Mad Cow Theatre moves into new home

As anticipation rises, the old space receives a fond farewell

For Mad Cow Theatre patrons, actors, directors and staff like executive director Mitzi Maxwell, as one curtain falls, another rises – in this case, with a high-rise view.

The whirl of construction equipment through the space at 54 W. Church St. is receding, the sawdust and plaster knocked away, leaving the home Maxwell and company always wanted.

"Construction is about 95 percent complete, and we're moving into a phase where we're installing equipment, some of the final finishes in the theater," Maxwell says. "It's very exciting to see it get to this point, since it's really a project that's been in the works for almost a decade."

It's not done yet, but it's tantalizingly close.

And it's not a "happy ending" to the Mad Cow tale – a nomadic theater group venue-hopping all the way to Magnolia Street and onward. Consider it a turning of the page.

Although they are literally moving on up, to a second-floor corner space on Church Street Plaza, Mad Cow's mission continues. Four walls do not a theater company make.

"Mad Cow has been downtown since the year 2000," Maxwell says. "One of the things I'm really proud of is how not only patrons, but also the city has worked tirelessly to keep this project going. We've managed to weave ourselves into the fabric of downtown. People want to see more art happening here."

Make no mistake: Mad Cow remain the same eccentric bunch, lovedrunk on their craft. But give their new building its due; it's earned your anticipation. The main lobby, paned with enormous windows, is the focal point of the complex, framing the plaza bustle below while enticing passersby from above.

According to Maxwell, roughly four million people traverse Church Street in a year. "Most everyone who comes to Mad Cow today is coming downtown just to see Mad Cow – there aren't many last-minute decisions to pop in and see a theatrical show. But in this new location, we're going to have a lot more people to market to, people on the street that will come up to the theater, in addition to the patrons who have been attending for over 10 years."

Like the former location, Church Street features two performance spaces. The larger venue, the Harriett (named for benefactor Harriett Lake), improves on the Magnolia Avenue's Stage Left by adding 50 tiered seats and vaulted ceilings – up from 10 feet to 13 feet. The extra height allows lighting designers to use more dynamic, complex rigs, while the tiered seating helps retain Stage Left's homey vibe. The second venue – a versatile, currently unnamed black box – accommodates myriad stage and seating arrangements.

Ticket holders may not notice other improvements from the front of the house, such as spacious prop storage and dressing rooms, but they will nonetheless be evident during shows. Whereas actors were cramped in the wings in their old home, now they can breathe a little easier, while raising the bar of their performances onstage.

"It will give us more flexibility in what we can present to audiences," Maxwell says.

After leasing venues from institutions including Rollins College, the Orlando Shakespeare Theater and the Civic Theatres of Central Florida, Mad Cow carved its own stay in downtown Orlando, initially in the Rogers Building and then at its Magnolia Avenue location. For nearly 15 years, the city's best theatrical artists have brought to life works by lauded and diverse playwrights from Shakespeare to Brecht to Ionesco to Lonergan.

The book isn't closed on Magnolia Avenue yet, however, with two productions to end the 2011-2012 season before the final move. Twelve Angry Men, which peers into the deliberation room of a homicide trial, and Billy Bishop Goes to War, a musical celebrating the Canadian Air Force's decorated World War I fighter pilot, both premiere Friday. They run concurrently through Aug. 26, the date of the final two performances in the Magnolia space.

"We love these two plays – we're actually putting Twelve Angry Men in our smaller venue and Billy Bishop in the larger space," Maxwell says. "It gives Billy Bishop a real frontier and universe to tell us his stories in, because Billy Bishop was … in the air, in a plane, a lot of his life.

And Twelve Angry Men will be in the smaller venue – a bit of a pressure cooker."

"We turned what would typically be done – a large ensemble in a large space, a two-man show in a small one – on its head," Maxwell adds. "But I think in true Mad Cow fashion, we're conceiving this a little differently."

As the season winds down and the building is packed up, palpable pieces of Mad Cow's history will be left behind. In the theater's minimal dressing room area is a wall built of big masonry blocks scrawled over with paint and graphite, each brick decorated by the casts of nearly 95 Mad Cow Theatre productions: a catalogue-by-mosaic spanning a decade of work by Central Florida artists.

It's these pieces of "urban archaeology," as Maxwell calls them, that can be captured for a scrapbook, but never pocketed or spirited away.

"The wall is really precious to us in the old space, so we are giving thought as to how we're going to introduce a new wall to all the wonderful language we will be producing in the coming years at 54 West Church Street," Maxwell says.

But Mad Cow's objective – to serve its community and to present compelling works of theater – will remain and expand, initiating a new phase of an old tradition Maxwell hopes will carry on for years to come.

"I think it's vital that arts organizations continue to aim high throughout their lifetime," Maxwell says. "Whether you're a company that's two years old – or in our case, 15 years old – part of our mojo is to be thinking of what is ahead."

"In our new space, we're going to be able to dream a little further than what we have before," Maxwell adds. "I think it's going to be really special for everyone involved."

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