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‘Zero to 180 in no time flat’: Baltimore Center Stage director describes preparing for CNN’s Biden town hall

Baltimore Center Stage received an email Monday night: CNN was looking for a location in the city to host its town hall with President Joe Biden on Thursday and wondered whether the theater could accommodate them.

Stephanie Ybarra, artistic director at Center Stage, said they told the news organization they could, and inquired about more details. They got none.

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Instead, CNN arrived Tuesday morning to tour the facility with Alec Lawson, the theater’s director of experience and operation. Ybarra said Lawson told them about Center Stage’s commitment to storytelling and civic engagement “under this beautiful roof.”

Once the tour ended, there was no response again — until the organization called back around midday, confirming Center Stage would host Biden’s first visit to Baltimore as chief executive. It was a boon for the theater as well as a herculean task to make it happen, initiating a roughly 48-hour logistical scramble to prepare for an immense television production while putting on a play at the same time.

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At the time, they were told not to disclose the arrangement or any details because of security concerns. But Ybarra summed up what ensued in an interview Friday with The Baltimore Sun.

“Zero to 60 doesn’t even quite describe it,” Ybarra said. “It was zero to 180 in no time flat. Immediately, preparations began.”

CNN’s town hall would take place in the Pearlstone Theater, Center Stage’s largest theater, while the production of “Where We Belong,” which is described as “an intimate and exhilarating story of Shakespeare, self-discovery, and what it means to belong in an increasingly globalized world,” would take place three floors up. The play continues to show through Sunday.

Ybarra said they were preparing spaces on all six floors to accommodate for the various elements of the town hall. The first floor was dedicated in its entirety to the presidential event, while the theater set up seven additional spaces for the production throughout the facility.

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“What the nation and what the world saw was the physical manifestation on one stage,” Ybarra said. “But across our building we had dressing room spaces for folks to prepare to be on camera and multiple green room spaces, spaces for CNN folks, spaces for Secret Service.”

The theater’s coffee shop operated around the clock to keep people caffeinated, Ybarra said. An IT team had to ensure they could provide requisite internet capacity, among other tasks, to assist CNN to make sure the broadcast went smoothly.

Ybarra estimated 12 Center Stage staffers were dedicated to the town hall while legions of CNN employees and members of the local stage hands union, the IATSE Local 19, were equally essential to the operation.

“From the flowers in the small dressing rooms to twinkle market lights in our education studio and rehearsal space, so much care went into making every space feel as warm and comfortable as possible,” Ybarra said.

The crowd listens to President Biden at a town hall at Baltimore Center Stage on Thursday.
The crowd listens to President Biden at a town hall at Baltimore Center Stage on Thursday. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

By Thursday evening, they were ready.

A local crowd welcomed Biden with a thunderous applause. CNN Anchor Anderson Cooper fielded questions from residents of Baltimore, Bowie and Towson as well students and staff from Morgan State University, Johns Hopkins University and Loyola University Maryland. Biden promoted progress toward passing his sweeping infrastructure bill, known as the “Build Back Better” plan.

In a statement Friday, Mark Preston, CNN vice president of political and special events programming, credited Center Stage, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, a Democrat, and local law enforcement for collaborating “on such short notice to hold an important national conversation.”

“Baltimore Center Stage’s robust in-house technical inventory and a knowledgeable staff that folded in and supported our production team was an unbelievable help in making sure everything went smoothly,” Preston said.

Center Stage was “compensated at a fair market rate” for any of the services it provided for the town hall, said Robyn Murphy, theater spokeswoman.

The event couldn’t have come at a better time for Center Stage, which was both prepared for logistical hurdles because of the challenges of COVID-19 but also reeling from the effects of pandemic closures and people’s hesitation to return to theaters for live productions.

Friday morning, a colleague in New York texted Ybarra about a grim outlook on ticket sales and asked how Center Stage fared on the same front. “I wrote back, all caps: ‘BLEAK.’”

But Ybarra hopes the event will be a boon for the theater, the most publicized in a series of high-profile projects.

Earlier this month, the theater sent a play to Broadway, Ybarra said. Before that they partnered with a theater in California to produce a story by American playwright Charlayne Woodard.

“I hope it means only more good things will come,” she said. “I hope we’ll be invited to do even more in terms of contributing to the civic life of Baltimore and I hope that we can continue to be a point of national pride for Baltimore.”

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