Everyman troupe going to west side

Sun exclusive

November 15, 2006|By J. Wynn Rousuck and Jamie Smith Hopkins | J. Wynn Rousuck and Jamie Smith Hopkins,sun reporters

In a development that could further the transformation of downtown Baltimore's west side from a neglected shopping district into a vibrant arts center, Everyman Theatre, a thriving regional troupe, will move into a vacant vaudeville house across from the restored Hippodrome.

Civic leaders say the shift into the Town Theatre - to be announced today - will build on the Hippodrome's momentum, reviving a once-grand theater district. The development comes in the midst of improvements to the west side, which has added restaurants and more than 750 apartments in the past two years, a turnaround after the shopping district's long slide.

The Town - which once played host to such stars as Mae West and Joe E. Brown - is the final parcel in Bank of America's Centerpoint project, a major mixed-use complex of retail and 392 apartments that wraps around the Town. Bank of America's donation of the Town to Everyman will be made public at a celebration this afternoon of the completion of Centerpoint.

Everyman's renovation of the 95-year-old Town is projected to be completed in fall 2009 at a cost of $11.5 million. It follows the $62 million restoration of the Hippodrome, which reopened in February 2004.

Hippodrome Executive Director Marks Chowning welcomes the prospect of having Everyman as a neighbor. "[It's] going to put another critical mass of bodies down there that will help support other businesses, restaurants and retail, or whatever theaters may come down the pike," he said.

The west-side location could be a boon for Everyman, a professional company that has built a solid reputation in Baltimore over the past 16 years with such sold-out productions as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof in 2004 and this season's premiere of The Cone Sister.

"I love the idea that this theater would only be three blocks from the ballparks and the Inner Harbor. It would give tourists another cultural attraction within walking distance of their hotels," said Vincent M. Lancisi, Everyman's founder and artistic director. "I feel like Everyman has not tapped into the visitors to Baltimore, partly because of our location."

Everyman hopes to help stimulate growth on the west side, as it did in the Charles North neighborhood. Lancisi said the block was 80 percent vacant - even the Charles Theatre was dark between owners - when Everyman moved into its present home at 1727 N. Charles St. in 1994.

"Over the past 12 years we've enjoyed a great renaissance in that block, and I'd like to think Everyman played a significant role in that," he said.

West-side business and development groups are looking forward to the impact the theater could have on the area.

"Everyman is such a beloved institution and has quickly developed very strong roots in the community, and to have them plant themselves on Fayette Street just bodes very well for the future," said Ronald Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance Inc., a nonprofit that leads efforts to redevelop the neighborhood.

The Town, whose historic facade fronts on Fayette Street, will be given a secondary entrance on Eutaw, facing the Hippodrome. Everyman expects to have 250 to 300 seats; the Hippodrome has 2,250.

"You've got Broadway on one side of the street and off-Broadway on the other. We are not competitors in any sense; we will feed off each other," Lancisi said.

Valued at $1.8 million, the Town is being sold to Everyman for $1. Bank of America's decision to essentially donate the theater "was an entirely appropriate use" for the Town, said Bill Couper, the bank's mid-Atlantic president. "Here was an organization that could really make something of it. ... It would add to the neighborhood in a way that would complement what's already there in the Hippodrome."

The bank has been the largest corporate sponsor of the theater's education programs for the past decade and has an officer on Everyman's board.

Everyman has outgrown its Charles Street venue, a former bowling alley. "We will go from the little theater that could to a mid-sized theater with a significant regional reputation," said Lancisi. "The facility will give Everyman the tools it needs to ramp up its production values. It will allow the artists the technology and support that they need to do their best work."

Everyman, whose current flexible space can hold 170 to 200 patrons, has been experiencing growing pains for several seasons, during which its shows have played to 92 percent capacity. A bid to move into the vacated Chesapeake Restaurant at the southeast corner of the block was turned down by the city last year.

But a desire for more seats is only part of Everyman's needs. The theater has never had a rehearsal hall, costume or prop shops, or classrooms - all of which will be built into the Town renovation. Eventually, Everyman hopes to have a second theater within the Town.

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