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Chesapeake Shakespeare Theatre plans move to $6 million downtown space

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, best known for its summer productions outdoors on the hilltop grounds of the 19th-century Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, has purchased a historic site for its second home — the 1885 Mercantile Trust & Deposit Co. building in downtown Baltimore.

That distinctive red building, currently the home of the Club Dubai, was purchased for the nonprofit theater company's use by the Helm Foundation at a price of $1.25 million, the first step in a project with an estimated total cost of about $6 million. Work on the project is scheduled to start next year, with a projected opening in 2014.

The Helm Foundation, a private, family-run philanthropic organization that supports nonprofits, is directed by Scott Helm, a trustee of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

"I am a big supporter of the organization," Helm said. "The quality of the work is very high. This is a neat opportunity for the company. I think the [Mercantile building] will be a terrific space for live theater."

The structure, with its carved ceiling and Corinthian columns, seems ready for transformation into a shape similar to that of the famed Globe Theatre in London, with a mezzanine circling three sides of a thrust stage.

"We think that people will enjoy having an experience with Shakespeare in a theater that's like the Globe," Helm said. "It will be very much like the Chesapeake Shakespeare aesthetic outdoors, which is very warm and approachable, without any real barriers between actors and audiences."

The 250-seat theater will be designed by Cho Benn Holback and Associates Inc., the architecture firm behind the new Everyman Theatre home being renovated on Fayette Street.

"It's a big leap for us, no doubt about it," said Ian Gallanar, founding artistic director of the decade-old Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, which has an annual budget of $500,000. "We can serve a lot of people up on the hill [at the Patapsco Female Institute], but we are close to capacity there. We wanted to see how we could reach out to more people."

Although the company has presented one winter production indoors annually, Gallanar concluded that the Howard County audiences primarily wanted the outdoor summer experience. The presentation of one or two productions each summer in Ellicott City will continue.

"It did not make sense to take this audience and move it somewhere else," he said. "I thought, 'Let's find another way to connect to another community.' Baltimore is a great city with very little [access] to classical theater right now."

The city lost its most prominent proponent of the Bard when the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival went out of business in 2011 after 17 years of indoor productions in Roland Park and outdoor performances during the summer months on the grounds of the Evergreen House. Another, smaller group, the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, which started in Carroll County, recently established a presence in the city.

Gallanar envisions as many as six productions a season, most of them Shakespeare plays, in the new venue. The place will also be used for educational activities, including student matinees. At some point, the space may be opened to other organizations and events, when the company does not have a production running, Gallanar said.

The company began looking for a possible city location late last year.

Before settling on the Redwood Street location, Gallanar said, he sought advice from the leaders of local troupes. Vincent Lancisi, artistic director of Everyman Theatre, welcomed the idea of a new company in town and took Gallanar on a tour of locations.

"All I can say is: 'Hip, hip, hooray! Hurry up. Bring it on,'" Lancisi said. "With the proposed arts district and the new leadership at Center Stage, there's a lot of good news going on in Baltimore theater right now."

Kwame Kwei-Armah, Center Stage's artistic director, said having a new theater dedicated to Shakespeare will push all the city's troupes to excel.

"It's wonderful news," he said. "The more theaters there are in Baltimore, the more choice audiences will have and the more all our games will rise."

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company opened in 2002 with four indoor performances at the Ellicott City location that drew fewer than 100 people — total.

"Last summer, we had over 30 performances and 6,000 people," said managing director Lesley Malin.

The expansion of the company is the latest sign of growth in the area's theater scene.

Ground broke late last month on a new venue in Columbia that will include a 200-seat theater, a lobby and reception space, a backstage and two classrooms/rehearsal area. The new facility at 9198-H Red Branch Road will be the home to two new companies: the Red Branch Theatre and the Drama Learning Center.

In the next few years, Center Stage plans to open a third performing space inside its Calvert Street location, a 50-seat theater that will be dedicated to productions of new and cutting-edge work.

"This is right up there in the things that I need to do," Kwei-Armah said. "We are fully committed to making that happen."

The sense of momentum in Baltimore is one of the things that attracted the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

"We think our moving here can help that movement," Gallanar said. "Everyman, Center Stage and [Chesapeake Shakespeare Company] all have different enough missions. I think our coming to town is a complementary thing, rather than competitive."

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