Everyman's Lancisi begins the next act

Theater founder launched a troupe, helped revitalize a neighborhood

  • Everyman founder and Artistic Director Vincent M. Lancisi pictured at the new Everyman Theatre on West Fayette Street.
Everyman founder and Artistic Director Vincent M. Lancisi… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
January 12, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

When Vincent Lancisi was 6 years old, his father sat the boy on his lap for a serious conversation.

"Don't ever go into the music business, Vinny," Ben Lancisi told his youngest son. "You'll never make any money in the entertainment industry. And it's terrible for family life."

The boy loved and admired his father and was determined to follow his advice. So, though he showed talent at the piano and had a pleasing tenor, he didn't pursue a musical career when he grew up.

He started his own theater company instead.

"My father would be furious if he knew that I took this career path," Lancisi reminisced the other day in a west-side coffee shop just down the block from the troupe's new home.

"His warning was clear when I was 6 years old, and he would have been mad that I had to struggle. There were some really dark, dark times in the early years. But he would be incredibly proud of this moment."

When Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake presides Monday over the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the terra cotta and granite building at 315 W. Fayette St., it will be more than just the dedication of a building after an $18 million renovation.

It will be the physical manifestation of everything that the 51-year-old Lancisi has accomplished during the past two decades — as well as a declaration of faith that he can help transform another neighborhood.

Against the odds, Lancisi founded an ensemble of theater artists that for 23 years have bought homes in Baltimore, sent their kids to local schools and paid local taxes.

And as one of the three pioneers in the 1700 block of N. Charles St., Everyman helped turn around a once-blighted neighborhood into thriving Station North. The city officials who sold the company the former Town Theatre for $1 clearly hope Everyman and the Hippodrome Theatre to work the same magic on the west side.

"Most big cities have one or two big theater companies like Center Stage," says Teresa Eyring, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, a trade organization.

"But I've often thought that it's the people like Vinny who come in and create the next wave of smaller theaters that are so important in creating the cultural ecology of a city. But that doesn't mean that any old person can do it. It takes guts and drive and entrepreneurial ability and vision."

Mixed messages

Gregarious, generous and accessible, Lancisi knows, has gossiped with and has shared a meal with everyone who is anyone in the local arts community. His favorite thing to say is, "Let me tell you a funny story about that."

As his theater company enters its robust middle age with nearly 5,000 subscribers, 19 full-time staff members and a $2.3 million annual budget, what he's achieved is obvious. Less apparent is how he did it.

The answer includes a "flame throw" and a bottle of scotch. (More on these later.) But it's also about the lessons learned by a 6-year-old boy sitting on his father's lap.

Ben Lancisi was a tough taskmaster when he was home, which wasn't often, since he taught in Massachusetts during the day and worked as a musician at night. It was Ben who took young Vinny to his first Broadway-bound musical and Ben who was a close-at-hand example of the joys and hazards of the performing life.

"He had 13 jazz bands with which he would tour New England," Lancisi recalls.

"And he had his own 32-piece, big band orchestra, the Ben Lancisi Orchestra, and I remember the stands with the 'BL' for Ben Lancisi. I learned early on that there were people who lived lives that were all sparkle and glitter."

He grew up in a blended family as the youngest of seven children.

"My brothers and sisters all wanted to learn to play the piano, but he wouldn't teach them," Lancisi says. "He was brutally honest and told them, 'You have no talent.' And then, along comes me, and he spends an hour every day teaching me the piano. He said, 'You have the talent to be a great pianist.' "

No wonder young Vinny absorbed both halves of the mixed message he received. It wasn't until Ben Lancisi had effectively left his family's life that his son took his first steps along his future career path.

After visiting his then-17-year-old son at his boarding school, Ben Lancisi began driving home and passed out behind the steering wheel.

"He was in the hospital and the priest was giving him last rites when he came to," Lancisi says.

"It turned out that he'd been having blackouts for a while but hadn't told anyone. He had early-onset dementia and spent the next eight years in a nursing home. He died in 1986, but I'd said goodbye to him years earlier."

Kyle Prue has known Lancisi since they roomed together at Catholic University of America, where Lancisi attended graduate school. (Now, Prue is an actor and Everyman's production manager.)

Even then, Lancisi had a vision of the theater company he wanted to found.

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