8 years and it's still quality at Rep Stage

Theater continuing a tradition of growth

March 04, 2001|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Like almost everything else in Columbia, what is happening at Rep Stage is the result of planning.

When the theater company in residence at Howard Community College first raised the curtain in 1993, officials there knew exactly what they wanted: quality shows featuring talented actors playing to packed houses made up of audiences from around the state. Eight years later, that's what they have.

"Rep Stage should not be considered `college theater' simply because it's in residence at a community college," said Nigel Reed, an actor who has worked frequently with Rep Stage. "There is nothing amateur or student performance-oriented about Rep Stage. It's quality theater."

Many believe Rep Stage occupies a special niche as a professional company that has managed to maintain its community feel while still offering quality theater.

"Part of it has been the partnership between the company and the college," said Coleen West, executive director of the Howard County Arts Council. "These organizations that have a home have that base and can grow."

Indeed, there are signs of growth at Rep Stage. With a yearly attendance of about 10,000, the company has garnered more than a dozen nominations for the prestigious Helen Hayes Award - named after one of America's premier actresses - competing against heavy hitters such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

The award is open to eligible professional theaters in Washington and surrounding counties. Rep Stage snagged two of them last year, for outstanding lighting design and outstanding set design for its production of the play "Ambrosio."

A study last year by the League of Washington Theaters found that 30 percent of Rep Stage's audience travels from Washington and Northern Virginia, while 70 percent comes from the Baltimore metropolitan area. Valerie Costantini, HCC chairwoman of arts and humanities, said the success of the company has been a result of "planned growth."

Before the formation of Rep Stage, the college brought in many well-known performers and had a small community theater company made up mostly of nonprofessional actors, Costantini said. High-profile groups, such as the American Negro Ensemble from New York, were brought in to perform.

But it soon became apparent that the audiences and local actors wanted more, especially the professional actors who were members of the Actors Equity Association, which functions as the stage actors' union.

"It was a long time coming," recalled Costantini, who has been at the school since 1982. "We were doing interesting productions, and we were actually getting approached by equity actors asking us if we were an equity company.

"What we were finding out from our audiences," she said, "was that they were enjoying what we were doing as much as the productions by the guest companies."

Costantini had the starring role in Rep Stage's first production, "Marvin's Room," and recalls the excitement of staging such a show in the college's Outback Theater.

Costumers, set designers and technical people crowded into the black box theater that day in August 1993 and stood in awe with the nonprofessional actors as the equity actors ran through their lines.

"To see the professionalism with which the equity actors attacked their craft was amazing," Costantini said. "Everyone got a little nervous and started working really hard."

Rep Stage is by no means the biggest kid on the block.

With an operating budget of $400,000 and four to six plays a season, it is smaller than the nearby Olney Theatre Center company, which has a $2.5 million budget, and Center Stage in Baltimore with its more than $6 million budget. But still, the audiences come.

"A lot of the buzz has been word of mouth," Costantini said. "People come to see a production, and they are impressed enough to come back and tell other people about it. That and we have had some very good reviews," she said.

Claire Braswell, executive director of the Baltimore Theater Alliance, said Rep Stage is continuing the tradition of companies such as the Olney Theatre Center and Maryland Stage Company at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"I've been [to Rep Stage] quite a few times," Braswell said. "I've driven out from Baltimore, and the quality of their productions is quite fine."

Pamela Holt, executive director of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, said organizations such as Rep Stage help to cement the state's reputation as a vibrant cultural attraction.

"There is a sense that Maryland has made a commitment to the arts," Holt said. "[Rep Stage] seems to have shown initiative, and initiative is vital to arts organizations because it helps groups to stabilize and grow."

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