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Annapolis

Maryland Hall becomes new home of Compass Rose Theatre and Creating Communities

Producing artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne sits in the newly renovated Compass Rose Theater. She designed  the hinged flats on the stage to provide actors with several places to enter and exit. This is the new theater-in-residence at Maryland Hall.

By her own admission, Lucinda Merry-Browne needs to “stop opening theaters.”

“This is number five,” she said, clambering over chairs and onto a new stage at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, despite a broken foot. “I hope this is the last one.”

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Merry-Browne founded Compass Rose Theater in 2011, and the troupe has been itinerant ever since, putting on plays in several retrofitted spaces and the Graduate Hotel. Now, for at least the next two years, she can call Maryland Hall home.

Last month, Compass Rose coronated its new venue on the top floor of Maryland Hall, a former rental reception space that now features a stage, tiny wings, a sound booth and about 75 seats. Construction costs were around $9,000, not including working with a lighting designer to install all the theater’s lights in the new space. (Merry-Browne said she hasn’t received the bill yet, the renovation is that new.)

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The addition to the Maryland Hall family comes at a time of significant change and programmatic expansion for the arts center, a former Annapolis high school still owned by Anne Arundel County Public Schools, that reopened as Maryland Hall in 1979.

“We have a lot going on,” said Jackie Coleman, the arts center’s executive director, who came to Annapolis in March and has been busy ramping up Maryland Hall’s post-pandemic programming.

In addition to welcoming Compass Rose, the arts center is preparing to absorb Creating Communities, a small Anne Arundel County arts education nonprofit that will be dissolving and coming under the Maryland Hall umbrella next month. Coleman called Creating Communities, which offers a variety of after-school programming at several schools and puts on a musical each year, a “beloved brand in the community.”

Rob Levit, the jazz educator who founded Creating Communities in 2007, is stepping away, Coleman said. The nonprofit organization had an annual budget of $200,000, according to tax records. Levit did not return requests for comment.

The organization’s board brought the merger idea to Maryland Hall, and the timing made sense, given that Coleman was in expansion mode.

“We just felt that with the rebuilding and reimaging, that this was the right time,” she said.

Creating Communities will join Jóvenes Artistas and Hood2Good Movement as free Maryland Hall-run outreach programs. Those are in addition to the library of visual art and craft classes offered by Maryland Hall, and performing arts instruction available on-site from Peabody Institute, the Royal Academy of Dance, Maple School of Irish Dance and Ballet Theatre of Maryland.

Coleman’s other new initiatives include hiring a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant and launching a robust volunteer program. She’s also partnering with Anne Arundel County Public Schools to offer free tickets for students enrolled in the “Apex” arts magnet school programs at Annapolis and Broadneck high schools, as well as Bates and Brooklyn Park middle schools.

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Coleman rolled out the program this fall, with hopes of eventually expanding to all of Anne Arundel County. Parents or guardians can attend with their students for $26.

“This is putting the opportunity and responsibility in the hands of the families,” said Laura Brino, Maryland Hall’s director of programming.

“I love hearing this,” Merry-Browne said, since she is still learning about Maryland Hall offerings. At some of its former spaces, the Compass Rose offered student matinees. Now the theater will join resident companies Ballet Theatre, the Annapolis Symphony, Annapolis Symphony and Annapolis Chorale to offer free tickets through the Apex program. “We will definitely dovetail well right in with that.”

Compass Rose will stage three shows during the first half of 2023. The new space officially opens with “The Sneeze,” an evening of one-acts by Anton Chekhov, which will run from Jan. 13 to Feb. 12, 2023. Next comes “Within the Walls,” a series of new play readings onstage from Feb. 24 to March 12. The season closes with a musical adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz,” which will be a tight squeeze, but Merry-Browne is optimistic she can fit Dorothy, the Tin Man and all their friends onto the small stage.

Other theaters in Annapolis put on musicals, but Compass Rose is one of just two in Anne Arundel County recognized as “professional” by TheatreWashington and eligible to compete in the Helen Hayes Awards. (Classic Theatre of Maryland is the other). Compass Rose hires a mix of Actors Equity union members and amateur paid performers.

“The sticking point is always professionalism and quality,” Merry-Browne said.

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While Compass Rose is returning to the stage later than most other performing arts groups, Merry-Browne said she and her board members are grateful they didn’t have to pay rent during the pandemic. Their lease on Forest Drive expired in 2020, and they were looking for a new home when COVID-19 began shuttering theaters. They are thrilled to start fresh at Maryland Hall. The arts center is thriving under Coleman’s leadership, Merry-Browne said, and she’s thrilled to join the renaissance.

“I’ve been doing theater in Annapolis since 1991,” she said. “The fact that Maryland Hall has stepped up to be so inclusive is an incredible contribution to the community that has really changed the game. It’s been a whole new world for us.”


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