City's theaters set the stage

More than a dozen companies spend millions to renovate and construct spaces

October 14, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun reporter

Nail by nail - and dollar by dollar - theaters in Baltimore and Washington are building their dream stages.

More than a dozen theaters in the region are planning major construction projects, are in the midst of one, or recently finished sweeping up the mortar dust.

In Baltimore they include Everyman Theatre, Center Stage, the Lyric Opera House and the Hippodrome, which reopened in 2004 after a $62 million face-lift. The Washington area has at least 10 current or completed projects, ranging from the Shakespeare Theatre's new, $89 million Harman Hall, which will be shared with eight smaller performing groups, to Arena Stage's planned $125 million renovation, which will create a third stage for developing new works.

Even community theaters are getting into the act; this weekend, Baltimore's tiny Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre reopens after overhauling its backstage. The troupe's six-week hiatus was the first time the Spots has been dark in its 45-year history.

And that's just a partial list.

"The building boom is a recognition of the excellent work the theaters are doing and the extent to which they're connecting with the citizenry," said Teresa Eyring, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, a New York-based trade organization for the nation's nonprofit theaters. Besides aging infrastructure, reasons for the boom include the need to accommodate growth and the desire to move in new artistic directions.

But are there enough patrons to fill all those seats?

On the national scene, theater attendance has dropped. In Washington alone, the total audience plummeted nearly 10 percent in the past two seasons.

Those two facts - more theater seats, combined with a smaller audience - can be difficult to reconcile. Theater officials say that the raw data can be misleading. Still, no one would claim that any building project is hazard-free.

"In 2009, we will double the number of seats we have to fill, to 300," says Vincent Lancisi, artistic director of Everyman Theatre, which will move to the refurbished Town Theater on the west side. "There's a risk involved to growing rapidly. But, there's also a risk to playing it safe."

Everyman plays to 92 percent capacity at its 168-seat theater on North Charles Street, and the clamor for tickets is increasing. If Everyman stayed in that building, in two years, projections show, performances would be sold out. At that point, the troupe couldn't sell more tickets to cover rising expenses.

"If we stay where we are, our only option would be to increase ticket prices," Lancisi said. "We couldn't sustain our mission of providing affordable theater."

Lancisi hints at one of the reasons behind the building boom: Some troupes, such as the Olney Theatre Center and Signature in Arlington, simply have outgrown their former homes.

Others, such as Arena and Center stages, are remodeling to reflect an evolving mission. Center Stage tentatively plans an upgrade in the next decade. The venue's 890-seat capacity, though, is unlikely to change.

"We want to create a richer, deeper experience for our audience," says Michael Ross, the company's managing director, "perhaps by putting in cafes, perhaps by re-configuring our lobby to facilitate discussion groups."

Still other companies, such as the Lyric and Ford's Theatre in Washington, are replacing aging infrastructures - a perennial issue for older theaters.

"A few years ago, someone plugged in a space heater during a cold day in winter," Ross says. "We were producing a rock musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the space heater knocked out the power for the band." (Center Stage's electrical systems were replaced in 2006.)

Michael Kahn's building plans extend way beyond the fate of his Shakespeare Theatre, where he is artistic director. He says he thinks that the Baltimore-Washington area can become a theater destination similar to New York or Chicago.

"I don't mean to be hyperbolic," Kahn says, "but I really think we have the potential to attract tourists from along the East Coast. They could see two or three plays in a single weekend and also take in other cultural attractions."

Kahn's big idea may strike some as wishful thinking, but it's supported by hard facts.

"Washington is the second-most prolific theater city in the country after New York," says Linda Levy Grossman, executive director of the Helen Hayes Awards, the district's equivalent of the Tonys. "Chicago has more theater companies, and Los Angeles has more theater buildings, but Washington is producing more professional productions overall than either of those cities."

Add Baltimore theater to the mix, and the totals are even more impressive.

Still, there are those statistics indicating an audience in decline.

According to the Theatre Communications Group, attendance at nonprofit regional theaters nationwide slumped 8 percent between 2002 and 2006. Possible causes include the economic downturn after Sept. 11 and a rise in ticket prices that has outpaced inflation.

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