"Welcome to my dream," Vince Lancisi says as he gives a tour of the Everyman Theatre's new space on West Fayette Street. It's mid-November, and workers are scurrying around with ladders and drills, installing light sconces, removing plastic sheets, and laying flooring, but already one can glimpse the possibilities that have Lancisi, the company's artistic director, beaming.
Above the lobby's bar, handsome with frosted, translucent glass, is a curving wall that extends up to a second-floor ceiling, giving the entrance an atrium feel, so different from the cramped lobby of the old Charles Street location. Lancisi excitedly hurries his visitor into the new performance space. The room's Rothko-esque wooden walls are stained three different shades of purple, and the seats echo that theme in purple cushions. It's a warm color that will disappear as the lights go down on January 15, when Everyman opens its first show on Fayette Street: Tracey Letts' August: Osage County.
But Lancisi is most excited about what his guest doesn't see: the pillars, stadium seating, and 11-foot ceilings that were the defining elements of the company's previous location, a former bowling alley. He walks down the aisle of the new performance space, through the gentle rake of the seats, climbs atop the thrust stage, and turns to face an imaginary audience.
"What makes great theater?" he asks. "To feel as natural as possible onstage with no impediments. I hate stadium seating, because the rake is so severe that an actor has to project both up and down. And how could we do Romeo and Juliet on Charles Street with those 11-foot ceilings?" He looks up at the high-tension, steel-mesh lighting grid overhead. "Here, we have 30-foot ceilings, so we can do Romeo and Juliet, Noises Off, or August: Osage County.
"We're going to do more shows of scope here. When Salieri argued with God during Amadeus at the old space, it seemed like a very small God, because the ceiling was only 11 feet above the stage. If we do Amadeus here, God can be a giant-or at least a little taller."
Everyman member Kyle Prue says the new space manages to fit more seats while also providing more intimacy.
"Although the ceiling is much higher," he says, "the footprint, the floor area here, is almost exactly the same as the Charles Street space. It's 4 feet wider and 4 feet shallower. Because we can use the space more efficiently, we can get 253 seats in here with only four more rows, as opposed to 175 in the old space. But the audience is actually closer to the stage here than at the old Everyman."
By moving into this abandoned movie palace around the corner from the Hippodrome Theatre on Baltimore's west side, the Everyman Theatre has completed a 22-year journey. It began when Lancisi and his collaborators were a troupe of recent college graduates without a building of their own. It now climaxes with them becoming Center Stage's first-ever peer in Maryland: a well-established regional theater with a state-of-the-art home. It's a journey that many semi-professional theater groups have begun, but so far Everyman is the only one to have completed it.
Along the way, Lancisi learned that theaters are inextricably linked to their physical spaces. Movies can be shown in multiple theaters; musicians can perform in multiple venues; paintings can be hung in different galleries and museums; books can be read anywhere; individual actors can perform lots of places-but a theater troupe only has an identity if it has a place to call its own. When the Everyman Theatre staged its earliest productions in rented spaces at the Vagabond Theatre, the Theatre Project, and the Maryland Institute College of Art, they found it impossible to gain any traction as a company.
"When I asked people about those early shows," Lancisi recalls, "they'd say, 'Oh, I thought that was a Vagabond production,' or 'Oh, I thought that was a Theatre Project production.' Audiences don't differentiate between a theater company and a theater building. It meant more than we ever expected; it meant identity. When we talked to funders, as soon as we said, 'We don't have a building,' a curtain came down on their eyes. People don't write checks for homeless theaters."
Everyman moved into the Charles Street location in 1994, and if it wasn't an optimal space, at least it was home. "When we first moved in, we had two reactions," remembers Prue. "One was, 'Boy, this place is huge,' and it was, at least compared to the Vagabond. And the second was, 'Man, is it dirty.'
"The bowling alley had this huge, hideous mural obviously made by many amateur artists. Back in the dressing rooms, you could see the plywood in the gutters. We had to get a production of Buried Child up in two months. But after we had painted the walls and had hung our own sign, not someone else's, out front on Charles Street, we had a sense of ownership-even though we were renting."
By the middle of the 2000s, it was clear that Everyman had outgrown its Charles Street space. They kept cramming more seats into every nook and cranny, but eventually they ran out of both nooks and crannies. The pillars that hadn't been a problem when they had fewer than 100 seats became a challenge when they got to 120 and a huge challenge when they got to 175.
The theater was on the verge of being 100 percent subscribed, which would have meant it wouldn't have been able to sell single tickets. To avoid that scenario, Everyman mounted a determined campaign to take over the old Chesapeake Restaurant space at the southern end of its block. (The Charles Theatre sits in between.) The plan was to keep the original facade while building a large theater in the parking lot behind the restaurant. But much to Everyman's disappointment, the Baltimore Development Corporation awarded the rights to a restaurant operator instead. The site still remains shuttered.
"Every time we've had a setback, something better has come along," Lancisi says. "Sure enough, Bank of America was looking for an arts organization to move into the old Town Theatre. They said, 'We'll sell you the building for a dollar if you'll raise the money to build a state-of-the-art theater there.'"
The building originally opened in 1911 as the Empire Theatre, a 2,200-seat vaudeville palace. The space switched to movies and then to burlesque as the Palace Theatre, before closing in 1937. At that point, the interior was gutted and rebuilt as a parking garage. In 1947 it was gutted again and reopened as the Town Theatre, a 1,550-seat movie house. That incarnation closed in 1990, the same year that Everyman staged its first-ever production, at St. John's Church in Charles Village.
But the opportunity to take over the Town Theatre presented a question that went to the heart of Everyman's identity: What kind of theater did they want to be? A 175-seat theater? A 250-seat theater? A 450-seat theater? A 750-seat theater? A 1,500-seat theater? There was space to do any of those.
"I chose 250 seats," Lancisi reveals, "because that's the size of community I want to work with. I was in a 100-seat house off-Broadway recently, and I had a strong feeling that I wanted to share that experience with a larger community. And I've been in 500-seat houses where I didn't feel part of a community at all. And I didn't want to skip a step. That's how theaters lose their identity-by going from 170 to 450 seats. That changes the kind of plays you do and how you do them-and you can lose yourself in the process."
Lancisi is quiet for a moment as he stands on the stage, looking out at the seats that still have plastic wrapping on them. He can imagine them full of audience members looking up at the actors on the stage, expectant, demanding.
"My favorite comment from our audience surveys was, 'I like Everyman because I can see the actors sweat,'" he continues. "You'll be able to see the actors sweat here. The intimacy of a human story, that's what draws me to the theater. But I want the world that experiences those stories to be larger than it has been."
The intimacy is important to Megan Anderson, a nine-year member of Everyman's acting company. "When I stood on the [new] stage and looked out to the last seat in the last row," she says, "I was relieved that that person didn't feel any further away than the last person in the old space. When the audience is that close, there is something you can feel coming from them, and their energy, whether positive or negative, is another presence in the space.
"At Everyman, the audience feels like an additional character that you have to be aware of. The few times I've been on a much larger stage, it feels like a black curtain is hanging at the front of the stage. You can still hear things, but it feels muffled. It feels like you're sending things off into the great black void. At Everyman, you send it out and it bounces right back to you."
As Lancisi continues his tour, dodging construction workers, he points out that most of the materials in the renovated building are steel and wood-"no plush velvet, no gold leaf," he says, "no vestiges of a time when theater was only for rich people." The bathrooms, he points out, are big and plentiful. Sixty percent of theater-ticket buyers, he adds, are women, and you don't want them still waiting in line when intermission ends.
"We spent a lot of time and money on something you can't see: silence," Lancisi says. "The enemy of the pregnant pause is white noise. The worst thing for me would be to come to my new theater and hear the hum of a heating fan or air conditioner."
At a second-floor seating area, where the chairs look down into the atrium lobby below, Lancisi imagines patrons relaxing with drinks from the theater's bar and/or food from the Charm City Gourmet truck (which will be parked outside before every performance). Elsewhere on the second floor, he unlocks a large classroom boasting a wall of mirrors and an even larger room nearby that he calls "the best rehearsal space in Baltimore."
It's almost as large as the main theater downstairs, and the plan is to eventually turn it into Everyman's second performance space. An empty room on the third floor will then become the rehearsal space. "We're now in Phase One of our plans," Lancisi says. "Phase Two will be adding the second space. I think Phase Two will come sooner than we thought."
Lancisi, 51, settles into a chair in the rehearsal space. The salt-and-pepper goatee, the receding hairline, and the business attire-black slacks, white shirt, gray blazer-attest to the long journey he has made. During his final year of earning his master's degree at D.C.'s Catholic University in 1987-88, he recalls, he was looking for a city where he could found his own theater company. He was looking into Orlando, Fla.; Worcester, Mass.; and Nashua, N.H. Baltimore wasn't even on the radar.
But when he asked Howard Shalwitz for advice, the Wooly Mammoth Theatre's artistic director told him that if he could move his theater to any city, he'd move it to Baltimore. The city had two Broadway touring houses at the time, a large regional theater, and dozens of community theaters but no small professional theater. It was a niche that most big cities had already filled, but not Baltimore.
"I came to Baltimore, and I fell in love with it for the same reasons everyone else does," Lancisi remembers. "Although D.C. is a great place to visit, it's a terrible place to live. By contrast, Baltimore is cheap and people stay here rather than moving on. I came from Boston, so I understood a port city transitioning from an industrial to a service economy.
"I came here to start a very specific kind of theater. I believed you can create a great theater when actors feel safe and valued, where they can take risks in the rehearsal room and not be made fun of or taken for granted. The theater was my baby, but I had people who shared my aesthetic who were willing to come here and work for next to nothing."
One of those people was Audrey Wasilewski, Lancisi's college girlfriend, who later became a notable TV actress playing Anita Respola on Mad Men and Pam Martin on Big Love. Another was Prue, Lancisi's college roommate. In 1990 Prue became a founding member of Everyman's Resident Acting Company, employing an approach to theater that's far less common than it once was.
Most theaters, like Center Stage, cast every show from scratch. A dwindling number rely on a resident troupe of performers who are guaranteed a certain number of roles per year. There's a trade-off between these two approaches. By casting every show from scratch, you can potentially consider every actor and actress in the world to find the right performer for each part. But by using the same actors and actresses over and over again, you build a genuine rapport-not only among the performers but also between the performers and the audience.
"We have so many hours together in the dressing room and rehearsal room," confirms Megan Anderson, who married Prue in 2003 and joined the company in 2004. "That makes your relationship onstage that much richer. Deborah Hazlett and I have played cousins, neighbors, rivals, mother and daughter. We know so much about each other that that just enhances the spoken and unspoken stuff. In one play, Carl Schurr can play your dad, and the next, he can play your husband. That's the other thing-you get chances to play roles you might be a little too old or a little too young for."
Part of the pleasure of returning to Everyman for production after production is seeing the same performer in very different roles. Over the years, for example, this writer has seen Anderson play a mathematical prodigy in Proof, a streetwise Irish brawler in The Cripple of Inishmaan, a former sexual-abuse victim in Blackbird, a pious Russian aristocrat in The Cherry Orchard, a decadent British aristocrat in School for Scandal, and a nagging Ohio wife in All My Sons. One learns, as one never could at a different kind of theater, how much is the same and how much is different each time an actor takes on a role.
"Stan Weiman and I have done plays together for almost 20 years," notes Prue, who was in the acting company for 16 years before becoming the theater's production manager. "We know each other's tricks, each other's shorthand, and that helps in so many ways. We can cut through the BS and get to the core, because we feel comfortable enough to challenge each other.
"I can say, 'Stan, that's bullshit; that doesn't work there,' and he can do the same. That's almost forbidden in many drama schools and professional productions. Here, we have the freedom and support to challenge each other. You can go to places of vulnerability because you know that you can try something and know it might fail. They're not going to look down their noses or write you off; they're going to applaud you for trying something."
The 11 current members of the Everyman Resident Acting Company aren't on salary, but they are given first crack at several major roles and minor roles each year. In fact, Lancisi says he chooses the plays for each season with his resident actors in mind, sometimes casting them based on proven strengths, and sometimes casting them against type to challenge them. In return, the performers commit to being available for those roles.
Company members Bruce Nelson, Deborah Hazlett, Wil Love, Carl Schurr, Clinton Brandhagen, and Beth Hylton will be featured in the first Fayette Street production, August: Osage County. The play, which won a Pulitzer and five Tony Awards in 2008, will allow Everyman to feel out the expanded possibilities of its new space. There are 13 characters, all living in or else visiting a towering, multi-story Oklahoma house. Loosely based on the play/opera Camille, "it's a dysfunctional family having a three-and-a-half-hour fight onstage," Lancisi says.
In March, Everyman shrinks its focus for Yazmina Reza's Gods of Carnage, about two couples arguing over their children in an Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan. In April, the focus becomes smaller still as two African-American brothers bicker in an apartment in Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog. In June the tableau broadens considerably as 17 characters populate George Farquhar's 1707 Restoration comedy, The Beaux' Stratagem.
"The next four plays-all Baltimore premieres, by the way-are a study in scale," Lancisi says. "After I do them, I'll have a better sense of how the space works. Next season will be an exploration of different styles and different periods of playwriting. In the past, 85-90 percent of our repertoire has been contemporary. I think that's going to change, because now we have more and better tools.
"To do big shows by Shakespeare, Shaw, and Brecht, you need doors to roll scenery on and off, and enough height to do balcony or second-floor scenes. To do French farce and Restoration comedy, costumes matter; dialects matter. We'll probably expand the acting company a bit and also the production staff. If we can add a full-time electrician, a full-time sound designer, and a full-time propmaster, the level of craftsmanship onstage will rise."
The grand opening of the new Fayette Street theater began Monday, Jan. 14, with a morning ribbon-cutting ceremony, followed by preview performances of August: Osage County Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights before the show's official opening, on Friday, Jan. 18.
Everyman's final show on Charles Street was Heroes, which closed on Dec. 2. But the staff had moved down to Fayette Street offices Thanksgiving week, even before the final bows. The Single Carrot Theatre moved into the old space on the first of the year, signing a year's lease. It was tangible proof that the theater-building road blazed by Everyman is open for others to follow.
"The Baltimore theater scene is coming out," Lancisi points out. "Even up in New York they're talking about it, because there is a real scene here now." Everyman has proven just how large a struggling, start-up theater company can grow in Maryland. Nearly a dozen small companies are now trying to follow a similar path. "Feeder companies!" Lancisi exults. "Hooray! Hallelujah!"