For years, according to many in the Frederick arts community, there’s been a great need for a mid-size performance venue: bigger than the Maryland Ensemble Theatre, smaller than the Weinberg, and accessible to local artists looking for a place to perform.
“Frederick is a very bar-heavy city, and that’s usually where you see the local musicians,” said Lorenzo Nichols, a hip-hop artist who performs under the stage name Stitch Early. “But if bars aren’t really your thing, there’s been this lack of other spaces for shows.”
That shortage was also targeted as an area for growth in 2013, when the Ausherman Family Foundation — a philanthropic group founded by the local property development company — purchased the former Cultural Arts Center of Frederick County at 15 W. Patrick St. Since the foundation took over the building, it’s been devoted to establishing a new performing arts space in the heart of downtown Frederick, according to director Leigh Adams.
Five years of planning will come to fruition on Saturday, when New Spire Stages officially debuts to the public. The space, under renovation since January 2018, will open as a black box theater with anywhere from 200 to 275 seats, depending on the flexible seating configuration. The main entrance on West Patrick Street will lead into an airy lobby with the potential to serve as a second performance space, and the back of the building will house two dressing rooms and a green room for visiting performers.
“I think we’ll have an intimacy that will be really unique,” said Daniel Singh, the executive director of New Spire Arts. “It’s a way to experience a performance that’s very different than when you’re sitting in the last few rows of a 1,100-seat auditorium.”
The completion of New Spire Stages has been a long time coming. The Ausherman Family Foundation first announced plans for a new performing arts center in February 2014, a few months after it acquired the building. According to Adams and an earlier article in The Frederick News-Post, a committee to restore the building initially dubbed it the “15 Squared Arts Project” and began to conduct community interviews to gather ideas for the space.
“The committee identified a number of potential directions, but lacked operational leadership and overarching cohesive vision for the organization,” Adams wrote in an email. So, to the chagrin of many in the community, the project just sat, for two years, until the Ausherman Family Foundation hired new support staff and renamed the organization New Spire Arts.
Singh came on as executive director in December 2017 and continued to spearhead the new theater and educational programming for New Spire Arts. The organization was always intended to have a performance arts space — the building at 15 W. Patrick — and an educational space at 115 E. Church St., the former headquarters of Frederick County Public Schools.
The education program debuted first, in summer 2017, but Singh said that the new theater space will allow New Spire to integrate both programs. He pictures visiting artists teaching master classes at the educational building, or reserving the theater for FCPS productions. In July, the organization already plans to host a youth theatre festival at New Spire Stages with plays produced by students in some of its classes.
“We are really thinking of our programs as an ecosystem,” Singh said. “I think a piece that really sets us apart is being able to have an education program that connects with our performance space and nurtures the next generation of artists.”
That community emphasis also extends to the programming at New Spire Stages, including the grand opening this weekend. The featured speaker is Nyle DiMarco, a deaf activist and advocate educated at the Maryland School for the Deaf before reaching recognition as a model and dancer (he won the 22nd seasons of both “America’s Next Top Model” and “Dancing with the Stars”). The weekend will also include three performances of “Stranger in a Strange Land,” an avant-garde theater work by the choreographer Celeste Miller.
The work is “very, very hard to understand” without seeing it, Miller said, but she described it as a dance performance inspired by biblical references to foreigners and strangers.
“It explores what it means to welcome a people into our community and also acknowledges that, at some point, we all have been a stranger in a strange land,” Miller said.
The choreography is inspired by stories from 15 local dancers, actors and storytellers cast to perform in the piece by Singh and New Spire education director Christine Mosere.
“They thought that kind of performance — creating a work specifically for Frederick — would fit in with the mission of New Spire,” Miller added. “And one of my interests has always been drawing stories from a community of people in a geographic area.”
The performance is reflective of one of Singh’s overarching goals for New Spire Stages — creating a space for local artists and musicians. The theater is currently programmed through July and includes more than half a dozen performances from local groups, including an album release and concert from Nichols, an opera performance sponsored by the Asian American Center, and weekly screenings, in February, of “The Tale of a Lion” — a documentary on some of Frederick County’s oldest black residents produced by the African American Resource Culture And Heritage Society.
Singh also hopes to launch two new programs specifically for local performers. The first, called the Lab Series, would allow artists to stage works in progress at New Spire Stages and collect feedback from the community. The second, Frederick Jams, would showcase local musicians at monthly concerts.
It’s an encouraging sign for performers who have long felt limited by the city’s lack of theater spaces. Bars and restaurants, as Nichols pointed out before, are some of the only spaces where local musicians can reliably schedule concerts. A large part of that is access. The MET has a roughly 100-seat theater, but it’s generally reserved for performances by the resident theater company. It’s the same for the Performing Arts Factory and The Fredericktowne Players and the Jack B. Kussmaul Theater, said Zachary Harris, the co-artistic director of a new local theatre company called Boundless.
The Weinberg Center for the Arts, on the other hand, is just too large to support most local programming. The roughly 1,147-seat theater can only stay financially solvent if most of the seats are sold for any given performance, said executive theater manager John Healey. And that generally requires performers with national recognition and the clout to command higher ticket prices — even for opening acts.
“It’s hard for me to charge whatever amount per ticket I would for a headliner, and then offer the opening slot to a local band who’s playing on the streets or for $5 at a bar,” Healey said. “If I’m a patron, why would I pay $35 if I could see them at Cafe Nola for nothing?”
A lower seat count at New Spire Stages should allow the space to avoid those kinds of financial pressures, Singh said. And by doing so, he hopes the theater will serve as a kind of incubator for local performers and cutting-edge artists. Nichols is already planning a more elaborate stage performance for his album release party than he’s been able to produce at other local venues. Boundless Theatre Company is staging a debut performance of the musical “Spring Awakening” at the theater in March, which Harris attributed to more flexible scheduling and lower rental costs than other venues.
Healey also expects that a more accessible venue will allow local artists to hone their acts. As the one-time manager of the Lime Kiln Theater, an outdoor stage in Lexington, Virginia, he can remember introducing a small bluegrass group called Nickel Creek — then the protégés of star singer Emmylou Harris. At the time, the band was helmed by a young Chris Thile, now known as a MacArthur Fellow, prominent mandolinist, and the new host of NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” But back then, according Healey, Thile hadn’t quite mastered his stage presence.
“He would open his mouth and stupid things would come out and the audience would look at him and say, ‘Just play, Chris,’” Healey said. “But now look how he’s grown as a performer. So, getting access in those smaller theaters hones your skills in a way that teaches you to how communicate with an audience, how to create a performance, and how to adapt to criticism. And that’s something that’s needed, I think, in the local scene.”
The opening of New Spire Stages also coincides with the growth of the performing arts in Frederick. Healey said that more than 78,000 people came through the Weinberg Center in 2018, compared with 32,000 people in 2006. At least four new theater companies, including Boundless, have debuted in Frederick in the past year. And it’s been less than three years since Sky Stage, the open-air performance venue on South Carroll Street, formally opened to the public.
Singh hopes that community interest and a new roster of smaller, eclectic performances will quickly allow New Spire Arts to become self-sustainable. The Ausherman Family Foundation has contributed $5,231,219 to the nonprofit to date, including nearly $4 million for the purchase and renovation of the Stages space. That also includes a total of $800,000 for three years of future operating expenses. After that, the organization is on its own.
“Our goal, in the long run, is to be able to self-program at least 45 events a year,” Singh said. “And part of that is really working as a community to build value for the arts. I think setting a high bar — paying our artists, getting our youth invested in the arts — all of these things are really intentional ways in which we want to support the whole ecosystem.”