Theatre Hopkins is losing its home

THEATER

The Barn will house Astin's program

September 16, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

After more than 60 years in the Merrick Barn on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University, Theatre Hopkins - one of the city's oldest and most distinguished community theaters - is searching for a new home and facing an uncertain future.

In May, the university informed Suzanne Pratt, the theater's director, that the Barn would be turned over to the undergraduate theater program, revived three years ago by actor and alumnus John Astin.

The decision came as a surprise to Pratt, whose theater co-produced Our Town last season with Astin's acting company, now called the Johns Hopkins University Theatre. She is also planning to co-produce a show with the mostly student troupe this spring.

"According to John, he was offered the space in each of the three years he's been here and he refused it because of his affection for us, and this year the university became more insistent that if he was really serious about developing his program, he'd better take over the Barn," Pratt said.

Astin said he, too, was surprised by the university's decision to house his program in the Barn, a theater he performed in as an undergraduate. The actor - best known as Gomez Addams from the 1960s TV series The Addams Family - expressed mixed feelings about the decision. "I can't hide my joy at having a home because it's been very difficult without one, but at the same time it was very difficult to see Theatre Hopkins have to move," he said.

"What I've worked out with Suzanne is that their season will not be interrupted for this year. So they have about a year and a couple of months to relocate."

The Homewood campus might appear to have several spaces that could serve the needs of the undergraduate program - the Arellano Theater in the Glass Pavilion, for example, or the Swirnow Theater in the Mattin Center, built in 2001 as a visual and performing arts hub.

But, said Daniel Weiss, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Swirnow "is set out for another purpose - noncurricular student work. That was the agreement from onset. ... The Arellano needs to be renovated; there's no backstage. So in fact, there's really no place for Astin's program. The Barn sits right in the heart of our undergraduate campus. It made all kinds of sense ... that that space be made over to support undergraduate education."

Housing a community theater on a university campus is a bit unconventional. But when it was founded in 1921 by a group of faculty and prominent community members, Theatre Hopkins - which occupied a subsequently demolished building on campus for its first two decades - served an ancillary role on campus. At the time, explains Pratt, who is on the part-time staff of the university, "There were plays - Ibsen, Strindberg, classic stuff - in the syllabus for the English department, but there were few opportunities to see these produced in the city."

Nowadays, there are various places to see the classics, but the theater still serves an important outreach service. "Theatre Hopkins has been a very successful way of connecting the university to the community, and it has done that successfully longer than any other program we can think of," Weiss said. "No major research university in an urban setting can be successful if it doesn't have strong relationships to the community."

With that in mind, the university is "committed to seeing Theatre Hopkins survive," the dean said, adding, "We will do what we can to help, but the space issues are what they are."

While the university would "absolutely love" to have the theater remain on campus, Weiss said a possible alternative is the auditorium at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where Our Town was staged last season and where Astin's troupe will produce its season-opening production, Jeffrey Sweet's Bluff, tomorrow and Saturday.

In the meantime, with plans under way for renovations to the Barn that will, among other things, convert part of the lobby into classroom space, Theatre Hopkins has had to forage for rehearsal space. Pratt's access to the Barn is essentially limited to performance dates and one week before the opening of each show. Her season begins Oct. 22 with four short plays by George Bernard Shaw, jointly titled Shaw: Four Starters.

Pratt uses the word "cordial" to describe her relationship with Astin. But with the Barn door about to be closed in Theatre Hopkins' face, she can't disguise her concern over the future of the theater she has run for 20 years and which her mother, the late Laurlene Pratt, ran for 15 years before that.

"I don't know how there is a Theatre Hopkins if it isn't at the Merrick Barn," she said.

Shakespeare's tunes

As the first of this season's Shakespeare Sunday programs, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival will present a free concert of songs from Shakespeare's plays at 7 p.m. Sunday at St. Mary's Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Ave. Performing will be lutenist Charles Weaver and soprano Elizabeth Baber. Call 410-366-8596.

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