Before giving a tour of Everyman Theatre’s new home on W. Fayette Street, artistic director Vincent Lancisi pauses beside a table of artifacts in the construction office next door. The items on the table were unearthed during Everyman’s 18-month renovation of the 100-year-old structure, which opened as a vaudeville theater (The Empire), before becoming a burlesque house (The Palace), a parking garage, and, once again, a theater (The Town). Workers found gaslights, vintage liquor bottles, Baltimore Brick Company bricks, and even a mysterious bone. “Is it dog or human?” asks Lancisi, arching an eyebrow. “I don’t know. It’s kind of cool.”
He recalls meeting a man whose father converted the site from a parking garage back into a theater in the mid-1940s. “This guy had stories about when they had to blast those floors out without taking the whole building down,” says Lancisi. “He also remembered that there was a shooting in this building when it was The Town. A guy wanted by the FBI was using the phone, agents approached him, and he opened fire from the phone booth. Apparently, he shot two agents and was killed in a hail of bullets.” (According to a Sun article, the 1953 incident occurred during a screening of Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury. Coincidentally, the shooting occurred during a scene with gunfire, and moviegoers assumed the shots weren’t real.)
Lancisi seems most interested in a pile of sepia-toned theater ephemera. He points out tickets for The Town and The Hippodrome, which opened across the street in 1914. Then, he picks up a bank-deposit log from 1936, turns to a random page, and starts ticking off box-office receipts: “$560, $396, and $727,” he says. “Those were pretty good takes for back then. They brought a lot of people into this theater, so I’ll take that as a good sign.”
One gets the sense that Lancisi views these items not merely as props for colorful stories, but as totems from lost and kindred tribes. He feels connected to those past theater practitioners, the folks who left behind traces of what they’d done. “You can feel it,” says Lancisi. “You can feel their presence in the building.”
Still, he doesn’t linger; he’s all forward motion. Lancisi, busy prepping for January’s grand opening, strides into Everyman’s new space like a man intent on making history of his own.
Lancisi graduated from Catholic University (MFA in directing, class of 1988), determined to start a small, professional theater. He relocated to Baltimore from D.C., waited tables for awhile, and founded Everyman in 1990. As the name implies, its stated mission was “to produce quality plays that are accessible and affordable to everyone.” Lancisi focused on contemporary plays and classics, performed by local actors.
Everyman didn’t have a home during those early years and popped up at various venues around town, producing one play a year at Saint John’s Church in Charles Village, Theatre Project, Vagabond Theatre in Fells Point, or MICA. Reviews were good, audiences were supportive, and, though money was scarce, Lancisi knew what was needed to take his fledgling enterprise to the next level—a home base. He found a suitable space at 1727 N. Charles Street and sympathetic landlords in Alan and Michael Shecter, who owned much of the property in that block.
At the time, Charles and North Avenue was not an obvious location for a theater. Other than the Club Charles and the Charles movie theater, it was a ghost town in those pre-Station North, pre-MICA-expansion days. “There was nothing there,” says Lancisi drolly.
With build-it-and-they-will-come pluck, Everyman opened on Charles Street with a production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child in 1994 and launched its first full season the following year. Audiences loved the intimate space (175 capacity), the resident company that came to include the likes of Bruce Nelson and Megan Anderson, and, of course, the string of acclaimed productions that ranged from Chekhov to August Wilson, with a few cabaret nights in the mix.
It proved to be a formula for success. In 1996, the theater had a few hundred subscribers, and that number ballooned to more than 4,000.
While the numbers suggested an expansion, the limitations of the cramped Charles Street location pretty much dictated it. If you ask Lancisi or Kyle Prue, Everyman’s director of production, about the original space’s “quirks,” they chuckle and then list the obstacles that had to be overcome for each and every show. Both men immediately mention the room’s support columns, two of which were literally onstage. “It became a study of how best to incorporate those columns into each set, which led to some interesting designs and work-arounds,” says Lancisi. “It was less than ideal.”
Prue recalls the solution they devised for a 2000 production of The Crucible—more columns. “We added about 10 more columns,” says Prue. “We’ve used every trick imaginable in dealing with them.”
There was also the low ceiling (just 11 feet), loud HVAC system, tiny dressing rooms, and a shop for constructing scenery that, Lancisi says, was “the size of most people’s living room.” Plus, there was no storage area, so scenery was built in pieces and stowed under the risers, in Lancisi’s office, or even in the lobby (hidden behind draperies). Rehearsals were held in a church basement down the street.
Lancisi started planning for a new space seven years ago, and after a proposed move to the old Chesapeake Restaurant building fell through, he considered leaving Charles Street. When Bank of America offered to donate The Town, Everyman committed to the Westside and its recently designated Bromo Tower Arts & Entertainment District.
Continuing his walk through the new theater complex, Lancisi savors the details, big and small, that went into the $18-million project. He lauds architects Cho Benn Holback + Associates and Lewis Contractors, and, at one point, calls over Tab Kramer, the contractor’s superintendent. “This was a complicated building, wasn’t it?” he asks Kramer.
“It was basically a total gut,” says Kramer. “At one point, there was nothing here—just a roof and four walls. We had to bring huge pieces of steel into the building. In fact, we had a 35-ton crane sitting in the middle of the building, erecting steel, where the theater is now.”
Then, almost as an afterthought, he adds: “Every floor you’re standing on is new.”
They built a theater within a theater and downsized The Town’s 2,000 seats into Everyman’s 250, a modest increase over the Charles Street location. “We were very careful about not getting too big,” notes Lancisi. “Part of what people love about us is they feel they have access to the actors on the stage. I think we’ve been able to maintain that.”
Still, the contrast from the old location is dramatic, with high ceilings (that will accommodate a state-of-the-art lighting grid), comfortable seating, and a room that’s been finely tuned for sound. “It’s all about facilitating a natural conversation onstage without having to push your voice,” says Lancisi, before pointing out booths at the back for sound- and light-board operators and a private box so directors can pop in unobtrusively and check on shows.
The theater isn’t a black box. Its plywood walls (over layers of metal cross-bracing and drywall) are stained aubergine, “not eggplant, not purple,” cracks Lancisi. “We wanted a rich color that would also feel warm and vibrant.”
The upstairs and downstairs lobbies have a similar feel, with bistro tables, a full bar downstairs, and large photos of the resident company and set design sketches on the walls. Dinner can be purchased from food trucks and brought inside, or crab cakes can be delivered from Faidley’s at nearby Lexington Market. “You can come early and stay late,” says Lancisi. “After the show, grab a drink with your friends and talk. We want this to be a destination in itself.”
“It’s a place where you’ll want to hang out,” adds managing director Ian Tresselt.
But theatergoers won’t see many of the most significant changes, like the enormous scenery shop, ample dressing rooms (with full baths and showers), a green room with a flat-screen monitor of the stage, administrative offices, a classroom for educational programs, and an upstairs, gym-like rehearsal space, which caused a few of the resident actors to tear up the first time they saw it.
It’s a space that could be converted into a second, more flexible theater. “I bet we’ll be pressed into using that space sooner rather than later,” says Lancisi.
Theatergoers definitely won’t see the ghosts of history all around them, though they may sense them. Some of the unearthed artifacts might even be on view in a lobby display case. “It’s best when you can sense prior civilizations in the building,” says Lancisi. “Here, you really can do that. Even with all the new finishes, you get glimpses of the old. You know, it actually feels like we’re restoring this place back to its roots as a live vaudeville theater.”
He arches that eyebrow again. “I love that there will be some ghosts hanging around. We have shoulders to stand on and traditions to uphold.”