When Baltimore Center Stage opened its upper-level Head Theater in 1991, architects promised it would be highly flexible, with seats that can be arranged in a variety of configurations to complement the fixed-seat Pearlstone Theater below.
But once it opened, the Head Theater wasn’t rearranged to suit each performance as the architects envisioned. Changing the seats for each show turned out to be very labor intensive, theater directors say.
Now the theater has been redesigned, and one of the goals was to again create an adaptable performance space with seats that can rearrange in a variety of configurations.
In the revamped space on the fourth level, plays can be performed on a proscenium stage, a thrust stage, promenade or in the round, and theater seating can potentially be different for every show based on the demands of the productions. Movies and lectures can be presented. Seating capacities range from 215 to 412 people.
There’s also a new air conditioning system with ventilation under the seats, a new red color on the seats, more leg room between rows, new lights, and a new sound and lighting booth.
“It always required so much effort to move the [stair] towers around,” said Terry H. Morgenthaler, president of the Baltimore Center Stage board of trustees, during a recent tour of the renovated building.
Patrons didn’t relish climbing up to their seats and the acoustics weren’t always the best, she added. “Now it’s all different.”
The new Head Theater is just one of the changes patrons will see when Baltimore Center Stage officially reopens Friday after a $28 million renovation.
The first production in the reconstructed theater, “The White Snake,” has been in previews since Feb. 24. March 3 is the official opening night. Located at 700 N. Calvert Street, the regional theater is celebrating with a ribbon cutting ceremony in the morning, a breakfast reception and self-guided tours.
Other completed work includes:
- Peter Culman Plaza, with a complete refurbishment of original iron doors and an entry arch dedicated to longtime Baltimore Center Stage managing director Peter Culman, who died recently.
- The first-floor Deering Lobby, featuring the Marilyn Meyerhoff Box Office and the Sherman Café & Bar. The new lobby holds a concierge box office and redesigned bars and cafes. The central atrium leads to a second-floor dining area, new and remodeled restrooms, flexible lounge spaces, and areas outfitted with the latest technology for projections, “community talk-backs,” forums and live-streaming events. On one side of the lobby is a “quote wall” featuring phrases from a wide range of plays.
- The Pearlstone Theater on the first floor has been updated with new lighting and sound capabilities and improved heating and air conditioning systems.
- The new pre-show restaurant vendor is Flavor, a Mount Vernon restaurant owned by Julia and Vanna Belton. Flavor at Baltimore Center Stage will serve lunch or dinner beginning two hours prior to each performance. Entrees, small plates, beer, wine and coffee will be served on the theater’s second-floor Marilyn Meyerhoff Mezzanine dining space. Small plates will be served at the first-floor Sherman Café & Bar, along with a full bar.
- Deering Lounge on the fourth floor outside the Head Theater, which features restored windows, a full bar, seating and projection technology. The brand new Nancy K. Roche Bar in the lounge will provide full bar service and light snacks.
- The Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Education Center. For the first time, the education department will have its own dedicated space with a large studio for classes and workshops, which will let Baltimore Center Stage triple the number of its students.
- The Third Space, a new 99-seat theater on the upper level that will allow Baltimore Center Stage to produce and perform new work and attract top-tier playwrights and young writers looking for places to test their new pieces in a workshop setting. The theater will also serve as a venue for community programs and education workshops, family productions and presentations.
- The Terry H. Morgenthaler Costume Shop, where all costume work can be done in one space. It also includes a new dye room and fitting room.
- Restored windows in the Nancy K. Roche Chapel, which also has a new projection screen and updated lighting.
- Two world-class rehearsal spaces: the Jay Andrus Rehearsal Hall, with soaring ceilings and abundant natural light, and the Jay and Sharon Smith Rehearsal Studio, a new rehearsal space fit for smaller groups of actors and or musicians.
Started more than 50 years ago and also known as the State Theater of Maryland, Baltimore Center Stage has been housed since 1974 in the former Loyola College and Preparatory School on Calvert Street. While renovations were underway, performances were held at Towson University.
Cho Benn Holback + Associates of Baltimore is the lead architect for the renovations. Charcoalblue of London is the theater consultant and lead designer for the Head Theater. Whiting-Turner is the construction manager. Pentagram is the graphic designer.
Directors say the changes add up to a new experience for theatergoers and will help the theater attract “world class” talent for its productions.
“We’ve created more opportunities for art making and community building, with new public spaces to gather before and after shows and state-of-the-art performance spaces with the best in theater design and technology,” said managing director Michael Ross. “We’re thrilled to reopen our doors and welcome the community to experience our remarkable transformation.”
According to Morgenthaler, the theater has either raised or received pledges for more than $26.5 million of the $28 million project.
Morgenthaler said she is particularly pleased with the way the theater is now more illuminated at night. She said other local institutions, such as the downtown stadiums, are well-lit at night and she thought Center Stage should be, too – enough so that she donated funds for improved lighting.
“I asked, ‘Why can’t we have purple lights? Why can’t we do what everybody else is doing?’” she said.
Morgenthaler said she enjoys Baltimore Center Stage being an anchor of the neighborhood.
“Renovating this building is not just about this theater and putting on plays,” she said. “It’s about being a presence in a vital, vibrant city neighborhood. I want us to be on par with all the other major institutions in the city. We’re a big anchor here. We need to have a strong presence in this neighborhood.”