In a surprise announcement, Center Stage said Wednesday that Stephanie Ybarra is stepping down as artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage, Maryland’s largest professional theater troupe.
Ybarra, the first Latina director of a major regional theater company, has accepted a job as program officer for the New York-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
She will remain at Center Stage through March 31, the organization announced in a news release. Center Stage is celebrating its 60th anniversary season and is Maryland’s official state theater.
“While I did not go looking for this opportunity, my entire career has been in service to the arts,” Ybarra wrote in a letter to Baltimore Center Stage supporters. “I’m humbled to continue serving on a national scale during this moment of crisis across the arts sector.”
Center Stage’s board of trustees will launch a national search for Ybarra’s successor, the release said.
Beginning April 1, Center Stage will temporarily be led by Ken-Matt Martin, the newly appointed interim artistic director. He had previously been commissioned to direct the upcoming Center Stage production of “Tiny Beautiful Things,” which is based on a book by Cheryl Strayed.
Martin’s appointment — on even a temporary basis — is likely to cause ripples throughout the nation’s tight-knit theater community.
After Martin was publicly dismissed by the board of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater last June, the ensuing controversy sparked protests and mass resignations, according to American Theatre magazine. Actors, designers and directors nationwide rallied to his defense.
In the release, Martin said he’s looking forward to carrying on Ybarra’s legacy of diversity and equity in the theatrical community.
“I am inspired to continue the work that she has done,“ he said, “and I’m looking forward to calling Baltimore a new artistic home for me while the team searches for the next BCS leader.”
In some ways, it seems as if Ybarra, who officially took Center Stage’s helm in December 2018, had barely arrived in Baltimore. Theater seasons typically are planned at least a year in advance, and just 16 months into Ybarra’s tenure, the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered arts groups statewide.
Theaters didn’t begin to welcome patrons into their halls until the fall of 2021, and since then, their recovery has been tentative and halting.
But even in that relatively brief period, it was clear that Ybarra’s commitment to diversity was unequaled. She sought out emerging playwrights from nontraditional backgrounds and with unique perspectives.
On the rare occasions when Ybarra staged a show from the American theatrical canon such as last fall’s production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” she hired a Black director and cast the show primarily with actors from diverse races and genders, shedding new light on the 1938 homage to small town America.
“Stephanie has been a transformative leader of BCS during her tenure,” board president Sandy Liotta said in the release.
“Over the last five years, Stephanie and her team kept BCS open for storytelling through the hardest moments of the pandemic and amplified the theater’s relevance and service to our communities by welcoming new voices into new civic conversations.”