Kwame Kwei-Armah

Actor Johnny Ramey (left) takes direction from Kwame Kwei-Armah during rehearsal of "The Whipping Man." This is the first production Kwei-Armah directs as the new artistic director of Center Stage. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / March 23, 2012)

Kwame Kwei-Armah is doing his utmost to speed up the transitions.

Center Stage's new artistic director strides back and forth along the stage where the troupe's production of "The Whipping Man" is being rehearsed, scrutinizing the set from all angles.

He brings in more helpers. He removes obstacles from the actors' paths and cuts out extra steps. He signals the precise moment when two bags of loot are flung through an open doorway and land on the floor with a muffled thump.

"Boom! Boom!" he says, as an assistant clicks a stopwatch. But the scene change remains dismayingly long.

"Thirty-six seconds!" Kwei-Armah says, clutching his head with both hands in mock horror. "That's horrible! This transition is an act all by itself. What can we do to make it shorter?"

Baltimore is about to find out.

Though the British-born Kwei-Armah has officially been artistic director of Maryland's largest regional theater since July, this is the week he's finally getting the opportunity to put his vision into action.

He just selected the first season of shows that Center Stage will produce during his tenure, and the lineup departs in significant ways from the theatrical mix to which audiences have become accustomed.

Subscribers will probably notice first that the 2012-2013 season is loaded with provocative and ambitious dramas; it won't be particularly lighthearted. They may also sense Kwei-Armah's determination to champion new works, to open up Center Stage to top local actors and to continue developing his voice as a playwright.

And the newcomer can't help being concerned about how the troupe's longtime customers will react.

"There will be some criticism that there won't be a comedy or musical at Center Stage next season," Kwei-Armah says. "But there's time. It'll be at least three years before I've gone through the cycle of the things that I really want to produce. I'm not leaving after a year, unless they run me out of town."

When he wants to put worries about next season out of his mind, he can always fix his attention on his directing debut as Center Stage's new leader.

"This is a big deal for Kwame," says actor Kevyn Morrow, who is performing in "The Whipping Man." "The pressure is on, and we don't want to let him down."

If the spotlight seems a bit hotter than usual, it's because Kwei-Armah has more experience as an actor and playwright than as a director, and the skills required for these jobs are quite different.

"The Whipping Man" will be just his sixth directing effort. Two of the previous shows were productions of his own work, so the usual problem of interpreting another writer didn't arise.

When "The Whipping Man" opens Wednesday, it will be Kwei-Armah's chance to demonstrate that he can coax top-notch performances from actors. It will be his opportunity to show that this extremely verbal actor and playwright can create compelling stage pictures that illustrate a play's themes.

"I'm in the belly of the beast," Kwei-Armah says. "If there's extra pressure on me, if there's a moment of nervousness, I can't afford to think about it right now. All I can do is dive in."

In a way, he was preparing for this moment even before he got the job.

Kwei-Armah recalls standing in line on a cold January day in New York in 2011 and snapping up tickets for the first preview of the intriguing titled drama "The Whipping Man" by an unknown playwright named Matthew Lopez.

"It was nearly all sold out. There were just two tickets left," Kwei-Armah says.