When Billie Taylor decided to reopen the Autograph Playhouse in 2010, it seemed like the perfect time for this endeavor.
There was more attention, more energy, and more resources being funneled into emerging arts communities in Baltimore. It was just a year after I returned to Baltimore from college in Philly and I was both excited and confused by the new venues and sights popping up. I quickly noticed that despite this energy, there seemed to be little space for young black artists and patrons. As I explained to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at the 2010 Mayor's Art and Culture Town Hall Meeting: Anywhere I go, I'm often the darkest or youngest one there.
I wanted to change that, so I formed the arts collective Cre3sol in 2010. We wanted to create more spaces for black artists so we hosted open mics, networking events, creative parties, and beat showcases at places such as Grindhouse Juicebar, D Center, the now-closed Bohemian Coffeehouse and Load of Fun, and others. We started to see a stark difference in the platforms that were available for black performers in particular and where they were available.
At the same time, there was a change in how older black cultural institutions and businesses were treated. More resources were being given to young white artists, businesses, and cultural institutions. Around 2009, I talked to many black business owners around Old Goucher, Station North, Charles Village, and the Bromo Arts District who were denied loans, liquor licenses, entertainment licenses, or permits. Some said business owners could only acquire these things if they agreed with local government that they wouldn't work with "urban promoters." Aren't we in a city? Doesn't "urban" mean "city"? So who were they talking about? I think we know who they were talking about.
As one side of the arts scene celebrated the arrival of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in 2013, "urban promoters" mourned the closing of Club Dubai, an upscale urban nightclub in the same location downtown. Then, in 2012 when the Ray Charles Lounge in Cedmont, owned by a black couple, tried to gain a liquor license, it ran into obstacles. "Under no circumstances shall the licensee allow any show, band, act, etc . . . to perform entertainment that can be classified as predominantly Hip-Hop in nature," read a memorandum of understanding offered up by the Cedmont Community Improvement Association, "including musical and cultural genres and/or elements of Hip-Hop, such as rhythm and blues (R&B), go-go, funk, reggae and/or reggaeton, disco, dance hall, etc."
Meanwhile, I saw white cultural institutions start up and grow despite fewer customers and smaller audiences. Situations like this, in which black-owned businesses and space were governed differently than similar white spaces, lead me to the struggle of the old Showtime Theater turned Autograph Playhouse on 25th Street, and Billie Taylor.
Owning a theater was a childhood dream for Taylor, the former owner of the now-closed Autograph Playhouse: "When I was a young child, I would daydream about being an owner of a movie theater," Taylor says. "At the time, thought it must be the best job in the world, good movies all day and I could eat all the popcorn I wanted."
But it was only as she approached retirement that she realized owning a theater might be more attainable. "Admittedly, I was naive about what it would take to open, manage, or operate a theater," Taylor says.
During the '80s, Taylor was part of the Washington, D.C. Black Repertory theater ensemble. "That experience solidified my love for acting and my respect for the business side of theater," Taylor says.
In 2010, Baltimore's Heralds of Hope Theater Company, where Taylor was acting, put out a call for a space; after looking, she came across the theater on 25th Street, between Charles Street and Maryland Avenue, and thought it was perfect. But the company looked at the high price, the limited parking, and lack of an HVAC system and declined. Taylor decided to pursue it anyway.
"I thought being from D.C., and knowing how D.C. was rapidly growing and re-gentrifying, no one could never find a space in D.C. that big and available," she says. "So I told myself that maybe I could sell my house, buy the theater, and move to Baltimore." She looked forward to being an entrepreneur, a theater owner, and having an impact on the art scene.
The Autograph was best known as the headquarters of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, a group that Taylor met when she was looking into the space because they were interested in it, too. She wanted the space to be the home of many theater groups so she reached out to the BROS to see if they were still interested in using it. The BROS put on five shows at the Autograph between 2011 and 2013.
The Autograph Playhouse, during its three-year run, had a pretty active roster with diverse content. I went there to see local comedian Kleon da Comedian's debut movie "Bluffin." The theater was the first site for the Charm City Fringe Festival. It was also open for private rentals for rehearsals, video shoots, band practices, and shows. It was an extremely diverse space, which we need in Baltimore, but that wasn't enough to keep it open.
A client, in the spring of 2013, alerted the city to the building's code violations because Taylor wouldn't refund his rent. He wanted to have his show during the winter months, Taylor says, and even though he was aware that the theater didn't have a heating system, he complained about the cold and demanded a refund from Taylor. To bring the Autograph up to code, they were going to have to update the electrical work and the HVAC system, and have the building inspected for structural integrity.
"The last show in the space was May 2013, when the Rock Opera performed 'Murder Castle,'" Taylor says. "In hindsight, that was a fitting title, because somebody murdered my castle, the Autograph Playhouse."
It would have taken a whopping $875,000 worth of work to bring it all up to code, with a full HVAC system, but that amount would also have made it a state-of-the-art theater, with studio space and a cafe, similar to the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown.
Because the city and private foundations and development companies were pouring money into other arts spaces in the area, surely they could pitch in? But no amount of crowdfunding or community support was enough, and none of the local business and civic associations could help out. Taylor was denied funding from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, a Community Legacy grant, and various private loans. Any bills associated with maintaining the space she paid out of pocket and with some help from family, friends, and small fundraising events.
"[I felt like] I came in at a prime time, thought I'd be a part of this wave, and the wave drowned me," Taylor jokes. "Thought I could ride the wave, got wiped out on the wave."
After a few more disappointments and failed attempts, Taylor decided to sell the theater this year, even though many of us tried to help the theater succeed. "Arts organizations and/or other business people found more reasons not to support the mission, not believing in someone like me could actually pull it off," she says. "My intention was just to open a venue where all, but especially local, aspiring artists could have a platform to express and share their works. Wasn't trying to get rich. The powers that be just didn't get it."
Taylor, along with four other theater artists, formed The People's Theater of Baltimore in 2013 as the Autograph's board of directors. "In light of the apparent instability of the space at the time, there were good intentions made to reorganize, and make the space more accountable," she says. "These people gave their time and efforts to save the theater. Unfortunately for me, part of saving the theater in their eyes meant purchasing it from me, and voting me out."
It seems that even as Baltimore's established and financed (or as Mayor SRB said at last year's Arts Town Hall, "mainstream") arts community is making an effort to diversify and increase accessibility, there's little effort to maintain or build ownership by black folks who make up a majority of the city's population. Even so, Taylor doesn't blame the historically race- and class-segregated Baltimore City for her lack of success with the theater. "I'm not blaming anyone. Fact is I should have been more prepared to take on such a project. Owning, operating, and managing a theater alone is a lot and I was in a little over my head."