Thinking about going to the theater in Baltimore? There are numerous offerings throughout the city, including the Hippodrome, which hosts Broadway roadshows in a historic theater in the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District; the Everyman Theatre, which relocated nearby in 2013; and several smaller theaters such as the women’s theater company the Strand, the Fells Point Corner Theatre and the Vagabond Players, “America’s Oldest Continuous Little Theatre.”
During a recent visit to Baltimore, we talked with the artistic directors of two companies that, in different ways, exemplify the idea that theaters are a critical part of the community.
A mainstay of the Mount Vernon neighborhood, Center Stage, which has been presenting plays in Baltimore since 1962, is only a few blocks from the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, now launching its second season at its impressively restored and converted digs near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
As they look to their respective 2015-2016 seasons, both Kwame Kwei-Armah, Center Stage’s electric, forward-looking artistic director, and Ian Gallanar, founding artistic director of Chesapeake Shakespeare, continue to expand notions about what a theater company can and should be in contemporary times.
Kwame Kwei-Armah took over the reins at Center Stage — a Baltimore institution — after the 20-year tenure of the highly respected Irene Lewis ended in 2011. Lewis had already begun looking for ways of expanding the company’s audience in ways that better reflected the makeup of the multi-ethnic community. Kwei-Armah, whose parents were born in Grenada and who came from London with a big, eclectic, multitasking reputation as playwright, actor and director (he has an OBE for services to drama), ramped up her quest in his own inimitable style.
Gallanar founded the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in 2002 as a group of like-minded artists who wanted to make the Bard’s works more accessible to a broader audience, often in unusual settings — like “the Ruins,” the mostly exposed remains of the former Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City — as well as through forays to public schools. But settling into a landmark bank building and a modern theater of 260 seats certainly ramped up the stakes.
When you talk to Kwei-Armah in his office, you’re confronted with a pacer; he seems to be thinking about several things at once, even while focusing on one idea. The board of trustees has already extended his contract and audiences have increased during his brief tenure, lured by a more varied programming, new plays — some of them by Kwei-Armah himself, such as the world premiere of “Beneatha’s Place,” about the characters in “A Raisin in the Sun” — and new ways of tackling classic drama.
“People, the people of a community, have to see themselves in what’s going on onstage,” he says. “It’s not just relevance, but truth and authenticity that matters. And there are lots of ways of doing work that is meaningful, difficult, entertaining, certainly.” He likes to stir the pot a little, and it’s apparently working.
The 2015-2016 season includes a two-show residency at Towson University in the spring, due to a major renovation at Center Stage’s Calvert Street home. “It’s an exciting time for us,” Kwei-Armah said.
The season opens with a world-premiere stage version of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” (Sept. 11-Oct. 11), followed by the popular musical “The Secret Garden” (Oct. 30-Nov. 29). Then there’s “X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story)” by KJ Sanchez, co-commissioned by Center Stage and Berkeley Rep. “That’s a play that will resonate here but broadly across the country, because football is such a big part of people’s lives and culture in America,” said Kwei-Armah.
We talked with Gallanar (who has a bit of the Shakespearian thespian look about him) in Chesapeake Shakepeare’s new space. “What we wanted in terms of design was to have a theater that made the Shakespeare experience intimate. We wanted it to be a little like the Globe in the olden days,” he said.
The company kicks off its season with the mismatched-lovers-matching-up play “Much Ado About Nothing” (Sept. 18-Oct. 11). Then comes “Titus Andronicus” in Grand-Guignol style, which Gallanar is looking forward to directing. Also on tap: “A Christmas Carol” with a Baltimore twist; “Wild Oats,” an 18th-century comedy by John O’Keeffe; and “Macbeth.”
Where does community intersect with theater? That time for both the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company and Center Stage came in the spring when demonstrations and disturbances of the most visibly destructive kind broke out in West Baltimore.
“We were doing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the time,” Gallanar said. “We had a matinee at which students from the school which had interacted with the police earlier were at. It was amazing. They were absolutely engrossed. They talked, they yelled and interacted with the action vocally. They saw it as a play about two gangs. It was very real and very theatrical at the same time.”
At Center Stage, “Marley,” an original musical authored and directed by Kwei-Armah about the late reggae legend, was about to open. He and the company decided to go to West Baltimore to perform songs from the show at the entrance to the MTA subway station next to the burned out CVS that had appeared on TV.
“It was just something we decided to do. We are part of the community of Baltimore, and that’s part of Baltimore. The whole thing — the response by the people to what we were doing there — was exactly, I think, what theater should be doing.”