After five years of leadership, Baltimore Center Stage’s artistic director will leave later this year, the theater announced Wednesday.
Stephanie Ybarra, who has led the theater since 2018, will join the Mellon Foundation as its program officer in arts and culture, according to the announcement. She will depart Center Stage, the State Theater of Maryland since 1978, on April 1.
The move is “bittersweet” Ybarra said in an interview Wednesday. She’s feeling “a swirl of emotions that circle around excitement, nervousness and joy,” she said, but also an overwhelming feeling of gratitude — for the city, for Center Stage and for the arts community.
“What this staff and board and community of artists and advocates and civic leaders, what we’ve been able to do together over the last several years has been one of the great challenges and one of the great gifts of my career,” Ybarra said.
Ken-Matt Martin will serve as interim artistic director, the announcement said, as Center Stage searches for a new artistic leader.
In a statement, Jesse Salazar — a member of Baltimore Center Stage’s board — said Ybarra has done a lot to change the culture at the theater.
“She put equity and access at the top of the national agenda. All of Baltimore should be proud of how she led on the most important issues facing artists around the country,” Salazar said. “Whether it was advocating for a living wage for American theater staff or paying playwrights for time spent in rehearsal, she constantly championed the needs and livelihoods of theater-makers and artists.”
During her tenure, Ybarra launched the Baltimore Butterfly Sessions, which convene a variety of voices to unpack “civically resonant” topics. She hosted President Joe Biden for a town hall.
Ten plays had their world premiere at Baltimore Center Stage with Ybarra as artistic director: “The Swindlers,” “The Folks at Home,” “Dream Hou$e,” “Glorious World,” “Extinction,” “The Garden,” “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” “Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally,” “Where We Stand” and “How to Catch Creation.”
Ybarra led the organization during the pandemic, a challenge she called “a huge point of pride,” while emphasizing she could not have done it without others leaders at the organization.
“The fact that we came out the other side of it having strengthened our resolve to fight the injustices that lurk within our walls and outside of our walls, and the fact that we came out the other side stronger operationally, stronger financially, and having contributed to the story of Baltimore in some beautiful ways, with shows on Broadway, with plays being published out of Baltimore,” said Ybarra, who is Latina. “Those things are massive to me and our field.”
Throughout the pandemic, Baltimore Center Stage retained its staff, she said, making sure they were getting paid even though they weren’t able to perform. The organization implemented unlimited sick days.
“A lot of those decisions were invisible to the public,” Ybarra said, “but we did our best to make sure that our teams had agency and felt, to some degree, that you could feel cared for in that certain chaos and uncertainty.”
Ybarra entered the role, she said, hoping to build upon the decision-making and accomplishments of her predecessors, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Irene Lewis.
She wanted to continue their work amplifying voices from marginalized communities.
“And when you look at my programming choices over the last several years, if you looked closely at the data, you would see the vast majority of the artists employed by Baltimore Center Stage has been artists of color,” she said.
This past season, all of the directors at Center Stage were Black. She was also instrumental in bringing in ArtsCentric, a Black-led and all-Black theater company, last year for a production of “Dreamgirls.”
In its announcement, the Mellon Foundation emphasized Ybarra’s commitment to equity and establishment of the Artists’ Anti-Racism Coalition in 2016 “to uproot the systemic racism in New York’s off-Broadway theater community.”
Ybarra said her role at the Mellon Foundation will be something completely new.
“It’s the first time in 30 years I’m not going to be making theater every day,” Ybarra said.
The role, she said, will entail working with others at the foundation to allocate more than $100 million dollars every year to support arts and culture across the country.
“I’m excited to take what I’ve learned about the practical nature of building live performance events, and to see how that influences grant making,” Ybarra said.
John-John Williams IV contributed to this report