After 17 seasons, Baltimore Shakespeare Festival folds

The cash-strapped Baltimore Shakespeare Festival is closing its doors after 17 years in operation.

The demise of the small troupe, effective immediately, reduces the number of the city's professional stage companies from three to just two: Center Stage and Everyman Theatre.

"Everyone is devastated," Peter Toran, the president of the festival's board of directors, said Wednesday.

"The decision to close was not made lightly by any means. I've known since I became board president almost two years ago that there were systemic budget issues that we needed to address. We tried everything. We severely cut staff, and we saved money everywhere we could save it. No one is to blame."

The festival produced shows during the cold-weather months inside St. Mary's Outreach Center in Roland Park and outdoors during the summer in the Evergreen House meadows in North Baltimore.

"They have played a unique and valuable role in the whole ecology of Baltimore," said Michael Ross, the former managing director for Center Stage, currently a consultant for Baltimore's largest regional troupe. "Everyone should have the experience of attending Shakespeare in the park."

There has been talk inside Baltimore's theater community for some time that the festival's future was in jeopardy. The troupe has been sending out distress signals for more than a decade, though a generous gift in 2007 briefly prolonged the company's life.

Though the immediate cause of death was financial, the underlying causes are more difficult to analyze.

With an annual budget of about $150,000, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival was a small troupe that had as its mission a particularly expensive theatrical form.

"Shakespeare is very labor-intensive," said Vincent Lancisi, artistic director of Everyman Theatre.

"These shows require a lot of costumes and elaborate sets and fight choreographers and speech experts, and that adds up to a lot of rehearsal time. It's like opera without the musicians."

Comparing the differing fates of the Shakespeare Festival and Everyman Theatre can be instructive. Both companies were started from scratch and with minuscule budgets around the same time; the Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1993, Everyman in 1990.

The Shakespeare troupe performed to an annual audience of fewer than 10,000, artistic director Michael Carleton said in a 2009 interview, while Everyman's annual attendance has grown to about 40,000.

And while the Shakespeare company is folding, Everyman is in the midst of a $17.5 million project to renovate a former vaudeville palace into the troupe's new home.

During the past two decades, Everyman has staged exactly one production by the Bard — 2007's "Much Ado About Nothing."

"A show's cost also affects how long you can afford to keep it running," Lancisi said. "At the end, the festival was only mounting two shows in the winter, and the runs were just three weekends long. They weren't producing enough to stay in the public eye."

Perhaps the Shakespeare Festival's road would have been easier if the board of directors had felt less strongly about maintaining the company's professional status and had dropped its contract with Actors Equity, the union for stage performers.

These contracts can make survival difficult for struggling companies, because they set minimum wages for actors and restrict the hours performers are allowed to rehearse.

But because the Shakespeare Festival possessed this costly credential, the Baltimore troupe had access to the top actors, directors and designers in the region — all of whom are barred from performing in nonunion productions.

"We started as a non-Equity company, and if we had dropped our contract, it would have cut our costs," Toran said. "But that's exactly what we weren't going to do. You want to pay your actors, just like you pay lawyers and doctors and teachers. Our goal wasn't survival at any cost."

Over the years, the quality of the productions varied significantly. Some of the strongest shows were the company's non-Shakespearean productions, though the festival's recent staging of "Richard III" broke indoor attendance records, Toran said.

In 2007, an anonymous gift of $1 million gave the company a badly needed infusion of life. Initially, the money was targeted for an endowment that was supposed to safeguard the company's future, but not all of those funds were used for that purpose.

"When I came on board, I inherited between $170,000 and $220,000 in debt," said James Kinstle, the Festival's former artistic director.

"By the time we received the $1 million donation, I had whittled that down to about $91,000. We used the gift to pay off our debt and to finance the next season. When I left in 2008, there was still a lot of money left, about $700,000."

The economic downturn that started in the fall of 2008 robbed the troupe's cushion of about half its value, Toran said, but board members didn't give up.

They hired Carleton as artistic director, and he began to stage shows that were classical, related in some way to Shakespeare and had small casts. (One example was a 2009 production of David Davalos' "Wittenberg," a modern play whose four characters include Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.)

Wherever he could, Carleton reduced expenses, including the controversial firing of two of the theater's four staff members. (Now the two who remained — Carleton and Chris Pfingsten, the company's marketing and development director — are themselves unemployed.)

But the cost-cutting still wasn't enough to make ends meet.

"We had to use our endowment to break even," Toran said. "That money ended up being part of our operating budget, and that is not acceptable. Now, it's all gone. Basically, we have just enough left to allow us to close."

Kinstle said that several of the talents nurtured by the festival have gone on to productive careers in the community. He is artistic director of a children's company, Pumpkin Theatre. Raine Bode is assistant production manager at Center Stage, and Laura Hackman heads the theater department at Roland Park Country School.

In addition, "Wittenberg" had been produced only rarely before it was mounted at the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival in May 2009, and a few months later at Rep Stage in Howard County. "Wittenberg" is now running off-Broadway, and Davalos credits the two Baltimore stagings for reviving interest in his show.

"This is the close of one chapter," Toran said. "But I think that in the future, another chapter will open. As an optimist, I have to believe that."

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