Stephanie Ybarra, the artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage, is a theater veteran of more than two decades. Ybarra’s also the country’s first Latina artistic director of a major theater. She not only directs offstage with a lens towards social justice and inclusivity, but also curates those values on the stage.
“I believe so deeply that art in general and specifically theater can be catalytic,” Ybarra said. “It can catalyze reflection, conversations, action and change. I’m very interested in art and a physical space and a building that can hold the joy and the complexities of our communal existence.”
In 2019, Ybarra curated the season-opening musical “Miss You Like Hell,” which was attended by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a show about an undocumented Mexican mother and her U.S.-born daughter. This season is filled with farce comedies such as “The Swindlers” and one-person plays like “Fire in the Mirror,” along with partnerships with Creative Alliance and Art Centric for musicals such as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Dreamgirls.”
At Center Stage, Ybarra has created director positions for artistic partnerships and innovation, learning and social accountability, along with establishing a staff-wide anti-racism initiative.
No stranger to this work, Ybarra formed the Artists’ Anti-Racism Coalition in 2016 to work on undoing racism in New York’s off-Broadway theater community. She looked at demographic data on which playwrights were getting commissions, which directors were being hired, and the sizes of the theaters where the work was being produced, which affects earning potential and who is getting reviewed.
“She’s creating a space that is vibrant and forward-thinking,” said R. Eric Thomas, who calls Ybarra a collaborator with whom artists dream of working. “There’s constant creative problem solving, and the work that she’s supporting challenges an audience, but not in a way that I think is adversarial.”
Thomas has known Ybarra for more than three years, since she started at Center Stage. “The Folks at Home,” a sitcom-inspired comedy play written by Thomas, premieres at Center Stage this spring. Thomas, who grew up in Upton, said Ybarra’s vision is exciting and, unfortunately, drastically different from other artistic leadership.
“The biggest sort of shift is in the area of who is onstage and who is behind the scenes, whether it’s gender parity or even more women and nonbinary people working in the theater space than cis men,” said Thomas, referring to people whose gender they were assigned at birth matches their current identity. “It’s rare and unique and exciting to be in the theater space where there are people of color who are being given opportunities. And I can’t stress to you how unique it is and I cannot stress to you how special it is that she has chosen Baltimore to make that happen.”
Ybarra has remained steadfast, despite pushback and complaints or unhappy comments from donors and audience members.
“Plenty of folks were actually quite explicit in their displeasure with so many people of color on stage and that that equated to an agenda like a political agenda,” she said. “Racist, sexist, homophobic communications have come our way as a result of me and my curation.”
At Center Stage, Thomas also was commissioned to write a fairy tale play set in Baltimore about the city’s history, club scene and climate change. Thomas said Baltimore is a city of great promise and artistic pedigree that often gets ignored and overlooked.
“Regional theater can so often be a photocopy of what’s on Broadway or off-Broadway,” Thomas said. “The thing that makes Stephanie and her team so exciting is that they’ve recognized that regional theater should reflect the region. They’ve really devoted the last couple of years to making that a practice that they live every day, and my career has has flourished because of it.”
This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at firstname.lastname@example.org.