The air inside the Town Theatre is so dank, musty and throat-irritating that 30 potential donors who took a tour of the facility last weeks were provided face masks. Yellow caution tape spills out everywhere. Chunks of concrete have fallen onto the seats, and the former stage curtain, now faded to a dull tan, is ripped and torn.
At the moment, the atmosphere inside the 1911 structure is so oppressive it drives visitors outside and onto the street. But that's all about to change.
Construction is expected to begin this summer or in early fall on a $17.7 million project to transform the historic former vaudeville house into Everyman Theatre's new home. So far, more than $15.7 million has been pledged. Vincent Lancisi, the troupe's founder and artistic director, says that the digging and sawing and hammering and plastering will begin just as soon as an additional $200,000 can be collected
"Our architects have designed a building that will brighten up the area and beckon to people and say, 'Everyone is welcome,' " Lancisi told the donors during a post-tour wine and cheese reception across the street at the Hipp Cafe.
"We've designed it with a lot of glass so it will light up the whole street. We want the building to call people to it, in the way that a church calls to people to come inside and worship."
Once the rehabbing begins, it will take an estimated 15 months before the Town is in move-in shape. Lancisi anticipates that the 2011-2012 season will be split between shows staged in the Charles Street facility and the company's new home at Fayette and Eutaw streets.
His excitement is palpable — and it's no wonder. For the 20-year-old theater troupe, the building project is a … well, groundbreaking event. The building isn't the only thing that will be getting a new lease on life.
"It's a big step," says actor Bruce Nelson, a member of the Everyman ensemble. "It says that Everyman is growing up and is finally in a position to give Center Stage a run for its money. Everyman has been a contender for years, but the new space will make it real."
The Town has 25-foot-high ceilings, which will enable the company to stage shows impossible to mount in the company's current home, a converted bowling alley at 1727 N. Charles St. with ceilings just half that height, and which contains support pillars that obstruct the view of the stage.
"People have asked me why we don't do 'Romeo and Juliet,' " Lancisi says.
"In our current space, we couldn't do the balcony scene. The balcony would be four feet above the stage floor. When Juliet said, 'Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?' our audience would say, 'He's standing right there. What, is Juliet blind?' "
Now, Everyman Theatre performances are 92 percent sold out, and there isn't room to add even one more seat. But while revenue sources are fixed, materials for building scenery, salaries and other expenses continue to climb. If the company had stayed put, ticket prices would have had to escalate so the company could pay its bills.
The capacity of the new theater will increase from 170 to 250 seats, or by 47 percent. The facility also includes a room on the second level where a second, 150-seat theater can be built some time later. (For purposes of comparison, the Pearlstone Theatre — the larger of the two theaters inside Center Stage — has 541 seats.)
"It's difficult to fully utilize a resident company of actors with only one theater space," Lancisi said. "We're going to build intimate performing spaces inside this big building. This project isn't about how big we can be. It's about getting the tools we need to do the work. People aren't aware of the handicaps we're under."
He ticks off the ways:
"We're so desperate for space that we store scenery beneath the seats in the audience, and it spills out into the walkways. Our scene shop is so small we have to build our sets piece by piece instead of all at once.
"Now, it takes us 10 days to move one show our of our stage and move another one in. In the future, we'll be able to close one show on a Sunday and open the next one on a Tuesday."
Because the turnaround time is quicker, Everyman will be able to stage more shows each season. If a particular play is a big hit on the order of the 2004 production of "Proof," which broke box-office records, it can be extended for a longer period of time. Because of scheduling reasons, "Proof" closed while hundreds of people were still trying to see it.
The renovation was designed by the firm of Cho, Benn, Holback & Associates. Rima Namek is the project architect, and her plans include a concession area stocked with what Lancisi describes as "real concessions," including fare substantial enough to serve as a light dinner. There will be classroom and rehearsal space, and, finally, sufficient restrooms. Now, there are about three stalls open to members of the public during those tight, 10-minute intermissions.