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'The Play’s The Thing' As Shakespeare Gets His Own Stage In Baltimore

Walk a couple of blocks downtown and you can see Baltimore’s theater past. And part of its future.

The Mechanic Theater, built in 1967 and closed 10 years ago, is being torn down to make way for apartments and stores. Meantime, at the corner of Redwood and Calvert, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is raising the curtain on its new home in what was once the Mercantile Deposit and Trust Company building.

Ian Gallaner, Chesapeake Shakespeare’s founder, says the Mechanic “did a great service to the city, did it for many decades.” But time has “moved on,” he said.

Chesapeake Shakespeare has moved on, from Howard County into downtown. For 12 years, it put on plays under the stars during the summer at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City. Gallaner says they’ll keep doing that, but now they have a year-round home. It’s attracting season subscribers, over a thousand so far. 

And Gallaner wants to bring in school groups. “If we can get the kids before the kids have heard 'Shakespeare is scary,'” Gallaner says, “it can really change their attitude for life.”

And that is a two-fer. Chesapeake Shakespeare gets to spread its message that Shakespeare is for everyone, and at the same time try to hook young audiences so they’ll come back as paying customers for years to come.

Other theaters are doing the same. They’re also trolling for new ticket buyers on Facebook and Twitter, and using old school methods like newspaper ads and sending stuff through the mail.

The more theaters there are in Baltimore, the more seats there are to fill, the more customers you need. Like Kate Callahan, from Annapolis, who came to see the musical “Once” at the Hippodrome last week. “Got a job and four kids,” Callahan says. “We can’t come to the theater every day so of course you have to make choices. I don’t see us coming in more than once or twice a month for something. So yeah, choice is good, right?”

And it’s those choices that the theater community hopes will create a buzz that Baltimore is becoming a theater town: from the Hippodrome with 2300 seats, to Single Carrot that seats 99 to even smaller theaters around town. Elena Kostakis of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance says getting someone to go to a play for the first time opens the door to them thinking about attending other performances at other theaters. “Yes, there is a limited amount of money we are all vying for,” she says. “But I feel like the potential for the audiences to grow is enormous and it is there.”

Vinnie Lancisi, the artistic director and founder of the Everyman Theatre, agrees. “It’s not like, ok, can Baltimore support another NFL franchise?” Lancisi says. “We’re talking about probably 25 organizations that range from audiences of a thousand a year to 40,000 a year. A year. There is plenty of opportunity left for theaters to come.”

Ron Legler, the President of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center that houses the Hippodrome, says he wants to see the theaters helping each other out with marketing and other things. “We will not succeed without it,” Legler says.  “We cannot do this individually. We’ve got to combine efforts. We’ve got to share best practices and we’ve got to really believe there is a collective.”

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company becomes part of that collective this weekend, when it opens with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”