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A Theater of Infinite Possililities ARCHITECTURE Historic interior houses an innovative design

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Talk about your auspicious curtain raisers:

For the inaugural production in the new Head Theater at Center Stage, designers have been working on a novel way to simulate a most fitting subject, the break of dawn.

Crew members plan to shine large airfield lamps from a room at the top of the Center Stage building, hit a mirror mounted on a building across the street, and reflect the light back through windows of the new theater, which will be part of the stage set.

Although the designers aren't 100 percent sure they can pull it off, the idea is a perfect example of the creative thinking inspired by the $5.9 million theater, which opens to the public Feb. 16 with previews of Eric Overmyer's "The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin."

Re-creating dawn's early light at the beginning of the first show, while a perfect metaphor for the dawning of a new era at Center Stage, also underscores what an extraordinary new facility it has.

Designed by Ziger, Hoopes & Snead of Baltimore and Theatre Projects Consultants Inc. of New York, the theater will greatly expand the capacity of Center Stage, which has operated its 541-seat Pearlstone Theater since 1975 inside the former shell of the Loyola High School and College at 700 N. Calvert St. But the project's significance goes far beyond the mere availability of additional performing space.

What Center Stage has created is a nationally significant performing space that provides endless options for staging and viewing theatrical productions -- a theater of infinite possibilities. While they have resolved technical needs of a 1990s theater and created an extremely flexible space, the designers haven't wiped out the memory of where it is or what it used to be. From the minute theatergoers walk in the door, they will be aware that they are in a historic building in the heart of Baltimore, not some anonymous "black box." The architectural character of the space, in turn, will influence the nature of the dramatic productions inside.

"This building has had a lot of lives, and it's still speaking to us," said artistic director Stan Wojewodski Jr. "When you come into the space, it begins to talk to you and say: 'I want to be in the play.' "

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The theater represents the fulfillment of a master plan for Center Stage that was originally proposed in the 1970s by James R. Grieves Associates, designer of the first theater.

After considering the possibility of constructing the second theater in a rear courtyard, the theater's directors, trustees and designers decided the best location would be where the Grieves plan suggested -- on the fourth level of the former school building, which dates from 1899. The space had been the upper part of an auditorium that the high school used until it moved to Baltimore County in the 1940s; since 1975 it has been a rehearsal hall.

According to principal-in-charge Craig Hoopes, who worked with Tim Debelius, Jamie Snead, Steve Ziger and Leigh Anne Jones of his firm, the design team treated the auditorium as a "found space" that could be adapted without drastic alterations. They painted most of the brick walls slate blue, a color chosen to

make the audience aware of the theater shell yet not upstage the sets for each show. For the most part, though, they tried to retain as many of the original architectural features as possible, including wood trim and the arched windows overlooking Calvert Street.

Perhaps the ultimate gesture toward preserving the memory of the building was the decision to retain graffiti left over from the when the space was a high school auditorium. The final show was titled "A Kid With a Crazy Idea," and its title was scrawled in paint on a backstage wall with the "Z" written backward. Center Stage officials left it untouched not only as a reminder of its past life but perhaps a hint of what's to come. "That's sort of how Center Stage feels about itself," Mr. Hoopes said.

The decision not to alter the space radically has left it looking somewhat unfinished, which may surprise subscribers who expect to see a brand-spanking-new high-tech theater. But that gritty, construction-zone feel is quite intentional -- and part of the theater's allure.

"The problem with most theaters is that they have no ghosts," said Richard Pilbrow, one of the partners of Theater Projects Consultants and the lighting designer for the first production. "They are too pure and characterless. This space had ghosts to start with."

"It's not going to be pretty and perfect and edges all round," said managing director Peter Culman. "We've got enough round edges in our lives."

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To prepare the space for its new use, the designers removed the former auditorium ceiling and the floor of the library above, creating room in the rafters for catwalks and scenery rigging. They also carved into the floor of the former rehearsal hall to create a giant "trap door." By expanding the room in both directions, they created a space that is actually larger and deeper than the Pearlstone Theater below.

Another key decision was to use movable two-story seating towers than contain 18 seats each -- no more than two rows deep. Designed by Mr. Pilbrow, they can be combined with seats on risers and arranged in a variety of configurations to frame the stage. The total number of seats can range from 100 to 400, depending on the production, and there will be no assigned seating. Directors can position the seats to face the arched windows, line them up in a diagonal, make a theater-in-the-round with them, or eliminate them altogether -- whatever suits a given show.

"These towers create a form of movable architecture," said Mr. Pilbrow, who worked with Robert Scales of Theater Projects. "In each show, they contain the action and the audience.

"I see it very much as layers, like peeling onions," he added. "You've got old Baltimore out there. You've got this evocative space, this crazy room. Inside that, you have the seating towers. Then you have the scenery and the players inside all three. . . . We wanted all these contrasts. But there are enough conventions that you will feel comfortable inside the space."

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Ziger, Hoopes & Snead also filled in the former courtyard on the west side of the theater to create vastly improved back-of-the-house facilities, including a scene shop, paint deck and prop shop. For patrons, an impressive addition is a fourth-level lounge inside the former high school chapel, which is just off the new elevator lobby. As with the Head Theater, the architects treated the chapel as a "found space," restoring plaster ornamentation and repainting walls but otherwise doing as little as possible to change the room's appearance -- except for adding a bar across from the former altar.

Not every change proposed by the designers was carried out, because of budgetary limitations. They wanted to open the windows on the south side of the building to provide views of the downtown skyline. They also wanted to renovate the lobby, which still looks essentially the way it did in the mid-1970s. One hopes both ideas can be carried out in the future.

Even without those changes, though, the Head Theater is shaping up as the kind of space directors, set designers, lighting designers and others from around the country will want to try out, just to see how far they can push the limits.

Theater may be essentially poetry-driven, not architecture-driven, but it's not hard to see how this new environment will help convey the poetry of theater in exciting new ways. The result of the 17-month construction process is a space that defies our preconceptions of what theater is -- or can be. What is onstage? What is backstage? Where does the theater stop and the real world begin? The set of expectations is constantly changing -- and that can only help keep both the performers and the audience on their toes.

The real genius of the space -- and what holds so much promise -- is that its designers have done nothing to limit the possibilities for staging theater inside. And in doing nothing, they have done everything. As a result, this is a place where it is appropriate not only to tell the cast and crew to "break a leg." There is every reason to expect that this will also be a place where they will break new ground.

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