Center Stage to use $1.4 million grant, its largest, to develop young audience


Center Stage has been awarded the largest operating grant in its 30-year history -- $1.4 million from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, according to Irene Lewis, the theater's artistic director. The grant was to be announced during a news conference today at the theater on Calvert Street downtown.

The five-year grant targets the development of younger and more diversified audiences. It is one of 11 awards totaling $9 million being presented to nonprofit theaters across the country, according to Holly Sidford, the fund's program director.

Center Stage is the only grant recipient this year to earmark the money for young audiences, according to Ms. Sidford. The theater's goal is to expand its audience under 30 years of age from the current level of about 6,500 to 27,000 by the 1997-1998 season.

Explaining the emphasis on young people, Ms. Lewis says, "They're our future, and we mean diversity within the young in every sense -- class, race -- to better represent Baltimore, to make [Center Stage] a place that's comfortable and accessible and exciting."

Adds Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a scheduled speaker at today's news conference: "This is consistent with my attempts to improve cultural arts programs for Baltimore's children. . . . I believe that cultural arts education is vitally important and congratulate Center Stage for getting this important award."

One of the city's five major nonprofit arts institutions, Center Stage has a budget of $4 million for the current fiscal year and has operated in the black for the past 15 years. In 1991, it completed a $14 million capital endowment campaign that allowed it to add a second performance space, renovate 24 apartments for artist housing and increase artist compensation.

The Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest grant money will create a multipronged outreach program that Center Stage has named "Theater for a New Generation." According to the theater's proposal, the money will fund such projects as:

* Commissioning and producing five one-hour plays for student audiences.

(The first, by Baltimore playwright and actor Clayton LeBouef, will be a historical drama based on the life of Henrietta Davis, a black American who spent part of her life in Baltimore as a Shakespearean actress, teacher and activist.)

* Creating an advisory group of 33 high school students, 33 college students and 33 adults under 30.

* Expanding the morning matinee performance schedule, lowering ticket prices to $5 for high school students and increasing access to the theater by providing buses for class groups.

* Increasing visits to schools by theater artists.

* Enlarging the college intern program in various areas, including the marketing and education departments.

* Publishing an annual evaluation of the program to be distributed to arts organizations at large.

Center Stage is the third-largest recipient of this latest round of .. grants. Only Berkeley Repertory Theatre's award of $1.5 million and Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum's $1.47 million were higher.

Praising Center Stage's thorough planning, the fund's Ms. Sidford says the "proposal was exemplary in addressing the purpose of the program and was quite imaginative in its particular strategy."

Audience expansion has been one of Ms. Lewis' goals since assuming the theater's artistic leadership two years ago when longtime artistic director Stan Wojewodski Jr. left to run the Yale School of Drama and the Yale Repertory Theater.

As the theater stated in its grant proposal, "We have, until now, deliberately dedicated the bulk of our resources to artistry, including taking a leadership role in artist compensation and premiering major new plays. . . . Allocations for audience development and marketing, meanwhile, failed to keep pace. The 'Theater for a New Generation' project marks a substantial evolution and enhancement of the institution's priorities."

Since 1991 when its audience-building program began, the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest fund -- set up by the late co-founder of the magazine -- has given more than $28 million to 43 theaters selected from 196 applicants. The grants being announced today are the third and final round in this program.

The $1.4 million grant is more than six times the amount of the theater's previous largest operating grant, which was $210,000 over three years, beginning in 1990, from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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