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For Center Stage, the logo's the thing


To paraphrase Shakespeare, what's in a logo? For Baltimore's Center Stage, the answer is a hip, revitalized image - smart, bold and alive. Or at least that's the idea behind the new logo the theater is unveiling today.

With a ceremonial changing of banners - from the familiar red to deep purple with Center Stage spelled as one word, all caps - the theater is launching a media campaign aimed primarily at 25- to 35-year-olds. The advertizing blitz, which runs through June, also will include print and television ads, billboards, street banners and a new Web site, complete with streaming audio and video and, of course, a Web log.

"We're branding Center Stage as an experience, in addition to ... a space," says Barbara Watson, director of audience development. "We have to say who we are as well as what's on stage, and our marketing has to have [that] same professional quality."

Which leads to other questions: Can you really brand a theater. Or an experience? Managing director Michael Ross seems to think so, pointing to what he sees as Center Stage's image problem. Although the theater frequently sells out - a coming production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd had to be extended even before it opens - Ross says that local cab drivers know more about Center Stage, at 700 N. Calvert St., than most Baltimoreans.

"They tell their fares about the theater. They have great stories," he says.

Despite the packed houses for certain shows, management believed the overall attendance figures could be better. Declining arts funding and increasing competition from film, TV and digital media have had an impact on the theater's audience, Watson says. "Putting on good plays wasn't enough," she says. "A theater has to find its audience."

Center Stage started the search about two years ago, conducting surveys and focus groups with subscribers, single-ticket buyers and what Watson calls "arts-inclined nonattenders." What management found out is that many people had misconceptions about the theater, associating it with less-than-professional community productions or fusty old drama.

Opinions changed, however, when these people actually saw a Center Stage performance. They were "stunned," Watson says, "to find theater of this caliber - intimate, small, professional theater. People had a great time; it was an eye opener for them."

Center Stage then called in Chemayeff & Geismar, New York consultants who have designed logos for Mobil, Showtime and the Smithsonian Institution. The firm came up with the idea of the all-cap, one-word logo and helped the theater hone its message to the new three-word tagline: Smart. Bold. Alive.

Talking about the new logo, Ross waxes exuberant. "We're loving the idea of one word," he says. "It's more of a statement to say Center Stage [in one word] and put that in people's minds. The caps reflect strength."

Beyond drilling the new logo into the public consciousness, the immediate goal of the campaign is less about increasing ticket sales, Watson says, than raising the theater's profile in the community and convincing Baltimore's 20-somethings that "serious theater can be fun."

"I'm a native Baltimorean," she says. "This city takes pride in its hometown treasures, so it's frustrating that we're a hometown treasure and people don't know about us. ... Think of theater that you love, and it will be on our stage."

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