While "intimate" seems an apt word to describe the Theatre Hopkins performance venue, it only begins to characterize a space so snug that an occupant of a front-row seat should probably receive credit on the playbill.
Since 1942, the community theater group's loyal patrons have made their way up angular wooden steps to the 106-seat black box playhouse, housed in Homewood's Merrick Barn. It is here they come to see tightly acted plays, penned by the likes of Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, A.R. Gurney and Tennessee Williams, performed on a stage 30 feet wide, 17 feet deep and 12 feet 6 inches tall. The diminutive theater blurs the line between actors and audience as its rows of seats slope down to the very foot of the stage, the action seemingly an arm's reach away.
"That is why I pay so much attention to shoes," says Suzanne Pratt, the artistic director of Theatre Hopkins for the past 18 years. "They can't look stupid; they are right there in front of you."
Pratt pauses to smile and then adds, "Ours is a very idiosyncratic, but effective, space for theater."
In a renovated dairy barn that celebrates its 200th birthday this year, Theatre Hopkins will kick off its 81st season on Friday with Shakespeare's comedy All's Well That Ends Well. Running to mid-November, the Bard's tale will be followed by productions of Marvin's Room, Agatha Christie's Murder on the Nile and the musical hit Chicago.
Baltimore's second-oldest theater group (surpassed by the Vagabond Players), Theatre Hopkins was founded in 1921 by professors John Earl Uhler, its first director, and Bryllion Fagin; and a handful of other faculty and graduate students in the English Department. Originally called the Hopkins Playshop, the group within its first 10 years grew from an extension of the English Department into a thriving, community-based, semiprofessional theater.
Its first home was a modest one-story structure that sat at the current site of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library. By the early 1940s, however, termites and the elements had taken their toll on the Playshop, and the group was moved into its present location, the dairy barn for Homewood House, which was built from 1801 to 1803 by Charles Carroll of Carrollton for his son, Charles Carroll Jr.
The group was renamed Theatre Hopkins in 1967 by then director Edward Golden, the founder of Baltimore's Center Stage. In 1969, Golden handed over the helm to friend Laurlene Pratt, and it has been a family affair ever since.
Suzanne Pratt, the daughter of the former director, became artistic director in 1984. In a relationship that began when she was 11 years old, the former high school drama teacher has done it all at Theatre Hopkins, wearing the hats of stagehand, actor, director and producer.
Pratt, a part-time university staff member, each year chooses the four productions that are performed on Friday and Saturday nights, with a matinee on Sunday.
In selecting a play, Pratt says her guiding principle is finding a work of "strong, dramatic literature." She says her audience tends to be an impassioned and theater-literate group who are interested in "really strong plays."
"I think here you have people who have traveled the world, who simply love the theater," says Pratt, who received a master's degree in drama literature from Catholic University. "We may not be the only group in this city to do a particular title, but there will never be a play up there that has not already proved itself to be an uncommonly impressive piece of dramatic literature."
A firm believer in the need for diversity, Pratt attempts to balance out each season with a comedy, a classic, a drama and a popular piece, each chosen for the tastes of the audience she knows so well.
"There is an unwritten law that every other season there must be a Shaw play," Pratt says. "Our regulars are incredibly nuts about Shaw; he is their rock star."
Theatre Hopkins is funded primarily through ticket sales to its nearly 1,000 subscribers. Pratt says the plays regularly sell out as the group is fortunate to have a very loyal customer base. In the past year, Pratt says, that loyal base has also received a welcomed infusion of students who have "discovered" the Merrick Barn walking past it on their way to its new neighbor, the Mattin Center.
As artistic director, Pratt directs most of the productions and oversees an ensemble of roughly 40 semiprofessional actors whom she describes as a collection of local residents, students and the occasional university faculty or staff member. For costuming and set design, Pratt hires local talent who, like the actors, receive stipends for their services.
"There is no real way of profiling our actors and contributors, except that in the best sense of the word they are here because they love it," she says. "I don't think there is anybody from Gene Hackman on down who does live theater for any other reason."
The upcoming Theatre Hopkins season will feature guest direction by Peabody's John Lehmeyer, for Murder on the Nile, and longtime Theatre Hopkins contributor Todd Pearthree, who will direct Chicago. Pratt admits that the sprawling musical, inspired by the book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, will certainly stretch the limits of her modest-sized stage.
"But anyone who knows Todd Pearthree knows he is used to making miracles in small places," she says. "Still, we're not going to do Cats anytime soon."
Pratt says that never throughout its 81 years has Theatre Hopkins felt the need to reinvent itself. However, for the 2002-2003 season, the group has added a series called Subscriber's Sidebars. Subscribers can attend a series of special presentations offered the weekend after the close of the first three productions. The first two Sidebars will feature visiting faculty member and distinguished actor John Astin performing with Hopkins students enrolled in his drama class. The third will be a program by former Theatre Hopkins actress Rosemarie Knower.
Pratt says she is very excited about both the new Sidebars and the season opener, All's Well, a work she refers to "as one of the poorer orphans of the canon."
"It's a peculiar play that is very unlike other Shakespeare works. But it is the work of a genius who wanted to explore [the story of] a very besotted, bright and imaginative woman who spares nothing in pursuit of her man," she says. "It's very much Chekhov, very domestic."
Pratt says that while opening night nerves have begun to hit her, she is ready for the curtain to rise.
She must have the shoes already picked out.
For a complete schedule and ticket pricing for this season's Theatre Hopkins offerings, go to www.jhu.edu/~theatre/.