be more than just the dedication of a building after an $18 million renovation.
It will be the physical manifestation of everything that the 51-year-old Lancisi has accomplished during the past two decades — as well as a declaration of faith that he can help transform another neighborhood.
Against the odds, Lancisi founded an ensemble of theater artists that for 23 years have bought homes in Baltimore, sent their kids to local schools and paid local taxes.
And as one of the three pioneers in the 1700 block of N. Charles St., Everyman helped turn around a once-blighted neighborhood into thriving Station North. The city officials who sold the company the former Town Theatre for $1 clearly hope Everyman and the Hippodrome Theatre to work the same magic on the west side.
"Most big cities have one or two big theater companies like Center Stage," says Teresa Eyring, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, a trade organization.
"But I've often thought that it's the people like Vinny who come in and create the next wave of smaller theaters that are so important in creating the cultural ecology of a city. But that doesn't mean that any old person can do it. It takes guts and drive and entrepreneurial ability and vision."
Gregarious, generous and accessible, Lancisi knows, has gossiped with and has shared a meal with everyone who is anyone in the local arts community. His favorite thing to say is, "Let me tell you a funny story about that."
As his theater company enters its robust middle age with nearly 5,000 subscribers, 19 full-time staff members and a $2.3 million annual budget, what he's achieved is obvious. Less apparent is how he did it.
The answer includes a "flame throw" and a bottle of scotch. (More on these later.) But it's also about the lessons learned by a 6-year-old boy sitting on his father's lap.
Ben Lancisi was a tough taskmaster when he was home, which wasn't often, since he taught in Massachusetts during the day and worked as a musician at night. It was Ben who took young Vinny to his first Broadway-bound musical and Ben who was a close-at-hand example of the joys and hazards of the performing life.
"He had 13 jazz bands with which he would tour New England," Lancisi recalls.
"And he had his own 32-piece, big band orchestra, the Ben Lancisi Orchestra, and I remember the stands with the 'BL' for Ben Lancisi. I learned early on that there were people who lived lives that were all sparkle and glitter."
He grew up in a blended family as the youngest of seven children.
"My brothers and sisters all wanted to learn to play the piano, but he wouldn't teach them," Lancisi says. "He was brutally honest and told them, 'You have no talent.' And then, along comes me, and he spends an hour every day teaching me the piano. He said, 'You have the talent to be a great pianist.' "
No wonder young Vinny absorbed both halves of the mixed message he received. It wasn't until Ben Lancisi had effectively left his family's life that his son took his first steps along his future career path.
After visiting his then-17-year-old son at his boarding school, Ben Lancisi began driving home and passed out behind the steering wheel.
"He was in the hospital and the priest was giving him last rites when he came to," Lancisi says.
"It turned out that he'd been having blackouts for a while but hadn't told anyone. He had early-onset dementia and spent the next eight years in a nursing home. He died in 1986, but I'd said goodbye to him years earlier."
Kyle Prue has known Lancisi since they roomed together at Catholic University of America, where Lancisi attended graduate school. (Now, Prue is an actor and Everyman's production manager.)
Even then, Lancisi had a vision of the theater company he wanted to found.
"He wanted to create an ensemble company that was all about the actors," Prue says. "That jazzed him up from the very first years I knew him."
The university required its master's degree candidates in directing to put together two productions. Lancisi directed five or six and sold ads to local business owners to pay for the costumes and sets. From the beginning, he exhibited a fiscal awareness unusual for an artist.
He staged exactly one show a year for the first five years of Everyman's existence, earning the money in advance for each new production. Similarly, groundbreaking on the Town was delayed until the money promised for the renovation was deposited into the company's bank account.
Lancisi's characteristic prudence also is a legacy from his father.
"He was a very business-savvy musician," Lancisi says. "He was meticulous about his investments and saved every dime he had."
Lancisi approached the Everyman launch with typical savvy, seeking advice and researching the theater scene in several states. He moved here after determining that Baltimore lacked a small, professional troupe.
The early years were rough, former Everyman board president Jeannie Howe says. It was said that Baltimore audiences would never support another local theater.
Everyman's first production opened in the fall of 1990 in a burnt-out church in Charles Village that had no heat. Lancisi rented what he described as a "flame thrower" space heater and set it up inside the church before each performance. He also borrowed blankets for audience members from a nearby organization that appeared to be in marginally better financial shape than the fledgling theater — a homeless shelter.
"We never lost a single audience member because of the cold," he says.
In the fall of 1994, Lancisi announced that his troupe would move into a converted bowling alley at 1727 N. Charles St. and stage a four-show season.
At the time, the vacancy rate in the area was about 85 percent, Lancisi said. Pawnshops and boarded-up buildings lined the street, and car break-ins were routine.
"People thought I was nuts," Lancisi says.
He opened a production of Sam Shepard's "Buried Child" to acclaim — and promptly lost his shirt. At the end of the run, the theater was $18,000 in debt. The board of directors met to close the theater.
As Lancisi remembers it, someone broke out a bottle of scotch. At night's end, the scotch was gone, but the theater was not.
Lancisi scaled back the season and launched a subscription drive. Gifted actors returned again and again, partly because Lancisi increased their pay whenever he could. Slowly, the company took root.
It's not surprising, then, that in Everyman's new home, the actors' faces literally beam down on everyone who sets foot in the building — in the lobby, in the hallways, and in the audience. (Set designer Daniel Ettinger superimposed old production photos onto wall sconces.)
If Lancisi gets his passion, drive and business acumen from his father, it was his mother, Kitsy, who contributed his warmth and joie de vivre. She taught her son how to turn up the fire and blend raw ingredients into a nourishing stew.
An enthusiastic Italian cook, Lancisi's staff teases him about his "big green egg" — the pricey outdoor grill in the backyard of his Crownsville home.
"He was really obsessed with it for a while," says Howe, now the executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.
"We'd sit down for lunch, and inevitably, the conversation would turn to, 'What did you have for dinner the night before, and how did you cook it?' And, 'I've never tried that before, and oh, my God, that sounds good.'"
During a recent technical rehearsal for "August: Osage County," Lancisi was in perpetual motion, patrolling the aisles and perimeter of the theater like a sheep dog. Partly, he was checking sight lines and coordinating sound and light cues.
But he also checked in periodically with everyone in the room, — actors, designers, stagehand and even observers. What might pass as chit-chat about '70s sitcom music or vacation plans had an underlying purpose. In the most tactful manner possible, Lancisi nudged a laggard here and headed off a wanderer there, and got everyone moving purposefully in the same direction.
If Lancisi has a superpower, it might be that he creates a work environment that's warm, exciting and fun while still making tough decisions. Lancisi has fired people when he thinks it's in the company's best interests.
"Vinny is most definitely the boss," says ensemble member Carl Schurr. "He's always flexible, but he knows what he wants. At some point, he'll say, 'No, we're going to do it this way.'"
It's not surprising that Lancisi chose a black comedy about a dysfunctional family for his new theater's inaugural production.
Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" has a large cast that incorporates actors in the current ensemble and old friends from the troupe's early years. The three-story set shows off the 25-foot ceilings and catwalk.
And, perhaps coincidentally, the plot features a patriarch who disappears at the end of the first scene but dominates by his absence.
When Lancisi introduces his new theater this weekend, there will be no bandstands with a "BL" on them. But, there will be a building with a great, big "E" on top. Neither parent will be there — his mother died last year — but three sisters will be in the audience.
"I'll be thinking about the two of them a lot around the opening," Lancisi says. "I'm sure that they'll be there in spirit. "
He will stand on stage before them all, in the role he was born to play: the leader of the band.