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Spotlighters Shines the Path to its Future

Actor Erin Harnatty before rehearsal for "Bus Stop" at Spotlighters Theatre
Actor Erin Harnatty before rehearsal for "Bus Stop" at Spotlighters Theatre - Steve Ruark
At 817 Saint Paul St. you might find a fiddler on the roof, a bus stop, a lion in winter.

It’s the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre  — also affectionately referred to as “Spots.” The creation of the late Audrey Herman, the theater-in-the-round has hosted actors who’d later win Tony, Emmy and Obie awards, and even an Academy Award nomination for Howard Rollins Jr. in “Ragtime.” 

The 70-seat theater celebrates its 50th year of operation this year and has plans that will hopefully keep it running for the next 50 years. Interior renovations, reaching out to local middle schools and expanding its Young Actors Academy are all in the works.   

Theater Managing Director Fuzz Roark credits Spots’ continued growth with the efforts of the Mount Vernon community and neighborhood businesses to make it a destination. The area is home to Centerstage, the Theatre Project, the Walters Art Museum and the Peabody Conservatory. It's also home to numerous restaurants, locally owned and national cafes. The theater sold 4,591 tickets last year, an 18 percent jump from its 2009/2010 season.

The rapidly expanding University of Baltimore campus has also helped bring younger theater patrons to Spotlighters, Roark says. Nearly 1,000 students now live in the UB midtown area, up 28 percent from last year and 134 percent over the past five years. These numbers are expected to increase as UB opens new buildings, including the John and Frances Angelos Law Center, opening next year.

“We’ve had a tremendous uptick in the number of students living in our zip code,” UB spokesman Chris Hart says. A recent poll found there was an 84 percent increase in UB students living around the campus. Many are students in the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences who are interested in theater, Hart says.

Spotlighters is also expanding its reach among school kids. It is now seeking a grant from the CVS Caremark Charitable Trust foundation to fund a pilot project for theater curriculum for two to three local middle schools.

“We hope that being able to be in multiple locations will allow students and families, along with school staff, to see Spotlighters not only as a great performance theater but also as an institution dedicated to education,” Roark says.

If it gets the grant money, Spotlighters will essentially clone its Young Actors Academy, an academic, conservatory approach for children and youth to learn theater skills. It consists of a summer theater and after-school theater programs for middle and high school students. Actors, directors, musicians, local high school and college theater instructors, with consultation from the Maryland Department of Education, help young people hone their acting and stage skills.

And the theater has laid out plans to help it broaden its fan base further. Earlier this month, it announced a $175,000 campaign to make the theater handicap accessible.

The plan calls for removal of old piping and conduit, renovation and expansion of the restroom facilities, and installation of an exterior, fully enclosed elevator at the theater’s Saint Paul Street entrance. It has raised $5,000 to date, from individual donors and organizations, with more fundraising events on the way. Roark says he hopes to finish raising money by August so renovations can begin by October 2013.

Del Risberg, associate managing director for Centerstage  —also celebrating its 50th year of operation — says the theater has continued to serve as a neighborhood anchor.  

“What role has Spotlighters played in moving the neighborhood forward? My strongest and most immediate reaction is to say, ‘stability.’ Particularly for a small community theater,” Risberg says. “Spotlighters has remained an active contributor to the offerings in the neighborhood and brought people from outside of the neighborhood to it.”

Spotlighters first opened in 1962 in what was originally the kitchen and pantry area of the 1920s hotel known as the Madison. Like today, the economy was tight so “Audrey and her cadre of dedicated volunteers” got creative.

“We joked that the first lighting system was by Maxwell—Maxwell House, that is,” Roark says. “They were coffee cans with a porcelain base.”

Opened originally under the auspices of the Baltimore City Parks and Recreation department, Spots became an independent nonprofit in 2005. Its operating budget has growth threefold since then, to $165,000.

“There are so many stories,” Roark says as he reflects on the last 50 years. “Broken ribs during a performance, friends, actors and co-stars getting engaged on stage, tackling a show with a cast of 36, dealing with being three-quarters underground in an 80-plus year-old building in Baltimore City, watching the audience during a performance—when that connection happens, it’s magical.”

A native of Baltimore, Dan Collins is a former full-time journalist and current freelancer. He blogs for Examiner.com and is lead reviewer and coordinator of the Baltimore/MD domain for Broadwayworld.com.
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