“All the world’s a stage,” as Shakespeare would have us believe and, if you drove past the 700 block of Calvert Street last year, you’ll have noticed that Center Stage was taking this literally. In the interests of a $32 million renovation of their historic building, they turned themselves inside out—a flight of stairs stored behind the building’s chain-link fence; a solitary beam temporarily forgotten on the sidewalk—for all the world to see.
For Center Stage’s Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, “every inch of our theater is the stage,” and this renovation is a natural extension of the bold, explorative and authentic programming that he has fostered at the theater during the five and a half years he’s been at the helm. The new Center Stage now boasts three theater spaces—the Pearlstone Theater, the Head Theater and a new 99-seat venue—a completely reconstructed box office area and lobbies that invite conversation—to say nothing of a lot more restrooms, for women in particular, which is always an intermission issue in theaters across the world. Also, everything to do with Center Stage is now housed under one roof for the first time. This includes a new education suite and a costume lounge.
When I visited the construction site last summer—donning a hard hat for a theater outing was a first for me—I tromped through rubble over walkways where none had been before, and gingerly stepped through newly opened spaces into areas I’d no idea even existed. The reconfiguration of this once familiar building was so extensive that it wasn’t until I sat down with the architects at Cho Benn Holback + Associates that it began to make sense. As they talked me through the computer drawings and elevations, I could see the beauty of the design taking shape, like a play evolving from words on a page, through the director’s concept and the rehearsal process to a three-dimensional production that has the power to move an audience.
Cho Benn Holback + Associates also designed the new Everyman Theatre on Fayette Street and the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s theater on South Calvert. For each of these projects, they’ve taken an existing historic building and created a newly imagined space, while still being mindful of the ethos of the old.
“We wanted to take the uniqueness of the old building and use it as a springboard,” explains Diane Cho, a principal with the company.
Center Stage is housed in the former Loyola College and Preparatory School on North Calvert Street. When the company was suddenly rendered homeless by a fire that burned down their previous theater on North Avenue in 1974, the most extraordinary deal was negotiated with the Maryland Province of the Jesuit order, whereby Center Stage could have the use of the building for the token fee of $10 annual ground rent. (The deal stands.) The Pearlstone Theater is in a section of the building that dates back to 1899, and some parts are as old as 1855.
“As the theater grew, the bones of the building got hidden,” says Cho. “We wanted to bring it back out into the open by using the historic bones and introducing 21st- century technology.” In the process, they’ve also meticulously restored old arched windows and original window trim, moldings and cornices.
Cho loves working with creative theater people because they enable collaboration.
“A project often hinges on one word or concept,” she says. The concept that Kwei-Armah came up with for Center Stage was words and conversation. “We enter into a palace of words when we enter into any theater,” he says, adding that words are vessels for ideas and catalysts for conversations. “And so words and conversations are right at the root of what I think we do here in theater.”
In realizing this concept, the architects have highlighted the excitement of the theater experience. “We wanted to celebrate the entrance,” says Cho. The original entrance was the carriage throughway, which got hidden by a canopy in the 1970s renovation. The building is now more engaged with the street, as marble steps lead up to the open archway of the entrance. There’s a sense of procession from the entrance into the lobbies, and from the elevators around the curve of the Head Theater on the fourth floor.
It’s on this top floor that many of the big changes have taken place. For the newly designed Head Theater, Center Stage contracted U.K.-based theater and acoustics consultants CharcoalBlue, whose work Kwei-Armah knew from the National Theatre and the Liverpool Everyman in England.
“They are top-notch, they are world beaters, and I was really pleased that we could afford them,” he laughs. The Head Theater has a brand-new lobby; it has a new approach to go into the theater, and over time they’ll be able to configure the stage and the seating in three or four different ways in a quick and economically viable way to adapt to different productions.
The fourth floor’s brand-new 99-seat theater is situated behind the Head Theater. Kwei-Armah says they strategized about how they could create a flexible space that would be an engine room for new and bold programming, while still being economically sustainable, and they came up with the 99-seater. At first, Center Stage will be the arbiters of taste for this new space, but by the time they get to where Kwei-Armah would like them to be, other theater companies and community groups will be able to hire out the space for various creative projects.
Meanwhile, following the “soft opening” with “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” in Center Stage’s Pearlstone Theater last November, the grand opening this March features the Chinese fable-turned-theatrical-wonder “The White Snake”—the first play in the renovated Head Theater. When I asked Kwei-Armah how the audience’s experience will be different when they enter into this new palace of words, he said, “More air!” adding, “It is more spacious, it is more open, but yet we’ve tried to retain the character of this historic building.”