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Irene Lewis, longtime artistic director of Center Stage, to step down

Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis said Wednesday that she's been asked to leave her post as head of Baltimore's largest regional theater.

Lewis, who has guided Baltimore's venerable company for nearly two decades, surprised her staff yesterday, saying that she will no longer provide artistic leadership after next season. The announcement signifies a major shift in direction for a troupe that once enjoyed a national reputation for producing daring new shows and reimagining classics, but that in recent years has become less prominent.

Lewis, who has worked with Center Stage since 1980, said that she had considered leaving the company.

"I'm bluntly honest. I always have been," Lewis said. "They got to me first, before I could get to them. It was a surprise. The negotiations were tricky. I had a lawyer. It took two months, but I stayed in there fighting."

Jay Smith, president of Center Stage's board of directors, acknowledges that he "initiated the conversation with Irene about the appropriate time to end her tenure," and that he told Lewis that her contract would not be renewed after next year.

But he said, "I do not agree that Irene was in any way forced out." Next year, she will become the artistic director emeritus and assume a role as a consultant.

"She's been offered a contract for next year. Somebody who is being forced out isn't generally going to be around for 15 months," Smith said. "Irene has been a terrific leader. She has done great things for this institution. The board just decided that it was the right time to begin the process of transitioning to a new artistic director."

A nationwide search for Lewis' successor is already under way. The committee will be headed by Jed Dietz, a Center Stage board member and director of the Maryland Film Festival.

Lewis first came to Baltimore 30 years ago to direct a well-received production of Lillian Hellman's "Watch on the Rhine." She was appointed artistic director 11 years later, initially on an interim basis, when her predecessor, Stan Wojewodski Jr., left to head the Yale Repertory Theatre. She assumed full artistic leadership in 1992.

Whatever the reasons were for the board to seek Lewis' departure, they aren't financial. The troupe has no debt. Center Stage has balanced its budget for more than 30 years in a row, and is on track to report a surplus this season, as well.

Both Smith and Managing Director Debbie Chinn credit Lewis with helping keep the company afloat during the recent recession that toppled a slew of arts groups nationwide — including the Baltimore Opera.

"I applaud Irene," Chinn said. "She's leaving on top. At a time when other theaters were cutting back, Center Stage actually increased its programming. We got through a treacherous year in remarkable style, and that's largely due to her leadership."

Smith won't discuss why Center Stage's board of directors asked Lewis to retire. And Lewis says that board directors expressed no dissatisfaction with either the shows she directed each year, or her seasonal slate of offerings.

Lewis said that all her life, authority figures have articulated similar frustrations with her performance. As she put it:

"I got the same report card [from the board] as I had in first grade, when I was 5, and I heard two teachers talking about me. They said: ‘Such a talented girl. Too bad she's so difficult.'

"I don't think of myself as that difficult, but some obviously do. There is sometimes impatience with my tone, but the board always supported my work."

Lewis can claim many accomplishments during her decades at Center Stage.

She has nurtured such talented playwrights as Kwame Kwei-Armah and Lynn Nottage, who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The actors who have flourished under Lewis' tenure include Tony Award-winner Jefferson Mays, and such local favorites as Lawrence O'Dwyer and E. Faye Butler.

In 1997, "The Triumph of Love," a musical that was written by James Magruder, another Lewis protégé, and that had its world premiere at Center Stage, made it to Broadway. Though the musical closed after just 83 performances and 31 previews, its star, Betty Buckley, picked up a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Actress.

"Irene always eschewed the cliche," says Peter Culman, who for many years was managing director of Center Stage.

"She eschews anything that is tired or predictable. She wants to create theater that really makes you sit up and listen. She invigorates the material until you become like a child just watching the play unfold before your eyes, and it's so much fun."

Lewis' greatest legacy may be the most difficult to quantify. She has worked hard to build a diverse audience at Center Stage. She's done it by her programming choices (one-third of each season consists of plays with African-American themes) and by seeking out roles for nontraditional performers.

As a result, Center Stage is now one of the rare theaters in the U.S. in which a significant percentage of the audience is made up of minorities of all types.

"I have always admired Irene's dedication to showcasing the talents of not just African-American playwrights, but of deaf artists like Willy Conley and Warren (‘Wawa') Snipe," says Anne Cantler Fulwiler, Theatre Project's producing director.

"Willy appeared in the wonderful program of Tennessee Williams short plays, and Wawa played Nana in ‘Peter Pan.' When Irene embraces artists, she embraces them fully. She provides them with opportunities that they can't find anywhere else."

But Lewis occasionally was criticized for not doing more to support local performers. She splits her time between apartments in Baltimore and New York, where she lives with her husband. In addition, Center Stage has been criticized for casting most roles with out-of-town performers.

"Under Irene's leadership, Center Stage hasn't done much to nurture the artistic community in Baltimore," says Donald Hicken, who directs frequently at Everyman Theatre and who heads the theater department at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

"She lives in New York and works out of New York. She just makes theater here, but she's never made Baltimore her artistic home."

After leaving Center Stage, Lewis hopes to resume her career as a freelance director — though it's unlikely that she will be overseeing any shows locally.

"I don't see myself directing here, certainly not in the near future," she says. "I look forward to directing around the country. I had a wonderful freelance career before I came to Center Stage. I just hope [my contacts] are not all dead or on defibrillators."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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