Ian Gallanar had a PROBLEM with Shakespeare. He didn’t connect with the Bard—at least early on. “I thought it was for smart people,” he tells me, pushing his glasses up his nose. In his high school English class, “everyone else seemed to be nodding a lot. They seemed to get it.”
But things changed for the founder and artistic director of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company (CSC), after he saw the Kenneth Branagh-directed “Much Ado About Nothing,” with Emma Thompson, Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington. It wasn’t that the star-studded 1993 film was so enchanting. The scene that got to Gallanar was between Michael Keaton, as the bumbling constable Dogberry (“who exists to be funny,” Gallanar notes), and his assistant, played by Ben Elton. “They were terrible,” says Gallanar, who was at the time artistic director for the Minneapolis-based National Theater for Children. The actors “didn’t understand rhythmically how that comic banter should work,” he says. “I thought, ‘I could help this scene be funnier.’”
A few years later, he founded Minnesota Shakespeare in the Park. Not surprisingly, the first production was “Much Ado,” and the actor playing Dogberry was a standup comedian. “He understood comic rhythm.”
It turns out that children’s theater was good preparation for Shakespeare, especially the way Gallanar likes to direct. As in children’s theater, the Bard’s scripts demand an extraordinary suspension of disbelief, often communicated through exposition. “In children’s theater, the actor will say, ‘I’m a dragon and there’s a mountain I have to climb’; you don’t need an elaborate dragon costume or an actual mountain to create excitement and connect to the audience.”
Shakespeare indicates actions and settings in the script—Lear’s stormy heath, the magical forest of Arden, Hermione’s statue coming to life in “The Winter’s Tale,” countless shipwrecks and sprites. “The term that Shakespeare nerds use is ‘original practices,’” he explains. With minimal lighting and sets, and no mikes, the cast takes the audience on a wild ride.
Since its founding in 2003, the CSC has made its summer home at the stabilized ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City. The walls and columns of the former girls finishing school frame a dramatic plein air stage facing a lawn where viewers can picnic and children don’t have to sit still. The site (rumored to be haunted) also has inspired popular roving productions, in which audience members follow actors from scene to scene.
On a chilly night in October several years ago, my daughter and I stood on a dark hillside as the weird sisters made their predictions about Macbeth, while the murderous Thane himself strode up the hill. We later gathered in a brick-walled cellar to watch Lady Macbeth panic over the killing of the king. Illuminated by spotlights, the actor’s shadow danced menacingly above her slight frame, as the deed itself loomed over her conscience.
Now Gallanar, who received raves for the roving “Macbeth” (and the follow-up production of “Dracula,” directed by Scott Alan Small), stands on the stage of the CSC’s new home. The former Mercantile Bank at the corner of Redwood and Calvert in downtown Baltimore will open its doors this month with the rom-com “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The CSC purchased the building for $1.2 million in 2012, after searching the region for an indoor location. (They pre-viously “wintered” at the Howard County Center for the Arts.)
“We looked at a lot of old houses with big fields,” says CSC managing director Lesley Malin (who played Lady Macbeth in the moving production). “We looked at auto dealerships on Route 40.”
“We looked at the Enchanted Forest” (a former amusement park in a strip mall), adds Gallanar. “We couldn’t get anyone to return our calls.”
After the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival folded in 2011, Gallanar and Malin expanded the search to Charm City. When they walked into the former bank, more recently the Redwood Trust nightclub, they didn’t expect much. The interior was grimy. There had been a private bar in the basement called the “Bed Room” for its relaxed seating. “It was just icky,” Malin recalls.
But then they looked up. Columns rose through the open atrium to a coffered plaster ceiling with flourishes painted in bright colors that reminded them of Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre in London.
Working with the architecture firm Cho Benn Holback + Associates, the company has put about $4 million into renovating the building. They built a smallish fixed thrust stage that bears some similarities to the Globe, the London theater that once staged Shakespeare’s newly penned plays. Of course, that theater held 2,600 souls in the 1600s, 10 times the capacity of the new CSC—though, as Malin points out, “people were smaller back then. And willing to be squished.”
Like the Globe, the CSC’s new theater is intimate, with rows of seats stacked vertically; the single row comprising the third tier looks straight down on the stage three stories below and feels like a perch in the rafters.
The red upholstered seats were Malin’s pick (“We learned about them at a Shakespeare conference.”), while the flip-down benches have lumbar support and no armrests to encourage a sense of community.
In Shakespeare’s day, theater was a casual affair; audience members drifted in and out. “If someone wants to get up in the middle of the show and get a drink and watch the rest of the show from the bar, that’s OK,” Malin says. Shakespeare anticipated distractions by building frequent expositions into the dialogue, Gallanar explains. For example, in “Romeo and Juliet,” after a fight takes the lives of Mercutio and Tybalt, “the prince comes on and Benvolio has this long monologue describing the fight we just saw.”
Gallanar has a hard time pinpointing his home of origin. Born in Seattle, he spent much of his childhood in Los Angeles, attending high school and college in Western Pennsylvania. “I’ve had 33 different mailing addresses” in his 52 years, he says. “I’m exhausted just saying that.”
In 1999, when Gallanar was directing Rep Theater of America—a national touring company that could set down roots anywhere—he and his then wife settled in Maryland to start a family. 15 years later (“the longest I’ve lived anywhere”), Gallanar, now divorced, with a teenage daughter, appears to be settling in. The stage is fixed. The chairs are bolted to the floor. That seems unusual to a director who once staged a production atop a plywood-covered swimming pool and used hay bales for audience seating. The physical space “becomes a metaphor,” he says. “But this feels like home.”