Stephanie Ybarra stepped down as artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage on March 17 after an eventful and at times tumultuous five years during which much of the drama took place offstage.
Sixteen months into Ybarra’s tenure, a pandemic struck, forcing Center Stage to hold off on live performances for a year and a half. The theater might have been dark, but a lot was going on behind the scenes. There was a mass resignation of six longtime trustees on the 44-member volunteer board. Some board members rescinded promised donations. Emotions ran high and fighting words were spoken by people on both sides of the divide.
On the surface, the controversy centered on Ybarra’s programming choices. But at its core, it appears to be a disagreement about whom the official state theater of Maryland is supposed to serve.
“The last five years have been incredibly challenging,” said Ybarra, who became the first Latina to lead a major U.S. regional theater when she was appointed Center Stage’s artistic director in 2018.
“First there was the pandemic and then the nationwide racial reckoning in the summer of 2020,” she said. “Those events accelerated our rate of change to a degree that was just not comfortable for some folks. The work of anti-racism and inclusion and belonging isn’t for everyone.”
But a former board member said trustees who disagreed with Ybarra risked being accused of racial insensitivity.
“When people on the board asked simple questions, she became sort of combative and very defensive,” said Michael Styer, formerly the senior vice president for programming for Maryland Public Television and a Center Stage trustee for nine years. Styer said he resigned from the theater and stopped making annual donations in 2021 to protest Ybarra’s programming decisions.
“Some board members thought many of the plays she picked were preachy,” Styer said. “The message was that people who come to the theater need to learn about systemic racism. She doesn’t have a lot of respect for the people in the audience, I think.”
Ybarra acknowledged that at one point, a microphone picked up a derogatory comment she made about the board — in what she thought was a private exchange — and broadcast it to the entire Zoom meeting.
“Nobody was their best selves during the pandemic,” Ybarra said, explaining that she lost her temper while defending a staff member who she felt was being unjustly criticized. “I think there were moments we all lost our respect for each other and our humanity.”
‘A true champion’
The Baltimore Sun attempted to contact all six board members who resigned. Two could not be identified, one did not respond to requests for comment, and one declined to be interviewed.
Mariah Bonner, the actor and singer who resigned from the board in 2021, wrote an email saying she had confidence that the board would “make the right decision regarding the next artistic director.”
Despite the tension, Ybarra, 47, has staunch supporters on and off the board. During a recent opening night at the theater, Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen presented the theater with a $30,000 check on behalf of the city.
“A lot of folks use the word ‘equity,’” said Cohen, who represents the first district. “But here at Center Stage equity actually means something. It’s not just a buzzword. This woman right here,” he said, gesturing toward Ybarra, “is a true champion.”
Last fall, the board of trustees voted to extend Ybarra’s contract by 3 1/2 years. Instead, she accepted a job with New York’s Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. By then, the board disputes were in the past, Ybarra said, and had nothing to do with her decision to leave a city and organization she has come to love.
“Over the past nine months, things at Center Stage have started to coalesce and gain momentum in a way that I always knew would happen,” she said. “I am so proud of the board and staff we have today.
“Baltimore is the only place aside from New York where I have ever felt at home. But then Mellon come knocking and offered me the chance to work toward anti-racism and inclusive art-making and civic service on a systemic level. I had to jump.”
The board has launched a nationwide search for Ybarra’s replacement. Sandy Liotta, Center Stage’s first Latina board president, said trustees hope to hire a new artistic director by the end of summer.
The controversy in Baltimore isn’t unique or even especially extreme. Theaters nationwide have been grappling with the issues of equity and diversity that have consumed American society.
Last year, Nataki Garrett, a Black woman who is artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, hired a private security guard after she reported receiving racially based death threats.
Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater was forced to abruptly cancel performances of a show with nine days left in its run when playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza rescinded the rights last summer, citing the board’s “white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values.”
Dickerson-Despenza was protesting the Chicago theater’s forced ouster last August of artistic director Ken-Matt Martin, who is Black. Martin started March 20 as Center Stage’s interim artistic director; he told The Sun that he has other projects in the works and is not interested in pursuing the position in Baltimore permanently.
Ybarra’s accomplishments included raising salaries for staff members and adopting the industry-leading policy of paying playwrights for attending rehearsals. While theaters nationwide are struggling financially due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic — including many that have ceased operations — Center Stage’s balance sheet is sound.
During Ybarra’s tenure the company’s liabilities dropped by more than 89%, the theater announced in a news release, and the company’s net assets increased by more than $1 million. While attendance overall is about half of what it was before the pandemic, 48% of audience members last year were visiting Center Stage for the first time.
The theater’s financial stability is partly a result of federal pandemic relief funding, Ybarra said, and partly a result of cutting costs. Among other budget-saving efforts, Liotta said Center Stage temporarily is moving away from a season of six major productions — a hugely expensive undertaking but one that serves as the basis for the theater’s identity and reputation.
For at least the next season, Center Stage will produce fewer of its own shows, but will supplement its lineup by presenting musicals and dramas mounted by other companies. Liotta said the troupe also has begun engaging in more partnerships with schools and cultural groups.
‘Pushback from day one’
But Ybarra’s most visible accomplishment might have been filling the red brick theater at 700 N. Calvert St. with people of color on and off the stage.
Ybarra said she built on a tradition of diversity at Center Stage that dates back at least a quarter century and was spearheaded by her two most recent predecessors: Kwame Kwei-Armah and Irene Lewis, who she describes as “trailblazers.” But Ybarra pushed their reforms even further.
Every director of Center Stage’s major productions this year is a person of color, as are most of the actors and the designers. On the rare occasions when Ybarra mounted a classic written by a white man — as she did earlier this year with Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” — the setting for the play was relocated from a small New Hampshire town to a Black Baltimore neighborhood.
But the cultural changes Ybarra carried out at Center Stage came at a cost.
“I’ve been getting pushback from day one,” she said.
“From the moment I showed up and started talking about anti-racism instead of diversity, it really set people’s teeth on edge. There was a steady stream of insults and slanderous rumors, and all because I prioritized putting Black and brown bodies on stage.”
She recalls receiving comments from theater patrons and board members such as “Will we ever see white people on stage again?” and “white people need to see their stories, too,” and “You’re thumbing your nose at the people who pay the bills.”
“At some point,” Ybarra said, “I will feel healed enough to write about this experience myself.”
She emphasized that she and the current board are pursuing a shared vision and set of goals.
“The board today is night and day from where we started,” Ybarra said. “Culture change doesn’t come from just one person. I could not have accomplished this by myself.”
Styer said he resigned as a trustee in part because he thinks Ybarra prioritizes politics over production quality.
“Her artistic vision was not up to par,” he said. “I was disappointed in the caliber of the plays she was producing, though some of the acting in them was fine.”
Amy Elias, the founder of Profiles, a Baltimore-based marketing firm, was a trustee when the controversy was at its peak, and chose to remain on the board. She didn’t interpret the tone of the board discussions in which trustees disagreed with Ybarra as racially insensitive, she said, especially since at least two of the six board members who resigned are minorities.
Elias said she thinks it’s important for board members who govern cultural organizations to be able to discuss issues respectfully but honestly and without fear of censure.
“New leaders always bring new ideas,” she said. “Their vision is not always embraced by all stakeholders, including board members. Challenge and discussion is healthy for any organization. In this case, I did not see their resistance as racist.”
But Liotta said she detected racial undertones in some of the comments made at those board meetings, though she is convinced the speakers never meant to offend.
“All of the discussions of the board were well-intentioned,” she said, “but there’s a difference between intent and impact. We all have implicit biases. Having uncomfortable discussions and examining how we feel is how we make a difference. It’s how we change.
“We’re a journey in progress.”