Putting theater to the test Director committed to his art leaves mark of excellence at Center Stage

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

Stan Wojewodski Jr., artistic director of Center Stage, recalls a board member who complained about his inability to find new subscribers within his circle of acquaintances.

"I said, "Forget about your law partner. Invite your next door neighbor, invite your kid's teacher. Start asking the guy who fixes your shoes, start asking the woman who does your shirts. Does somebody work on your garden? Does somebody fix your car? Tell them how to go to the theater, buy them tickets, make them your guests for the first time. You're going to have as high a success rate.

"Where does it say that nine out of ten professional people like the arts? That's just baloney. For nine out of ten people, art will not play a significant role. . . . But the fact that the professional class is, per se, more interested or more prepared is a complete fallacy."

Wojewodski has spent the past 14 years at Center Stage happily shattering stereotypes in a manner that has helped bring the regional theater to national prominence. Next month he will become dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre.

In partnership with managing director Peter Culman,the 42-year-old Wojewodski (pronounced Voy-uh-VUD-ski) has ushered Center Stage through the addition of a second performance space and the acquisition and renovation of housing for artists. He has also programmed the kind of seasons that helped persuade the National Endowment for the Arts in 1988 that Center Stage was worth one of its rare $1 million challenge grants.

The artistic director is well known for his commitment to classical and contemporary repertory and for helping to develop such new playwrights as Eric Overmyer, Grace McKeaney and James Yoshimura. He takes particular pride in having programmed Shakespeare's "The Tempest" (1989), David Feldshuh's "Miss Evers' Boys" (1989) and Eric Overmyer's "On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning" (1985), which became the most produced new American play the year after its debut at Center Stage. "The Mystery of Irma Vep," the last play he will direct as RTC artistic director, closes Sunday.

"I was not a Baltimorean, and I just didn't believe what people told me about Baltimore, that people won't want to see this, that they don't want to see that," he says. "I also knew that if it were true, I wasn't interested in staying."

L He takes a moment to ponder his biggest risk at the theater.

"There are all the artistic risks, although that might be redundant. One commits art," he says. He finally latches onto the time, about 10 years ago, that he told Peter Culman he was unhappy with the plays Center Stage had produced that year.

It happened to be a "wildly successful" season.

"More people were coming than had ever come before," he says. "We weren't doing cheesy plays or doing them badly. The lesson was not that we were fooling anybody -- because I've not been interested in that -- but that there was a kind of play you could do that people just respond to.

"There's a phrase for it that I toss around here all the time: "cultural consolation." And when you're trading in cultural consolation, you're trading off the art. You're selling off the land slowly but surely, you can hear the axes in the cherry orchard. I began to understand that if I was going to stay in an institution, it had to be more solidly behind the artist and that it had to be able to take more shots.

"Hamlet is one kind of thing and a new play is an entirely different thing. It's not that you believe that that new play is as good as Hamlet, but there has to be something at stake all the time."

And so it was decided that Center Stage would not become the kind of theater that programmed plays merely to attract the numbers.

"There are poets that have been writing for the theater for 25 plus hundred years, writing the kind of truth that only comes to life from an actor's mouth. There's a unique energy when people come together to try to understand that truth and the number of people doesn't matter. If it's 500, it's valuable, per se. You can't begin to say it would be more valuable if there were 750 people or 7,500 people. If that were true, we would be seeing more truth on television or in the movies."

Wojewodski grew up in Scranton, Pa., in "a huge extended family" -- "I knew the names of my third cousins" -- studied literature at the University of Scranton and received his masters degree in directing from Catholic University of America in Washington. He says he was "pretty much" the first person in his family to leave Scranton for a career.

"When you come from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and you find that you are interested in people like William Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Moliere and Ibsen, and people say,'But people here aren't interested in that,' you know it's bull---- because some people everywhere are interested in that."

"Stan is one of the most intelligent people I know," says Joe Langmead, former president of the board and chairman of the recently completed $13 million Campaign for Center Stage. "Coupled with that is his belief that people are powerful. He perceives one of the darkest calamities as people not realizing how important the impact of what they do is or isn't. . . . He's very much alert to irony in all of its forms."

"I think he has a rare gift of knowing what he wants to do, and of being able to work well with people so that he's able to make it happen," says T. Edward Hambleton,a pioneer of off-Broadway theater and long-time board member.

The director seems most pleased that has helped create a place where artists want to work.

"That's the highest compliment that can be paid to a institution -- along with whatever work we can create," Wojewodski says.

At Yale, he will oversee the training of many of the actors, directors, playwrights, set and costume designers and administrators who will play leading roles in shaping theater of the 21st century. Among other things, he hopes to convince them of the artistic benefits of feeling unsettled.

"You go to graduate school, particularly in the theater, and you want very much for someone to say that you're a director or that you're an actor. It's not given to the artist to get that kind of confirmation. You get a different kind of confirmation. You learn to live with the fact -- after a while you hold on to it -- that you're not satisfied in your own interior journey with the work. To be satisfied, I would be in trouble. Because there's always another way."

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