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Cleaning House

Theatre Hopkins Sells Off Its History To Start Looking For A New Home Base

Christopher Myers
(Christopher Myers) SPACED OUT: Suzanne Pratt is optimistic about Theatre Hopkins' Future, despite its current homeless status.

By John Barry | Posted 9/7/2005

On the morning of Saturday, Aug. 27, a small stream of orientation-week college freshmen trickles into the large basement of Johns Hopkins University’s Mattin Center, gingerly picking through racks of mink stoles, circa-1930 glitter dresses, bowlers, and spats. A beach-shirted father stands looking bemusedly at a huge, portable porcelain faux fireplace, with a sign asking for the best offer. “I’m just here with my daughter,” he says. “But there’s some great stuff here.”

Since 1942, Theatre Hopkins’ costumes and set material have been piling up in the backstage of the Merrick Barn. And now that the Theatre Hopkins is moving out, storage space is short. The name may be misleading—despite links, Theatre Hopkins is a community theater company that is not part of the university. That was made clear in May 2004, when JHU decided that to accommodate a small but growing student theater program, it would reclaim the 100-seat theater exclusively for student use.

“The decision was made about a year ago,” says Eric Beatty, director of the Department of Student Life at JHU. “I can understand why it was important for [Theatre Hopkins] to have a home, but the decision came from the presidents’ office. He just decided that it would be better to use the space for an academic theater program.”

But JHU spokesman Dennis O’Shea says it would be a little simplistic to characterize the university as a cruel landlord. John Astin, head of JHU’s theater program, “was very gracious during the transition, and he’s also acted in some of Theatre Hopkins’ productions,” O’Shea says. “But in the past few years, the academic program has grown, and they need the theater.”

When Theatre Hopkins director Suzanne Pratt announced the departure at the company’s final Merrick Barn production July 3, she acknowledged that Theatre Hopkins leaving its on-campus home after 62 years is a little like NASA being told to leave Cape Canaveral. Now, surrounded by piles of vintage clothing, plastic police batons, oversized clown shoes, door frames, posters, army helmets, and popguns, the fortysomething Pratt emphatically declares that though the company is temporarily homeless, it will be back—somewhere.

“We’re going to stay in the area,” she says. “We just need a new launch pad. For the moment, people are offering us places for productions. St. John’s Church, for instance—they’ve offered us their basement. And we’ll probably be doing an outdoor Shakespeare production this summer” at Homewood House.

Pratt and the Merrick Barn have a long history—extending back to her childhood, when her mother, Laurlene Pratt, was director of Theatre Hopkins. After 15 years of directing her mother died, and the university handed the reins over to Suzanne, who has been the company’s director since 1985. She found artistic fulfillment and a part-time paid position with Theatre Hopkins. She also found a husband.

“I got to know her” through Theatre Hopkins, says Michael O’Connell, a frequent actor with Theatre Hopkins and other local companies. “She wanted me to play the part of an officer in Tartuffe. It was in rhymed couplets, not really my sort of part. I told her I’d do it, but she’d have to go out with me. Now we’re married.”

While his wife is generally optimistic about the theater company’s future, O’Connell expresses some ambivalence about the latest generation, who are, as he speaks, bargain-hunting through Theatre Hopkins’ detritus. It’s a familiar riff in the aging world of community theater.

“The attention span isn’t there,” he says. “It’s a problem. Younger audiences need quicker and flashier productions, and they have a hard time sitting through longer plays.”

Tom Foley, who says he’s been a subscriber to Theatre Hopkins for “about 25 years” hopes the company finds a place soon, but he also engages in a little chin-tugging about the audience makeup—which comes largely from the ranks of retirees. “It’s true, the audience seems to be older,” he says. “It’s true of all the arts now. They [young generations] don’t go to the opera. They don’t go to that many plays.” He pauses to consider the roots of the problem. “If I had anyone to blame for that, it would be their parents.”

Graham Yearley—whose position as box-office manager and dramaturge for Theatre Hopkins is coming to a close—is a little more outspoken about the takeover. “I love this place,” he says. “I’ve been running the box office for 25 years. I think giving JHU students control of the theater, well, I don’t really see any of them getting involved in theater later on.”

Bev Sokal, artistic director for the Fells Point Corner Theatre, believes that, as the second-oldest theater in Baltimore, Theatre Hopkins deserved better treatment from JHU. “It’s hard and hurtful,” she says, “I don’t get it, frankly. I don’t think that many people understand that years ago, when there was almost no theater in Baltimore, theaters like Hopkins and Vagabond were keeping theater alive in this city. They kept the standards up. They’ve been around longer than Center Stage. It’s sad that Johns Hopkins doesn’t seem to recognize this.”

Pratt, meanwhile, is decidedly forward-looking. She remains a part-time employee of JHU, which pays Theatre Hopkins directors a small salary, and she says she’s working with Eric Beatty and others in the search for new space. Although no full-length productions are on the burner, Theatre Hopkins has been given permission to use Swirnow Theater—the black-box student theater at the Mattin Center—for one production next summer. She isn’t rushing to make a decision—given Theatre Hopkins’ core audience, she says she wants to make sure the next home is safe and accessible.

For the moment, though, there’s an atmosphere of dislocation. As students cart out old costumes, small bands of Theatre Hopkins actors sift through old programs and poster-sized publicity photos of themselves in some of the more recent productions. Jim Knost, an occasional Theatre Hopkins actor who is manning the cash box (all the proceeds go to the company’s operating budget), admits that it’s going to take a little getting used to. “I don’t want to get in the politics of it or anything,” he says. “But it’s a real shame.”

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