News: Spotlighters Celebrates 50th Anniversary

The Spotlighters Theatre, a mainstay of Baltimore’s theatre scene, is celebrating its 50th anniversary.  Besides providing Baltimore audiences with quality performances over these past five decades, the venerable theatre, under the management of longtime executive director and artistic director Fuzz Roark, has been a leader in the LGBT community by tackling social issues on stage.  Examples of such productions include Corpus Christi, Southern Baptist Sissies, Laramie Project, Stop Kiss, Tea and Sympathy.  In addition, there have been fun LGBT shows, such as Most Fabulous Story and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.

In October of 1962, Spotlighters Theatre, led by Audrey Herman and a group of dedicated theatre lovers, began producing a show a month in the intimate “Terrace Level” of The Madison Apartments on Saint Paul Street.  At the time Spotlighters was “the only theatre in the country that with a continuous program,” according to Audrey Herman in 1974.

Over the years, many notables crossed the Spotlighters stage; some as students at local high school and colleges seeking “real” theatre experience, others to fulfill a dream of acting or directing.  Some of Spotlighters more illustrious alums include:

— Ed McDonough who went on to Broadway appearing in Moon for the Misbegotten (1975).

— Howard Rollins, Jr. whose first stage appearance was as Crooks, in Steve Yeager’s Of Mice and Men in 1967.  Howard went on to work in stage, television and film and received nominations for Golden Globe, Daytime Emmy and Academy Awards.

— Steve Yeager became a recognized film maker and won a Sundance Award for his work on Divine Trash.  He is known for unique documentary style.

— David Drake, who choreographed Audrey Herman and the performance of Hello, Dolly! for the 20th Anniversary in 1982.   David went on to originate roles off-Broadway and won an Obie for his off-Broadway play, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me.  Drake starred in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (succeeding Charles Busch for 856 performances), originated the role of Miss Deep South in the hit Pageant, and co-starred with Jim J. Bullock in End of the World Party at the 47th St. Theater, and with B.D. Wong in A Language of Their Own at The Public.

— Joe (Joseph) Armetta who began designing sets for Audrey and then went to New York to design for television.  He is known for such shows as Falcon Crest, Bold and the Beautiful, Hotel, The Love Boat, Charlie’s Angels, Taxi, Kojak, and many more.

Moreover, there are numerous local theatre professionals in Baltimore that claim a link to Spotlighters.  Many folks found their way on stage, or to the director’s chair, or as a technical designer at Spotlighters.  And these are the folks today that support the great theatrical community of Baltimore and provide some of the best theatre anywhere on the Mid-Atlantic.

With over 560 productions mounted in the past 50 years, and nearly 9,000 performances, Spotlighters has touched hundreds of thousands of lives in the Baltimore area and beyond.

In the early years Spotlighters operated out of the love of Audrey Herman and a faithful group of volunteers and passionate patrons.  Today as a registered Maryland non-profit and a recognized 501(c)(3), Spotlighters continues to fulfill Audrey Herman’s vision: to provide theatre for the Baltimore community that other theatres (large or small) aren’t producing.

Audrey sought to bring shows to the stage that would challenge her audiences and her actors.  She wanted to provoke some new sensation, some new thought, some new feeling from both.  And she often did.   Spotlighters was a place that nurtured young talent and challenged seasoned actors, directors and designers.

In those days, money was tight.  Many can remember that the first lighting grid was a Maxwell Lighting Grid – meaning, that the lighting instruments were made from coffee cans.  Pinspots were juice cans!   The seats were donated from the old Century Theatre.

Scene from Season 1 ‘Bus Stop’ in 1962 Photo courtesy of Spotlighters.

In a 1974 interview with The News American (Virginia Scarlett), Audrey was asked, “So, why do you and your group work so hard for nothing?”  “Because we LOVE it, every phase of it from acting to directing,” Audrey answered, a heavy gold charm bracelet jingling as her hands added emphasis to her words.  “It’s completely fulfilling to watch inexperienced people put on a good performance when we don’t even [have] a teaching staff.  It is truly a community project for amateurs who want to get into theatre.  We work as a team – and putting together a play is little like building a monument,” she explained.

Audrey argued, “Baltimore should have more theatre.  If the public is educated to it, and gets the habit, the better they like it – particularly the young who find we’re cheaper than most movies.”

Audrey was supported by a faithful and dedicated company of volunteers: Charles Hatton was treasurer; Carr Shepp was the lighting consultant; Genevieve Nyborg (Audrey’s sister) was benefit chairman; Grace Kennard and Pat David handled tickets; and Betty Thomas, Eugene Moore and later Shirley Bell worked on publicity.  Audrey’s brother-in-law, Carl Nyborg, was instrumental in securing the intimate location for The Spotlighters.

In October of 1974, Audrey and The Spotlighters created their first children’s program, Great Gobbs of Greasy Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  This free-hand adaptation by Tom Blair was presented at Saturday matinees from October to May 1974.

Today, Spotlighters is home to the Young Actors Academy – another program unlike anything else in the Baltimore community.  Providing a five-week summer theatre intensive for youth in grades 3 through 12, the Academy offers academic instruction in Acting Methods, Theatre History & Styles, Stage Combat, Movement, Physical Theatre, Comedy & Improv, Musical Theatre and more.

The Academy also produces a full performance of a classic (usually Shakespeare) at the end of the five-week program.  Instructors come from local colleges and universities as well as regional and national theatres.  Spotlighters hopes to supplement the theatre and arts education that is rapidly disappearing from today’s schools.  The Young Actors Academy also offers an After-School Ensemble for lower, middle and high school youth during the fall and spring semesters.

There is so much that has grown from Audrey Herman’s desire to provide “theatre for Baltimore” – today a thriving non-profit theatre, with over 7,000 tickets sold each year;  an education program in its 8th year that reaches out to over 100 youth per year with proven academic gains for our students.

What is ahead for The Spotlighters?  For the past 50 years, directors, actors and designers as well as patrons have had to contend with the restrictions of being three-quarters underground, with exterior steps leading to the lobby entrance, with small restroom facilities and more.  Since 2005, renovations have been taking place.

First, the back stage was renovated to provide the actors and designers a better working environment.  In 2009 with a grant from the Middendorf Foundation and support from The Spotlighters Partners, Spotlighters was able to purchase and install the first new seats in its history.  This was also the beginning of creating a fully accessible and ADA compliant space.

Starting with the 2012/2013 season, Spotlighters begins a capital campaign to raise approximately $180,000 to renovate the entrance, lobby and public areas including installation of a fully enclosed exterior elevator to allow wheelchair access to the theatre.  Plans and drawings will be presented at the Audrey Herman Celebration on Saturday, October 6, 2012 at 6:30 p.m.

This event is the theatre’s annual season kick-off and fundraiser.  It will include a reception and silent auction, as well as entertainment from local actors with previews of our 51st season, and video clips and stories from the past 50 years.  There will also be a presentation about the planned renovations and how folks can get involved.

A highlight of the evening will be the presentation of the Audrey Herman Awards at 8 p.m. to individuals who have supported the arts and theatre in Baltimore.  The awardees, who were contemporaries of Audrey Herman, are Ann Mainolfi, President of Vagabond Players and Bev Sokal, President Ermetius of Fells Point Corner Theatre.

The Celebration takes place in the Bogomolny Room at the University of Baltimore’s Center for Student Involvement (21 W. Mt. Royal Ave.)  Guests will be treated to a reception provided by local restaurants and caterers, with a cash wine bar; and a Silent Auction of wonderful Baltimore items. Tickets are just $25 per person and are available by calling the theatre at 410-752-1225 or online.

Fuzz Roark and Steve Charing contributed to this article.