A view of the stage and ceiling at the new site for the Chesapeake… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
For the past 12 years, the name Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has been most associated with its outdoor productions in summer and fall, reached by trekking up a hill to the rustic ruins of Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City. Audience seating typically involved folding chairs or blankets.
This week, the company inaugurates a striking new home in downtown Baltimore that suggests a hip version of the famed Globe Theatre in London where Shakespeare's own company performed.
Players "will have their exits and their entrances," as the Bard says, on a thrust stage, tightly enveloped by three tiers. There are 260 red, padded, ergonomically designed benches for patrons.
"It's Globe-ish, but comfy," says Lesley Malin, Chesapeake Shakespeare's managing director.
Instead of dingy shipping containers and portable lavatories set up on the park grounds in Ellicott City, actors will now have use of honest-to-goodness dressing rooms and restrooms. There's plenty of space for costumes and scenery, too.
The facility was created out of the handsome, dark red-bricked Mercantile Trust and Deposit Co. at South Calvert and Redwood streets. This 1885 Romanesque Revival-style structure survived the 1904 fire and, more recently, unsuccessful incarnations as a restaurant and nightclub.
The building's richly painted ceiling and grand interior columns remain in its new theatrical guise, complemented by inviting cocktail bars on two levels, one with a baby grand piano for post-performance entertaining.
In a nod to the past, the company found a vintage teller's window to install at the box office in the small foyer of the front entrance.
Preservation Maryland, one of the country's oldest historic preservation organizations, has taken note of the renovation project.
"We think it's fabulous," says Doug Harbit, development director of Preservation Maryland. "We're giving it our Phoenix Award on Oct. 14, an award reserved for preservation projects that demonstrate innovative adaptive reuse of a historic structure. I think the theater is an exciting and vibrant addition to the Baltimore theater scene."
Chesapeake Shakespeare is not abandoning its Howard County roots; a summer show will continue to be presented at the ruins. But the company's primary focus has shifted with this move into Baltimore. The operating budget, previously about $600,000, has doubled; the number of productions is increasing, too.
Founding artistic director Ian Gallanar and other staffers started considering a new direction about five years ago.
"We were inching up on [audience] capacity at the park," Gallanar says, "so we started asking ourselves: Do we want to stay at this size or do something else? In Howard County, we were providing our audiences what they wanted. Why change that dynamic and force them indoors? What if we could continue to provide that and also open another place?"
The company had tried out various indoor spots in the county for non-summer productions but found them lacking. Heading off to Baltimore did not seem sensible, since the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival had been in business there since the mid-1990s.
Then, as if through a Shakespearean twist of fortune, an opportunity arose. When the cash-deficient Baltimore Shakespeare Festival unexpectedly shut its doors in 2011, the Chesapeake group cast a fresh eye on the city.
"The loss of Baltimore Shakespeare Festival was tragic," says Everyman Theatre artistic director Vincent Lancisi, "but it left a niche that Chesapeake Shakespeare Company will fill beautifully."
The $6.7 million theater project — the company has about $1 million more to raise — began with the purchase of the Mercantile structure in May 2012.
"Where else could you purchase a historic downtown building for $1.2 million, except maybe Detroit?" Malin says.
Construction started in August 2013 and finished 12 months later. A ribbon-cutting ceremony on Monday will be followed this coming weekend by a black-tie gala, a family festival and performances of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"To have all this happen so fast is a little mind-boggling," Malin says.
To see the theater take shape so soon after last year's opening of Everyman Theatre just a few blocks away is also remarkable.
"I truly believe that we're seeing the beginning of a golden age of theater in Baltimore," Lancisi says. "I already consider Single Carrot Theatre established. Small theater companies are cropping up and getting traction. And there's the incubation project on Howard Street with Annex Theater, Stillpointe Theatre Initiative and others," which plan to convert abandon buildings into theater venues there.
The arrival of Chesapeake Shakespeare in Baltimore means more work for actors (the company pays everyone, though not Actors' Equity union scale) and more choices for theater-goers.