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Annapolis Theater Groups Vie For Audiences, Space

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By THERESA WINSLOW
The Capital of Annapolis

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Is there too much drama in Annapolis?

Before this week, 16 theater groups were vying for audiences — and sometimes space. The theater boom is happening so fast buffs can’t even name all the companies.

Then came Monday’s cautionary tale.

Bay Theatre Company, the city’s first professional troupe, announced Tuesday it was suspending operations out of fear of losing its West Garrett Place space because of a month-to-month lease.

“How would you like to have an apartment and every month not know whether you’re going to stay?” said Glen Rotner, a Bay board member who spearheaded an unsuccessful 16-month search for a new theater location.

Everyplace the troupe looked at was either too small or too expensive.

“Annapolis is a tough city for locating a theater,” Rotner said.

Bay already was in at center of drama in the theater community.

This year, Compass Rose Theater moved from Eastport to near Westgate Circle, which happens to be just up West Street from Bay Theatre. The leaders of both companies were partners until their split three years ago.

“People used to think having a McDonald’s on every corner wouldn’t work,” said actor Chris Haley, who also runs a Greenbelt film festival and is the nephew of “Roots” author Alex Haley.

In this case, it didn’t.

But other shows will go on — show after show after show.

Only a decade ago, Annapolis theater consisted of Bay; Colonial Players, which is in the midst of its 64th season; Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre; Children’s Theater of Annapolis; and the Talent Machine. There also are troupes at St. John’s College, the Naval Academy and Anne Arundel Community College.

This year, in a still-shaky economy, four groups sprang up, another opened a rehearsal space, and Compass relocated.

“There definitely will be a tipping point,” said Lars Tatom, head of the drama department at AACC. He has seen ebbs and flows in the theater communities in other states. “I don’t think anyone knows the formula. But it always seems to find its equilibrium, so there might be some pain in that.”

While several companies report strong attendance, the explosion of local theater has created more challenges — from finding enough technical crews to finding a venue (only half of the companies have their own theater). In Bay’s case, finding an affordable venue proved critical.

Creating a niche is also key.

Dignity Players, for example, present socially conscious plays. They’ve tackled issues such as the death penalty, gay marriage and mental health.

The Annapolis Shakespeare Company presents not only plays by the Bard, but other classics. Infinity Theatre Company and the Summer Garden Theatre focus on musicals.

Bay’s piece of the pie for several years was being the only professional theater in town. Compass and Annapolis Shakespeare have since joined the pro ranks.

“If we each have our own strong mission statements, we’ll all do well,” said Ron Giddings, education director for Colonial Players.

Annapolis’ advantage, like that of other communities with local theater, is a built-in audience. Friends and family of performers will always come, which can be enough for some companies to get by. Also, demographics play a role, with culturally astute retirees wanting to enjoy the theater.

Observers also say the rise of theater dovetails with a surge of other arts in Annapolis. The new arts and entertainment district, along with public art from murals to those funky chicken sculptures, has helped.

Technology might be playing a role.

“People are trying to make human connections in an otherwise digital world,” said veteran local actor Duncan Hood.

Then, there’s something else all too human: People see one group putting on plays and wonder why they can’t do it themselves.

Take Kelsey Stone and Tim German. They’re only in their 20s, but have formed the Benevolent Man Society. In nine weeks, they wrote a farce, “Blank Spaces,” and staged it at Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park in northern Anne Arundel County.

They got 90 people for four shows, enough to recoup about half of the $3,000 they invested, said Stone, 26, who works at a local liquor store.

The turnout was enough for them to plan a second show, maybe in the fall.

“If you take a risk, sometimes you get rewarded,” said German, 23, a theater student at the University of Maryland. “Sometimes, you fall on your face. But that’s OK.”

The idea of their Annapolis-based company is to showcase new works by new playwrights, something they claim is lacking in the city.

But several groups showcase new works as part of special events. And companies such as Colonial do program more contemporary works at times.

“Annapolis is kind of a small town, but I don’t think we’re going to get in each other’s way,” German said.

Mike Gilles, of Theater11, shares his sentiments. This is the second time Gilles has tried to make a go of the troupe, and the third time he’s been involved with forming a local theater company.

His first venture was the Annapolis Theater Project, formed in 1989. It lasted three years and 11 productions.

Gilles formed Theater11 in 2003; it faded away after three shows in two seasons. He and others from the company rekindled friendships at Colonial’s iconic “A Christmas Carol” a couple years ago, and decided to give it another go.

The new Theater11 staged “In Celebration” in December, and is staging “Soprano,” next month. He hopes to do a third show later this year.

“There’s an enormous amount of talent in this area,” he said.

This hasn’t slipped by Giddings at Colonial, who is mulling another run for his own company, Standing O Productions, which has been “on hiatus” since 2011.

He’s considering bringing back Standing O for “pop-up” performances, where he stages a show with a minimal set at a restaurant, pub or vacant downtown storefront.

“I don’t think we’ve saturated the market quite yet,” he said.

Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md., http://capitalgazette.com

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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