$1 million gift gives theater firm footing

Donors' generosity surprises Shakespeare Festival officials

January 09, 2007|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

At a time when the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival was feeling the pinch of rising costs, the small, 13-year-old professional theater received a surprise, anonymous $1 million gift to create an endowment fund.

"It gives us a kind of stability that we never would have had," said Marilyn Powel, president of the board of the nonprofit theater. The company currently produces four plays a year - three at its home at St. Mary's Outreach Center in Hampden and one in the Evergreen House meadow on North Charles Street.

Although the festival has balanced its budget for the past five years, "It's a constant back and forth because theater is expensive and Shakespeare is the most expensive," said Powel, director of the capital campaign at Jemicy School and former development director at Center Stage. "The wolf was not at the door, [but] we could probably see him from the door. ... We were able to pay our finances through the end of the year, but in the coming year it appeared we would have to cut back on productions pretty drastically."

The festival was considering producing only two shows - one at St. Mary's and one at Evergreen - when the $1 million gift came in. Instead, the theater, which has a $600,000 budget, now has a firm financial base. And, Powel said, "We're going to try to use this gift as leverage to increase our endowment."

James Kinstle, the festival's producing artistic director, also hopes the donation will serve as a fundraising tool, especially with foundations and corporations. "Money attracts money," he explained. "It will also help to raise our visibility in the community."

The grant could even benefit local theater artists beyond the festival, Kinstle believes. "We hire over 100 artists from the community every year, and I think this will give them a sense of security as well. ... It's really a chance for us to help grow the Actors' Equity community here and give artists a home."

Kinstle and Powel learned of the gift early last month when the donors, a husband and wife whom Kinstle describes as "longtime patrons and big fans of the festival," invited them to lunch. The meeting came during the festival's annual fund campaign, which had a goal of $10,000, but neither the artistic director nor the board president had any idea what was coming.

"I had to hold onto the table. I shook for a few minutes. I was completely dumbfounded. Marilyn began to weep," Kinstle said.

Leaders of Baltimore's two other Equity theaters were pleasantly surprised by the Shakespeare Festival's good fortune. "It certainly strengthens the whole theater community and makes more opportunities for more artists here in Baltimore, which is obviously a good thing," said Michael Ross, managing director of Center Stage, which has an $18 million endowment, the largest in the country for a theater its size.

"We have certainly benefited from having a great endowment, and it's wonderful that theirs has started with this incredible gift," he added.

At Everyman Theatre, which doesn't have an endowment fund, artistic director Vincent M. Lancisi said, "For a small theater to receive an endowment of this kind takes a giant step forward in ensuring their longevity."

Lancisi agrees that the gift could help other Baltimore theaters. "We all will benefit from it because the more opportunities the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival has to thrive, the healthier the theater community is in general," he said, adding, "There's been a lot going on in D.C. for years. It's definitely Baltimore's turn."

Although insisting on anonymity, the donors said in a statement: "We support the [Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's] mission and know that to produce affordable classic theater, to support and develop local talent and to take Shakespeare into the classroom, cannot be accomplished without money, money, money. BSF has reached a professional level that deserves to be sustained.

"We have watched BSF develop and mature artistically and administratively and know BSF has a small staff and board committed to its mission. We wanted to give BSF a cushion, a breathing space in their continuing pursuit of financial stability so that their growth may continue."

The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1993 by a husband and wife, Rick Feliz and Kelley Dunn-Feliz, who came here from Delaware. Its debut production was a strong, promising staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream, outdoors at the Cloisters in Brooklandville in 1994. Financial problems led to the cancellation of the 1996 season. A new artistic director came a year later and produced plays at the Baltimore Museum of Art and Emmanuel Episcopal Church. But by 1999, the theater was without an artistic director again and was producing only educational programs.

Kinstle was hired in 2000 and during his tenure, the production schedule has grown from one show a season to the current roster of four Shakespeare or Shakespeare-related plays. The latest, Paula Vogel's Desdemona, A Play About a Handkerchief, opens Friday.

The festival, whose annual audience numbers 4,000, moved to its home at St. Mary's in 2003. Last season it built a permanent Elizabethan-style stage at St. Mary's and inaugurated it with a production of Romeo and Juliet. Along with its public productions, the company places equal emphasis on its educational outreach programs, which bring touring productions and artists-in-residence into area schools. Over the past three years, these programs have reached an average of 15,000 Maryland youngsters annually.

Before this, the largest gifts the festival had received were $300,000 from the estate of another anonymous donor and $250,000, spread over five years beginning in 2001, from the Baltimore Community Foundation.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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