In 2012, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company was looking for a new home.
It had outgrown its Howard County venues and founder and artistic director Ian Gallanar had pretty much decided on a building in Fells Point. He reluctantly agreed to look at one more site: the former Mercantile Trust and Deposit Company Building at the corner of Redwood and Calvert.
“As soon as I set foot in the building,” he recalls, sitting on the front edge of the stage of the 260-seat theater, which opens Sept. 15, sporting a dark-blue corduroy blazer, horn-rimmed glasses and rumpled, light-red hair, “it reminded me of an Elizabethan playhouse. There was this central, vertical space with a wraparound balcony. It was gorgeous. I immediately saw the connection to the Globe.”
Like London’s Globe Theatre, reconstructed in 1997, where William Shakespeare’s plays were first produced at the end of the 16th century, the CSC’s new home in the old bank boasts three tiers of seats nearly encircling a central atrium, with the stage and balcony along one wall.
This theater will now house the first Shakespeare troupe with a permanent Maryland home. For years, the CSC, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, and others have staged the Bard’s plays in borrowed spaces. For a group accustomed to staging Shakespeare outdoors at the Patapsco Female Institute (PFI), the historic ruin in Ellicott City, the new building seems the lap of luxury.
“After working at the PFI,” Gallanar jokes, “just having indoor plumbing is a treat. Having our own refrigerator is beyond belief.”
The CSC will still do summer shows at the PFI (“The Comedy of Errors” next summer), and the troupe wants to hold onto the lessons it learned from those experiences. But with no fixed seats and nothing but a backdrop to hide the backstage area of PFI, it was impossible to maintain the normal barriers between performers and audience during those meadow productions. At first this was considered a handicap, but the group soon came to see it as an advantage.
“With the outdoor shows, there was no way to put the audience in the dark and create a fourth wall,” Gallanar says. “We soon realized that fourth wall was counterproductive in Shakespeare’s plays. His characters are not performing as if they’re on the other side of a two-way mirror. They’re always aware that an audience is there, and they talk directly to that audience—sharing not only confessions but also great jokes.”
“It’s impossible to do the role of Prospero or Benedick without being aware that you’re an actor with an audience,” adds Michael P. Sullivan, a member of CSC’s Resident Acting Company. Just as the ticket-buyers were always visible at the roofless Globe, they will be easily seen at the CSC, because the house lights will remain low most of the time. Clear sightlines will be available to someone standing in the lobby between the bar and the seats during a show. The actors will continue to enter the stage from every direction on the compass, just as they did at the PFI.
“We want to encourage the sense that we’re in the moment now and part of the world,” Gallanar says. “This is not a ‘sit down and behave yourself’ space; this is an ‘enjoy yourself’ space.” Thus, the main lobby and main bar are beyond the foyer, in the same space as the stage. Near the vault is a kid-friendly room where parents can take restless children on the CSC’s traditional Family Sundays.
“Original practice” is the academic term for the way these plays were performed during Shakespeare’s time. Drawing from diaries and scripts, scholars can infer how the shows were presented and can debate how much of those production values should be retained in the present. Few, for example, would argue that female roles should be performed only by men. But some of “original practice” appeals to Gallanar.
“Live music was a big part of O.P.,” he says. “People came to the Globe to hear music before the play, during the scene changes, and during intermission. So we incorporate that. We use Elizabethan music, Victorian music, modern music, and original music. Shakespeare knew a lot about show business: He put songs and dances in every play—we know that from historical accounts. There are many ways to communicate feelings and ideas—music, dance, poetry, comedy, dialogue—and Shakespeare used them all. So do we.”
Gallanar, now 52, came to Shakespeare relatively late in life. He was already a theater professional in Minnesota when he got a chance to direct “Much Ado About Nothing.” A show he had expected to be a bit musty surprised him with its uproarious comedy.
“A lot of jokes from shows in the 1930s don’t work anymore,” he says, “but these jokes from the 16th century were still hilarious. ‘Why is that?’ I wondered. Comedy was my entryway into Shakespeare, and once I went through that door, I discovered all the other stuff that makes him so great.”
Before long, he wanted to establish a Shakespeare theater in a city that didn’t already have one. He looked around, and Baltimore seemed the most likely candidate. He moved to take charge of the Repertory Theater of America, a Baltimore-based touring company that rarely performed here. Three years after arriving, he, his then-wife Heidi Busch, and four friends—Patrick Kilpatrick, Dan O’Brien, B.J. Gailey, and Lesley Malin —formed the CSC. Kilpatrick and O’Brien are now the CSC’s director of programming and the technical director, respectively.
They staged “Twelfth Night” at the Howard County Center for the Arts in 2002. “Twelfth Night” didn’t draw many people, but it gave the founders a thrill they had rarely felt in their well-established careers. So when Howard County encouraged them to continue at the arts center and to do summer shows at PFI, the fledgling group redoubled its efforts.
“I got involved because an actress encouraged me to audition for ‘Coriolanus,’” Sullivan recalls. “Even in those early stages, I could sense an aspiration to be something more than they already were. They reminded me of the Everyman Theatre people a decade earlier. I could tell this was going to turn into something. And once I got involved, I didn’t need to look at a graph to see the growth. Our summer shows went from a few folding chairs to 200-300 people in the audience. That makes you want to stick around.”
The CSC is still not an Equity theater, though the group does work out Equity contracts for certain roles and certain performers. Gallanar points out that it’s near-impossible to pay everyone Equity rates when you’re doing Shakespeare plays with their enormous casts in a 260-seat theater. But everyone is paid something, and the full-time staff has grown from five to nine employees, and the annual budget has grown from $600,000 to $1.3 million. Members of the Resident Acting Company are promised roles in return for an ongoing commitment to the theater.
The first season in the new space begins Sept. 20 with previews for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which officially opens on Sept. 25. The season closes out with two more of Shakespeare’s most popular plays: “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Comedy of Errors.” But Gallanar made a point to also program a Shakespeare play that isn’t produced that often: “Richard II,” the story of that king’s 1398-1400 battles with a restive nobility.
“As far as we can tell,” Gallanar claims, “this is the Baltimore premiere of ‘Richard II.’ It has some beautiful poetry in it, including John of Gaunt’s famous speech about ‘This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.’ It’s not done more often here because the history is a bit vague for Americans. We can deal with a hunchbacked villain in ‘Richard III’ or a war between England and France in ‘Henry V,’ but this history is harder to get a handle on. But ultimately the history doesn’t matter; it’s a play about hubris, about a king who thinks he can do anything until the world lets him know that he can’t.”
Gallanar promises that at least half of every season will be devoted to Shakespeare plays, but there will always be other plays mixed in. This season those plays are Gallanar’s own adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
“Our motto,” Gallanar says, “is ‘We do plays by Shakespeare and plays of a classical stature.’ I think Dickens, Chekhov and Wilde have a classical stature. But we’re still feeling our way as to which plays work and which don’t. We once did ‘The Front Page,’ and in retrospect it didn’t have a compelling reason to be produced by a Shakespeare theater. On the other hand, we did ‘Our Town,’ and that worked.”
The new CSC building opens a season and a half after the Everyman Theatre moved into its new building and half a season after the Single Carrot Theatre moved into its new quarters. It’s an era of unprecedented expansion for the Baltimore theater community.
“I grew up in Baltimore and I still live in Baltimore,” Sullivan says, “and there’s never been a time like this. People are starting new theater companies all over town, and they’re not doing it to become community theaters; they’re aspiring to bigger things. And that’s because they’ve seen the examples of Everyman and Single Carrot. They now believe it’s possible.”