On the day after he earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from Catholic University in 1988, Vincent M. Lancisi moved to Baltimore to start Everyman Theatre.
“I knew I wanted to start a small regional theater with a company of actors who lived in the community. I feel that actors shouldn’t have to go to L.A. or New York to make a living,” said Lancisi.
A native of Boston, Lancisi, the company’s founding artistic director, chose Baltimore because he said there was a niche that needed to be filled here.
“There were two touring houses, the Mechanic and the Lyric, and there was Centerstage — a major professional regional theater. There was a vibrant amateur theater scene with lots of neighborhood theaters — inc-luding the Vagabond — America’s oldest continuous small theater — but there was no small professional theater,” Lancisi recalled. “We started from scratch, in all different spaces. We were vagabonds ourselves.”
In 1994, Everyman settled into a permanent space, in an old storefront on North Charles Street. The theater had 170 seats; it was small and intimate with low ceilings and architectural columns.
“For a venue never meant to be a theater, it has served us well,” said Lancisi. “For 18 years we put on plays, plied our trade, practiced our craft, and our audiences grew. Now, we have nearly 5,000 subscribers, [who] are fiercely loyal; they grew with us.”
About six years ago, said Lancisi, Everyman’s audiences had increased to the extent that the company and its leadership had to consider a new space. Perhaps it was beshert, or as Lancisi puts it, “kismet,” that the Bank of America sold Everyman the historic Town Theatre on West Fayette Street for $1.
Longtime Everyman board member Gina Hirschhorn, senior vice president of Global Commercial Banking for the bank, and her husband, Dan Hirschhorn, chairman and president of ATAPCO, chaired the theater’s capital campaign, helping raise more than $18 million to restore the old building. Despite the recession, she said, “the community rallied to support Everyman.”
The new Everyman Theatre space has a long, colorful and somewhat Jewish history. Originally called the Empire when it opened in 1910, the theater hosted vaudeville performances, Yiddish theater, boxing and bingo parties. In the course of renovating the old Empire’s facade, builders discovered the Empire’s initial “E,” which was old and faded. “We restored it and now the “E” stands for Everyman,” said Lancisi.
From 1914 to 1937, the theater was the Palace, a venue for burlesque shows. In response to public outcry about its shows’ indecency, the theater was torn down and converted into a parking garage. In 1946, the parking garage re-opened as a 1,550-seat movie house called the Town Theatre. Its first screening? “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring Jimmy Stewart and directed by Frank Capra, who both attended the Baltimore premier on Christmas Day 1946.
By 1990, the Town Theatre, which had fallen into disrepair, closed, just as Everyman Theatre opened on Charles Street.
“The new building is magnificent. The architects did a great job. To be in a building custom made for us — it’s a joy to come to work,” said Lancisi.
“We are very excited and proud,” said Everyman Board President Dr. E. Lee Robbins. “It’s been a labor of love for so many. It’s tremendous to see it come to a close and to celebrate.”
The new theater will have seating for 250, up from 175, although Lancisi stressed that Everyman will retain its intimate ambiance. Adhering to environmentally responsible building practices (LEED Silver standards and ADA compliant), the facility has room for rehearsal space, costume storage, set building, classrooms and office space and will enable the company to expand upon onsite education and community engagement programs.
Additionally, with its new state-of-the-art technological features, higher ceilings and clear sightlines, Everyman will be able to choose from a wider variety of plays and design options than ever before. For example, said Dr. Robbins, “We have always wanted to do ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but we had no room for a balcony.” Small musicals, said the board president, are also now feasible. “It’s so much better for the crew and production staff. They’re just chomping at the bit to start exploring their talents.”
Dr. Robbins reminded Everyman supporters that although the capital campaign has met its goals, fundraising continues. Ticket sales, he said, only cover a portion of a theater’s expenses.
“The rest has to come from other places. About 12 percent of Everyman’s budget goes to educational programs. This is a relatively unknown facet of Everyman and one of the best-kept
secrets in town. To see how kids res-pond to our programs is wonderful. This is not the end, it’s the beginning,” he said.
From a professional standpoint, Gina Hirschhorn said she is proud that her employer, Bank of America, has continued to support the community and the arts.
“Both for its performances and their educational outreach, Everyman is so important to the fabric of the community,” she said.
She, Lancisi and Dr. Robbins are all proud of what the theater will bring to Baltimore’s Westside neighborhood.
“The Hippodrome paved the way, and Lexington Market has been revamped; the University of Maryland has students here doing all sorts of things, there are restaurants, the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower and a plethora of art groups. People don’t realize what a vibrant community this is,” said Lancisi.
Everyman will celebrate the opening of its new home with a variety of special events Friday, Jan. 18 to Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. Its inaugural production, a Baltimore premiere, will be “August: Osage County,” a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning comic-tragedy by Tracy Letts.
“It’s brilliant, funny and wild, one of the best plays of the last 20 years,” said Lancisi. “He’s like Tennessee Williams on steroids.”
For details about opening weekend events, visit everymantheatre.org.