Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

Stephanie Ybarra from New York's Public Theater named artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Stephanie Ybarra, director of special artistic projects at New York’s Public Theater, has been named the artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage.

Ybarra will succeed Kwame Kwei-Armah, who wound up his seven-year tenure with the company in January and became artistic director of London’s Young Vic Theater.

Ybarra, who will start on the job part-time in October and be full-time by December, said she looks forward to building on the “formidable artistic legacy” of Baltimore Center Stage.

“I will do a lot of listening inside the organization and outside the organization, in Baltimore and Maryland, to discover what people are craving,” the Texas-born Ybarra, 42, said.

Founded in 1963, Center Stage is one of Baltimore’s major cultural organizations. Along with Everyman Theater, it’s one of the city’s two resident professional companies that primarily employ members of Actors’ Equity Association, the national labor union representing actors and stage managers. (The Hippodrome Theatre, which presents touring productions, is also an Equity house.)

Center Stage, with an annual budget of about $8 million, produces half a dozen productions each season, along with numerous other activities. The company currently has about 5,000 subscribers and, last year, drew more than 80,000 patrons to events.

In 2017, the company completed an extensive two-year, $28 million capital campaign to renovate its historic building on North Calvert Street, creating new performance and public spaces.

Ybarra described the renovated theater as “dreamy” and said she started envisioning programming when she walked through it the first time.

She has worked for nearly seven years at Public Theater, the storied company that began in 1967 with the premiere of “Hair” and launched “Hamilton” in 2015, and worked with Kwei-Armah when he directed Public Theater productions in recent years.

Ybarra oversees the theater’s Public Forum programs, such as “We Rise: A Celebration of Resistance,” being presented Aug. 13 in Central Park. She also runs Public Theater’s Mobile Unit, which brings theater works to diverse locations in New York, and this fall will undertake its first national tour, performing Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” in five states in the Rust Belt and Midwest.

Center Stage recently developed its own Mobile Unit.

“It's beautiful to know I can step right into this sort of touchstone program at Baltimore Center Stage,” Ybarra said. “The more you can throw open the doors and go out of the building, the better. That’s what I’ve been really excited to do [at Public Theater]. I’m very interested in programming that actively engages with the civic life of the community.”

It is too soon to know how Ybarra will plan future seasons at Center Stage, but the company’s executive director, Michael Ross, sounds upbeat.

“Stephanie has built relationships with major playwrights, directors, designers,” Ross said. “It’s exciting to think who she’ll be bringing to Baltimore. I am proud of us for making this forward-thinking, future-thinking choice for artistic director. She’s extraordinary as a human being and as a theater artist. She cares deeply about using theater to make a difference in your community.”

Although New York has long been the country’s theatrical capital, Ybarra sounds upbeat about leaving it for Center Stage.

“New York is a great orbit, but I think what I’m craving at this point in my career is a kind of focus on a community that is decidedly not New York,” Ybarra said. “Baltimore is, I think, a really welcome lifestyle shift for me. I’m so excited to be a part of the conversation going on in Baltimore and Maryland about theater.”

In a statement, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, called Ybarra “one of the rising stars of the American nonprofit theater, a leader and a producer who is equally grounded in artistic excellence and a passion for social justice ...

“Baltimore is lucky to have her. I will miss her terribly here at The Public but am consoled by knowing there’s much work our two theaters can engage in together.”

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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