Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Shakespeare group perseveres after eviction

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In the late 1590s, residents of a London neighborhood protested the use of the local Blackfriars hall by a theater company. The end result was the construction of the historic Globe Theater, home of numerous works by William Shakespeare.

More than 400 years later, a similar situation is playing out in Frederick, with the Maryland Shakespeare Festival hoping for a similar happy ending.

On Jan. 22 — two days before a planned four-weekend run of some of the Bard’s most noted works — city officials told the theater company that its use of the rear portion of the Centennial Memorial United Methodist Church on West Second Street violated zoning laws.

Under the Land Management Code, staged theaters are not permitted in areas zoned ‘‘institutional,” such as hospitals and houses of worship. The city said the theater was a separate entity from the church, and was therefore not allowed.

‘‘Theaters are good for communities,” said Becky Kemper, the company’s founder and artistic director. ‘‘I lived on Second Street for four years ... and it was our desire to serve that neighborhood.”

In October, the company reached an agreement with the church to occupy an unused sanctuary space. In return, the Festival would make financial contributions to help the church’s community efforts.

The space, Kemper said, is suited to an Elizabethan Playhouse, with its balconies, dedicated ‘‘backstage” space and wonderful acoustics.

‘‘My heart melts at the idea of not being able to perform in this space,” she said. ‘‘... Churches, by nature, are a place to feed the mind, heart and soul. If we are to feed our souls only, why would we allow churches to host things like early childcare programs or other community meetings?”

Mike Blank, manager of the city’s code enforcement department, said in early December a downtown resident complained about the theater to his office, citing traffic and noise as issues. The resident also questioned zoning compliance.

Blank said he investigated the matter and sent a letter to the church on Jan. 17. Nearly a week later, he met with city planners and Kemper to discuss the matter.

‘‘[Theater] is not a permitted use in the code,” Blank said. ‘‘We are not here to try to prevent business or activities like this ... but unfortunately, it’s in black-and-white as not a permitted use. [My department] doesn’t make the rules, we enforce them.”

Kemper confesses she never thought to check zoning regulations before occupying the church space.

The Rev. George Earl, senior pastor at the church, said the link between churches and theater spans hundreds of years and he was ‘‘disheartened” by the singular complaint to city officials. ‘‘There was no threat here,” he said. ‘‘... Our congregation loved it and we have members in the [company]. I don’t think the planning [department] is able to say what is spiritually linked to the church and what is not.”

In the short term, the Festival was able to relocate all but two performances of ‘‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare — Abridged” to the Frederick Arts Council on East Patrick Street.

Shuan Butcher, the council’s executive director, said the issue highlights the lack of performance space in Frederick. ‘‘... Frederick needs more performing arts space,” he said.