+ By Zöe Nardo + Photos by Jamie Horton
At night, a purple glow emanates from the junction of Spa Road and West Street; it’s the sign for Compass Rose Theater. It illuminates the small parking lot in the front and lures you through the double doors, past photos of previous productions, and into the even smaller theater in the back.
Sure, it’s small, but the productions are out of this world. The music and talent come at you from all angles, as if you’re in an IMAX® theater made personally for you. There aren’t any 3-D glasses, but professional actors are sweeping across the stage and engaging with the audience almost as if they are props.
They are for whom the actors have been practicing. They don’t rehearse six days a week for a month or more for themselves; it’s for the people in the seats. It’s to create something evocative, powerful, and transformative. Cindy Merry-Browne, the founding artistic director, loves the moment when the production begins to hit the audience and resonates deeply within them. “It’s the fact that what’s happening on stage is palpable and real, so much so that people don’t get up for intermission,” she says proudly. It’s happened multiple times before. “When the play is over, your audience stays in the theater because they want to talk about what they just saw. That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s what we strive for.”
It’s baffling how well Compass Rose adapts to the space: for example, they performed Cats in 2014, a musical that has been done in more than 250 cities since its London premier in 1981. So, what did Compass Rose do to such a well-known musical in limited space that left their audience transfixed? They took the cast of twenty-four cats and divvied up the roles to only nine actors, utilizing the space on the stage in such a manner that the actors could slink around like agile felines. “You can talk to other people who have seen a show, and they will tell you it’s nothing like you’ve ever seen,” says Cindy. “It’s in-your-face intimate.”
The nine cats were meticulously chosen, just as is every cast in all of the theater’s productions. Cindy holds auditions locally in Annapolis, and if she can’t find what she needs, she beelines it to New York City. Being that Compass Rose is a professional theater, the actors are paid and must be a perfect match. The cast of Cats consisted of eight Broadway actors, six of them from New York, and one 14-year-old girl, a student of Cindy’s, who blended in seamlessly.
After the curtain closes, Compass Rose doubles as an acting school for three-to-ninety-year-olds. That’s how the theater began in 2011. “I started Compass Rose for the educational program, and it grew into a theater,” says Cindy. “The education comes first. We’re all here to learn, including me. We’re all here to hone our skills.”
Twelve teachers throughout various schools in the Annapolis area teach visual and performing arts. Classes range from elementary to high school, and are usually held when school is out of session. The theater jumps right in by holding creative dramatics classes for three-year-olds, who are taught to tell stories through masks. It’s not easy teaching for Compass Rose Theater because of the required qualifications. Teachers have a degree in theater from an accredited institution, work professionally in their field, and must have experience. “Adult actors spend most of their time shedding the baggage of being grown up and not doing make-believe anymore,” says Cindy. “But kids still have that alive in them.”
Casting plays with actors who share the same age as the characters in the plays or musicals is another testament to Cindy’s belief in the talent of her students. Shakespeare’s Romeo was 17 and Juliet was 13, so Cindy cast actors of the same ages during Compass Rose’s rendition of Romeo and Juliet. The same went for Scout and Jem in their production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Cindy says that the mission at Compass Rose is to strive to become a better institution through education.
Over time, it has also grown to become the third professional theater in Annapolis, which is a city with primarily community theaters. Cindy brought the first professional theater to Annapolis when she co-founded Bay Theater back in 2001. While there, she initiated a petition to have Annapolis considered for the Helen Hayes Award, one of the United States’ most prestigious medals. An actress at Bay Theater went on to win the award in 2012, and Compass Rose was nominated for its production of A Raisin in the Sun.
“It is the purpose and function of theater to build community,” explains Cindy. And her theater does just that. They educate young and old to bring in actors from all over the world and shine the limelight on the Annapolis acting community, all while being a non-profit organization. Compass Rose is a triple threat to its competition, but for the City of Annapolis, it’s a critical component of the burgeoning art scene.