As an industry, theaters are attempting to dust themselves off and try again. At Baltimore Center Stage, this has meant turnover, leadership changes and a programmatic shift toward social justice.
The area’s leading regional theater, which is celebrating 60 years of operation, has faced its share of ups and downs in recent years. While it shuttered in 2020 to follow guidelines for the COVID pandemic, staff members were furloughed but retained, and it came back strong under the guidance of Artistic Director Stephanie Ybarra, who was hired in 2018 and led the charge as the world started to open up. She brought more events outside of typical productions to the theater and a more diverse lineup of shows.
But as of April Ybarra is gone and the hunt for a new artistic director is on.
“I didn’t go looking” for a new job, said Ybarra, who was contacted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which funds arts and humanities projects. It wasn’t easy for her to leave the team she built at Baltimore Center Stage. “This constellation and community at BCS of staff members and board members and artists has been hard won, so coming out of the pandemic I was really eager, actually, to keep going,” she said.
But “the opportunity to have an impact on this field and the arts field writ large, like on a national level, is too appealing,” Ybarra told The Banner in January when her departure was announced. She is now the Mellon Foundation’s program officer in arts and culture.
Now there is a national search for her replacement, as interim Artistic Director Ken-Matt Martin is strictly interested in being in the role “temporarily and temporarily only.”
The organization must decide who is the best leader for its growth and sustainability. That means finding someone who can help Center Stage be visible, dynamic and relevant, continuing the work that Ybarra started, according to board member Scot Spencer.
“This moment is calling to invest in the future,” said Adam Frank, the managing director of Center Stage. He joined the team in December and will be assisting with the search. He will work closely with the new hire. “Honestly, this all feels positive and healthy for me in a really great, forward-thinking way,” he said
Frank said “the Great Resignation is a really big deal in the theater industry” and has been felt acutely at Baltimore Center Stage. On top of Ybarra’s vacancy, the organization is hiring a technical director, and a new communications manager recently joined the team. It comes as BCS, like many theaters, is facing other industrywide issues.
Theaters across the country have not seen a return to pre-pandemic attendance. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the oldest theater nonprofits in the country, launched an ambitious capital campaign to stop from closing. It’s goal? $2.5 million in four months. Yet Baltimore Center Stage is still standing.
Despite the challenges she faced, the institution under Ybarra’s leadership generally saw financial increases. In a news release announcing her departure, Center Stage said Ybarra increased net assets by more than $1 million. The theater’s publicly available nonprofit tax filings, published by ProPublica, show it had a deficit of over $1.7 million in 2019; in 2020, it had a half-million-dollar surplus. (Tax documents from 2021 and 2022 are not yet publicly available.)
Although government aid helped the theater retain staff during the pandemic, the board “approved a budget at the start of this current season with a $1.5 million deficit,” which shocked employees, according to Chief Financial Officer Chris Marshall. Marshall — who is in his first arts administration role after starting his career at T. Rowe Price and serving as Maryland’s chief investment officer — said he was aware of the anxiety that news could cause, but thought transparency was more important. There was always a positive end game in mind, though. Center Stage refiled its taxes to receive funds through the Employee Retention Credit, which helped in eradicating the deficit and will balance the theater’s $7.4 million operating budget.
Funding a theater in 2023 is tricky, because there has also been a general downward trend in subscription purchases. Subscriptions, which let attendees buy tickets for the whole season in advance, allow for planning with a set pool of money. Now, more people buy their tickets piecemeal.
These changes have led to adjustments in programming, including moves to invite more uses for the theater. Spencer said it has been “a forced seismic shift” that has required the board and staff to think differently about productions and outreach to bring more people through the door but not only for traditional theater performances. That has meant fewer shows (this season has five in comparison to eight or more in previous seasons) but also the addition of events such as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” interactive movie night and the Young Playwrights Festival. Last summer’s music- and art-based Love Groove Festival, along with the continuing “Baltimore Butterfly Sessions: A Civic Dialogue Series,” also saw new audiences come to the theater and showed it’s a flexible space to bring in events and talent.
“We can no longer stand alone and think we can do this by ourselves,” Spencer said. Co-productions with others will still allow Baltimore Center Stage to put on full productions, including Katori Hall’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “The Hot Wing King,” co-produced by Hartford Stage, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” produced in collaboration with ArtsCentric, a color-conscious community theater organization that has brought shows with more Black and brown casts to the Mount Vernon venue.
“The Hot Wing King” and “Cinderella” are part of the last season that Ybarra planned; her successor will be responsible for crafting future ones.
Marshall likens the institution’s overall programmatic goals to “Sesame Street,” which captures the attention of young people but whose primary goal is to educate. Center Stage has made anti-racism training a priority and Ybarra made a point to bring more diversity to the stage, though she faced pushback for doing so.
“From the moment I showed up and started talking about anti-racism instead of diversity, it really set people’s teeth on edge,” Ybarra told The Baltimore Sun. “There was a steady stream of insults and slanderous rumors, and all because I prioritized putting Black and brown bodies onstage.”
Spencer hopes the programs and events they bring will continue to be reflective of the culture in Baltimore under a new director. “What happens on the stage is not meant to be stagnant,” he said.
Despite all the obstacles that have come their way, theater leaders are hopeful. “You don’t do this work without aspiration and hope,” Spencer said.