New Everyman Theatre ready for spotlight

$18 million, multiyear project boosts West Side arts district

  • The exterior of the refurbished Everyman Theatre.
The exterior of the refurbished Everyman Theatre. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
January 12, 2013|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Early in the renovations at the former Town Theatre movie house on West Fayette Street, a member of the architectural firm was hoisted on a cherry picker and spotted something beneath the grime up at the top of the facade of the century-old building. It was a single capital letter: "E."

"Everybody got such a kick out of that," said architect Diane Cho of Cho Benn Holback + Associates. "It was very kismet."

That "E," left over from the first commercial establishment on that spot in 1911, a vaudeville house called the Empire Theatre, would fit just fine for the new owner — Everyman Theatre.

This week, about 18 months after work on the $18 million renovation project started, Everyman, a 22-year-old professional Equity company with an admired corps of resident actors and designers, opens its new home to the public.

It's a bold step for Everyman, which is increasing its annual budget from $1.7 million to $2.3 million and adding four staffers (for a total of 19) as a result of the move. And the opening of the company's new home makes a major addition to the city's West Side.

"More theater is better," said Jeff Daniel, president of the Hippodrome at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, located around the corner from Everyman. "It's going to have an impact on the neighborhood, the Hippodrome and the new Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District. Happily, that impact couldn't be more positive for every one of them."

There is a lot of history behind the Everyman property. After a couple of decades, the Empire was refurbished and renamed the Palace Theatre, where the burlesque entertainment proved so risque for Baltimore that the place was shut down in 1937.

The building was turned into a parking garage before resuming as an entertainment destination in 1947, this time as a 1,550-seat cinema, the Town, which was shuttered in 1990.

Bank of America and the Harold Dawson Trust turned the building over to Everyman for the sum of $1 in 2006. A fundraising campaign drew major contributions from the city, corporations and foundations, as well as numerous private donors. Enough money was collected early on that the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 slowed the project only slightly.

"The magnitude of what we did was especially incredible during a bad economy," Tresselt said.

Historic preservation tax credits helped with the project; that also meant maintaining the original walls and roof. "That left no room for expansion" Cho said.

On Monday morning, the next chapter of the site officially begins with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of the original white facade, where its Corinthian columns now gleam again. Inside, the soaring lobby is covered with textured wallpaper in a bold raspberry shade and animated by drawings of set and costume designs from past Everyman productions.

"This way, we sort of bring the old theater with us," said company artistic director Vincent Lancisi.

That's the only physical connection to the old Everyman, a nondescript, low-ceilinged, converted bowling alley on North Charles Street the company rented for almost 20 years.

"We had 10,000 square feet of usable space there," said managing director Ian Tresselt. "Now, we have 34,000."

The new performance space has walls and seats covered in a dark, rich aubergine shade, creating a look Cho describes as "a little velvet curtain-y." The room has a calming, welcoming effect, achieved economically.

"That's just stained plywood on the walls," Tresselt said. "The floors are recycled plastic bottles. The handrail is reclaimed steel. It's very eco-friendly."

Everyman is wasting no time showing off the most important element of the facility. Lancisi's choice for the inaugural production is the Baltimore premiere of Tracy Lett's 2008 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, "August: Osage County." This epic-length work calls for something the company could only dream about before — a three-tiered set.

"At Charles Street, one floor would have been the limit," Tresselt said. "We could not have done a play like this in that space; it would not have served the play. Here, the 'August' set is complete with an attic level. This theater opens up the canon of work we can do."

While the theater is vastly different from the old one (a state-of-the-art lighting grid and substantial backstage scenery shop with abundant storage are among the new features), that doesn't mean that the audience will experience a drastic environmental change.

Seating capacity has increased modestly, from 170 to 253. There are only four more rows than in the old house, and the first row in the new theater brings the audience even closer to the stage than was the case before.

"I don't feel overwhelmed by this space," Tresselt said. "It still feels very intimate to me."

Bruce Randolph Nelson, a longtime Everyman artist who is in the "August: Osage County" cast, had the same reaction after starting rehearsals there.

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