Theater has been ‘spot on’ over 50 years
817 Saint Paul St. That’s the spot. Or to be more exact, the Spotlighters Theatre, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in downtown Baltimore this past year.
An exceedingly intimate in-the-round (though technically square) stage, “Spots” as it is affectionately known, has played host to Tony, Emmy and Obie Award winners, and even an Oscar nominee, Howard Rollins, Jr.
While much has changed in the past half-century, much has stayed the same, both between the playhouse walls and without. Just ask Fuzz Roark, a staple at Spots for 13 years and currently the managing director.
“There are so many stories: broken ribs during a performance, actors getting engaged on stage, tackling a cast of 36. I remember once when an elderly audience member started in on one of the actors who was smoking in a scene (non-tobacco, of course), asking if he could please do that someplace else, right in the middle of the show!
“It’s all that and more, dealing with being three-quarters underground in an 80-plus year-old building. Still, nothing beats watching the audience during a performance. When that connection happens, it’s magical,” Roark said.
Long thespian history
Spots began as “Stagecrafters” when it was formed under the auspices of the Baltimore City Parks and Recreation department in 1955. When the city canceled that program, the Spotlighters was formed in 1962, thanks to the driving force of the late Audrey Herman, for whom the theatre is named.
Located in what was originally the restaurant and ballroom of the old Madison Hotel — one of the first “high-rise” hotels to open after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1905 — Spots is a testament to what a lot of desire and (very) few dollars can achieve.
“Like today, the economy was tight 50 years ago, so Audrey and her cadre of dedicated volunteers got creative,” Roark said. “We joked that the first lighting system was by Maxwell, as in Maxwell House coffee. They were coffee cans affixed with a porcelain base. And our seats came from the old Century Theater, which we got just a few hours before that building was demolished.”
Spots opened with 108 seats, down to 86 in 2001, and 70 today as the theater added a tech booth, back walls, aisles and more leg room.
“We raised about $30,000 in 2007 for the renovation of our backstage, creating modern dressing rooms, a prop and costume shop, and a designated paint-and-build shop. We also included a kitchenette and laundry, and a green room,” Roark said.
Roark first came to Spots in 1996 to see a show with a friend. “During intermission I had the pleasure of meeting Audrey Herman who, upon hearing I was an actor, swept me up in her whirlwind fashion, down some back hallway and into the green room to meet the cast.
“Though I never had the chance to work with Audrey directly, I have been told that she would never criticize with a negative. If you stunk, either on stage or in tech, her first response was to see what else she could find for you to do.
“She also believed with a passion that theater…has the power to change people, actors and audience,” Roark said.
Roark takes the reins
Born and raised in South Carolina, Roark says he was “always a performer” — singing in church, taking tap dance in first grade, doing local theater.
He took the obligatory young actor’s crack at New York between college and graduate school. At university, he received training in social work and counseling, skills he uses today as a director.
“I often ask myself and the cast, ‘what makes your character do or say this?’ I want my actors to get into the heads of these people, to understand more than just where to stand, when to sit, and what to say.”
Roark, who once participated in a master’s class in drama led by famed director John Huston, moved to Baltimore in 1993, performing with the New Wave Singers and serving as choir director and worship leader for the Metropolitan Community Church. There he also did the set, sound and lights for several theatre productions.
In 2000, a friend from church, Terry J. Long, asked him to serve as musical director for a production of Terrance McNally’s Corpus Christi at Spots.
“I went on to music direct other productions and to finally direct Tim Rice’s Chess at Spotlighters in 2004,” he said.
Today, Spots has an operating budget of just under $165,000, up from $50,000 when the theater began operating as a nonprofit in 2005. Roark is the only full-time employee, though there are a number of part-time staff on contract, an arts administration intern and a costume intern.
Local high schools and colleges are solicited for technical and administration internships, and volunteers assist with jobs like ushering.
Roark credits Spots’ continued growth with the efforts of Mt. Vernon Cultural district and the City of Baltimore to make the local neighborhood a “destination.”
“You’ve got restaurants on Charles Street, Centerstage, the Theater Project on Preston, various clubs, concerts, there’s something going on constantly,” he said.
Albee show up next
For Roark, what’s going on now is four-days-a-week rehearsals with the cast for Spots’ next production, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, scheduled to open May 24 and running through June 30.
“[Albee’s] characters are bigger than life, but so very real at the same time. We can see people we know in all of them, and often ourselves.
“I think audiences will enjoy characters Tobias and Agnes as they face an unnamed, unseen terror that Harry and Edna bring. As in life, there is some wonderful humor, both dark and light,” Roark added.
And what does the next 50 years hold for Spots?
“Many theaters shy away from producing a work that may be too current or too issue-based, but Spotlighters has always been willing and eager to produce works that point out the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
“And Spots will continue to grow and expand the Young Actors Academy — an academic, conservatory approach for children and youth to learn theater skills,” Roark said.
For tickets to A Delicate Balance, visit www.spotlighters.org or call (410) 752-1225.