Christopher Ashworth remembers the day he got the idea to open a theater in Baltimore.
“I was walking down Guilford Avenue and it came to me,” he said of the project begun five years ago.
That dream was fulfilled this week when The Voxel, a black-box theater incubator and teaching center, opened at 25th and Charles streets. Its initial production, “The First Thing That Happens,” an opera running through March 1, has a score by the Baltimore-based band Horse Lords.
Ashworth performs in the opera with six other actors. He describes its music as being “something like Philip Glass,” the modern minimalist composer.
Ashworth, 40, is a native of Louisville, Kentucky. After graduating from Carleton College, where he majored in computer science and theater, he moved to Baltimore and has lived in Bolton Hill and Charles Village. He, his wife, Elizabeth Tipson, and family now reside in the Wyndhurst neighborhood in North Baltimore.
The building he owns and has spent nearly $2.6 million renovating first opened in the spring of 1946 as a neighborhood movie house.
“It’s amazing what you can spend in an old building,” Ashworth said. “The heating and air-conditioning were the highest single costs. Banks would not lend what I needed here. I was told I was overdeveloping the space. The Voxel is really a labor of love.”
When new in 1946, this no-frills film house was known initially as the Homewood. It opened with Betty Hutton in “Happy Go Lucky.”
In 1951, its name and ownership changed to The Playhouse, and for the next 34 years it operated as art house featuring numerous international films such as “Georgy Girl," “Lilies of the Field” and “To Sir, with Love.”
The old Playhouse closed in 1985 and became a church. It later housed other film houses that failed to stay in business. Ashworth acquired the vacant property in 2015.
His business, Figure 53, is located nearby in a Maryland Avenue rowhouse. He employs 16 people who work in live event production and traditional theater. He said his company, Figure 53, produces the software for sound, video and lighting design used before live audiences.
“We’re a quiet little company and are not too well known,” Ashworth said. “But we are well known in the theater world. Our software is used in many of the Broadway houses, and our biggest moment to date was at the opening of the 2018 Winter Olympics.”
His software is used in the the musicals “Hamilton” and “Hadestown,” among many others.
When there is no performance at The Voxel, he will offer its space and resources for artists’ residencies. No one will live in the building, but theater troupes can take advantage of its extensive light and sound equipment, “some of which couldn’t be found outside of a Broadway show," Ashworth said.
Ashworth spent a nearly decade living at 2802 Guilford Ave. and got to know this part of Baltimore. He likes the intersection of the Old Goucher and Charles Villages communities on 25th Street.
“Old Goucher feels like a place where where a lot of different parts of Baltimore meet,” he said. “Baltimore is too segregated, but this is a spot where differing peoples mix. We also have a vibrant community of theater-makers in Baltimore, and there are never enough spaces for performances."
Ziger/Snead architects worked with him to create a skylight and a stylish reinterpretation the old 25th Street facade with a new gray-toned metal fabric screen that is illuminated with color at night.
Its newly renovated interior has been enlivened by sign painters Gregory Gannon and Carol Paist, who spent weeks filling the bare interior brick walls with phrases and short sentences related to live theater.
“We decided to take all the language of the theater that the audience never hears,” Ashworth said. "Stage going dark,'' and “Let’s take it from the top.”