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Baltimore theater companies in a building boom

Surge in construction, renovation may indicate that Baltimore is 'on the cusp of a cultural renaissance'

May 26, 2012|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

But when the nation's regional theater scene exploded, the nonprofit troupes staging Mamet or Shakespeare had nowhere to perform. These theater companies could never fill thousands of seats for each performance. They needed venues of between 100 and 500 seats, and those halls simply didn't exist.

That's why, from the very beginning, Red Branch's Williams planned to create a theater that would also benefit other arts organizations. She says she has a waiting list of groups eager to stage shows in the expanded hall.

"There's a dearth of smaller performance spaces for rental in Howard County," she says. "We want to be the arts facility for the area and rent out our theater for dance recitals, voice recitals and concerts."

And it's possible that Red Branch's spiffy new digs won't just give some troupes a place to perform — it could also increase the number of overall productions taking place in Howard County and the audience to enjoy them..

In nearby Washington, for instance, there was unprecedented building in the past five years, in which six of the district's largest companies moved into new or renovated homes that cost more than $250 million to build. Since then, theatrical activity has increased in the area by about 20 percent, according to the organization theatreWashington.

"The same thing is starting to happen here," says Chesapeake Shakespeare's Gallaner. "I think Baltimore is about 10 years behind Washington. Momentum is so important. I never know why it occurs. But we have it now, and it's contagious."

If Baltimore's theater scene has been a bit slower to take off, it's partly because Washington has two assets that Charm City lacks. Baltimore doesn't have a conservatory-oriented graduate theater program that floods the local performing scene with aspiring young actors, directors and designers. Nor has Baltimore created an umbrella organization that raises money exclusively for the arts.

It might be that a performing arts fund has never gotten off the ground here because arts organizations have tended to isolate themselves instead of banding together to combat common problems.

"The only thing that ever held Baltimore back is Baltimoreans," Lancisi says. "As much as this is a charming city, this is a new day. It's time for us to talk to one another."

He's already started doing just that.

On a recent weekday, Hippodrome president Jeff Daniel could be found touring the Town, wearing a hard hat emblazoned with the black-and-white Everyman Theatre logo. The two men meet frequently for coffee, and when Gallaner was hunting for a new building, he consulted with them both.

For his part, Daniel has demonstrated that he's as eager to promote local arts organizations as he is to import the newest hit Broadway musical. He knows that the future of his own venue depends upon it.

For instance, Daniel persuaded the owners of nearby vacant buildings to provide temporary gallery space for local artists.

"The Hippodrome has been alone in this neighborhood for too long," Daniel says. "And that's the fun part, running into someone at Starbucks and coming up together with a crazy plan to make something different."

Eyring sees a shift in thinking, not just in Baltimore but in society at large.

"There was a time when arts organizations thought that if they collaborated with one another, they'd have to donate staff time and it wouldn't generate much revenue for them," she says.

"But, there's been a change of mindset. There are just fewer boundaries than there once were. Maybe it's because of the Internet and maybe it's because of globalization, but the world is just a more social place now than it once was. Some of that is starting to find its way into organizational practice."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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