Profile// Michael Ross

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Peter Culman stepped down in 2000 after 34 years as Center Stage's managing director, the footlights dimmed on one of the longest and most successful runs in the history of Baltimore theater. Many observers thought that his was an impossible act to follow.

But just six years later, Michael Ross' administration has all the hallmarks of another hit production. And that production just might just be Mame.

At first glance, the free-spirited heroine of the 1966 musical would seem to have little in common with a guy who next month will celebrate his fourth anniversary in the decidedly sober position of being Center Stage's managing director, or head of the business side of the theater's operations. But Ross shares certain qualities with the fictitious woman who famously declared: "Life's a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death."

Though the managing director's job description lists among his duties fundraising, balancing the budget and overseeing building projects, Ross' real job is being Center Stage's goodwill ambassador - and that means attending lots of parties.

If Irene Lewis, Center Stage's artistic director, does her job well, people will feel good about what they see on the boards. If Ross succeeds, people will feel good about the institution itself.

"I love the whole piped piper part fo theis job," Ross says. "What I really what to do is to open the theater up and engage people in what we're doing. I enjoy being invovled in the community in all of its aspects."

That's more difficult than it might seem.

During Culman's tenure, Center Stage became one of the most artistically respected and financially sound regional theaters in the U.S. - a theater that has balanced its budget now for 28 years in a row.

It also became a theater that has slowly built up an impressive minority audience - thanks largely to Lewis' decision, backed by Culman and the board, to stage two of six shows each season with themes that appeal particularly to audiences of color.

Over time, those audiences have become a significant force in the theater's success; the three most popular productions in Center Stage history were the Fats Waller musical Ain't Misbehavin' in 2003, and two plays by African-American dramatist August Wilson: Jitney in 1999 and Radio Golf earlier this year.

But success created its own set of problems. So deeply were Culman and Center Stage enmeshed, it was difficult for some to imagine anyone else being managing director.

Indeed, Tom Pechar, Culman's immediate successor (and Ross' predecessor), lasted just 17 months.

Ross' extroverted personal style couldn't be more different from that of the spiritual, tea-sipping Culman, but in one way they are alike: To a degree that is unusual in theater circles, each man became the public face of Center Stage.

Usually, the artistic director, not the managing director, is identified with his or her theater. Think of Everyman Theatre's Vincent Lancisi, Shakespeare Theatre's Michael Kahn or Arena Stage's Molly Smith. Now, quick: Name the managing directors of those institutions.

By choice, Lewis stays out of the limelight, at least as far as public relations is concerned, because that frees her up to concentrate on developing her artistic vision.

"Michael [Ross] seems to like going out to dinner with people," Lewis says.

"He's interested in everyone he meets. There's nothing fake about it. Quite frankly, I'm not really that great at that. When he asks me, I accompany him, but he doesn't ask very often."

Almost from his first day at the theater, Ross has made a major effort to reach out to the area's arts, cultural and social organizations - and to reverse a long-standing perception that Center Stage has held itself apart from the city.

For instance, many in the artistic community grumbled that Center Stage was the only major arts organization in Baltimore that didn't mount a significant production for Vivat! St. Petersburg!, the three-week Baltimore-wide celebration of Russian arts in early 2003.

Programming decisions for the 2002-2003 season were made before Ross began at Center Stage; it is difficult to imagine that the theater would take a similar stance now.

It's Ross who has spearheaded efforts to donate aging but still-usable sound equipment and lights to smaller local theaters.

And it was Ross who was the driving force behind a program in 2004 commemorating the 50th anniversary of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation in public schools. The program intertwined excerpts from the oral arguments made before the justices, newspaper articles and comments from students about what the ruling means to them today.

More recently, Ross secured the money to sponsor 100 participants in Baltimore's Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative to attend a performance of Radio Golf.

"The different groups had displays all over the lobby about what they were doing to improve life in their neighborhoods," he says. "I love that kind of thing."

He also genuinely enjoys fundraising.

"People are so funny about fundraising, because they think it's just about asking people for money," he says. "It's not. It's all about relationship-building. Before I meet with a corporation, I ask myself, 'What are their goals? How can we help them achieve those goals?'

"I like giving back to the community, and I think other people do too. If Center Stage can be part of that equation, so much the better."

At 46, Ross has a weight lifter's build (he should - he belongs to three gyms), graying hair, clear, green eyes, and a warm, gregarious nature. He is a passionate Orioles fan, and turns to the sports section even before he reads the reviews of Center Stage productions. If he had a nickname, it would be "Mr. Personality."

An observer points out that his hands are strong and firm, but also warm and soft - in other words, ideal for someone who makes his living glad-handing.

"He meets people for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day," Lewis says. "I don't think that in the past three years, he's ever once used his stove."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ross has built up formidable connections in a surprisingly short time.

He seems to know every person who ever has worked on a play anywhere in the U.S. Not to mention everyone who ever has attended a play, amateur or professional. And practically everyone who has so much as walked beneath a theater marquee.

Lynn Deering, president of Center Stage's board of directors, tells about the opening-night dinner for their 2002-2003 season. At the time, Ross had been in Baltimore a little more than three months.

"Because Michael was new, I came a little early so I could introduce him to people," says the longtime board member and Baltimore fixture. "But within 10 minutes, he was introducing me to people from the community whom I didn't know. His network is just incredible."

Ross is a terrific raconteur and a huge gossip, but he is that rarest of creatures: a discreet gossip. A conversation with Ross inevitably leaves his listeners laughing and entertained, and he'll happily show off the snow globe that he received as a gift from the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein. But when the conversation is over, a listener is apt to realize that Ross has said nothing that potentially could embarrass any of the subjects of his discourse. He bathes everyone in a rosy glow.

"When we hired Michael," Lewis says, "I told the board that I would have to supply the darkness."

Ross grew up in Wisconsin, one of four sons of a Milwaukee-area police chief and a nurse. In marked contrast to his current exuberance, he claims to have been a shy and reserved child.

It was his encounter with theater as a high school student, he says, that allowed his true personality to emerge. In 1973, when Ross was 14, a friend took him to see a production of Mame by the Mukwonago Village Players.

"I immediately fell in love with the whole shared experience that theater offers," he says. "Now, I love helping to make that happen."

Ross decided early on to concentrate on the business side of theater "and leave acting and directing to the experts."

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a degree in theater, Ross took a job in 1982 with the famed Alley Theatre in Houston.

"My first day on the job, the interim managing director was murdered in her office," he says.

"They didn't get the guy who did it - a disgruntled security guard whom she'd fired - for three months. So they hired new security guards, and this being Texas, the guards carried guns. They made me the assistant house manager, which meant that I was the last person to leave the theater each night and had to lock up. I spent three months in terror, sidling around dark corners at night, calling out, 'It's only me! It's Michael!'"

Over the next two decades, Ross honed his skills at some of the most prestigious theaters in the country: at Hartford Stage in Connecticut, where he was general manager for 10 years, and at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., where he was managing director.

But his career was interspersed with two brief stays in Baltimore that sold him on the charms of Charm City. Ross worked for the Baltimore Opera Company from 1984 to 1985, then returned in the mid-1990s as a program manager for National Arts Stabilization, which awards grants to arts groups.

It was then that he first subscribed to Center Stage.

"I was astonished at what I was seeing," he says. "I was in awe. During my career, I haven't chosen to work at theaters that necessarily had the most innovative management practices or the best finances. I went where the work on stage was the most exciting."

So when Ross was approached to replace Pechar, he was receptive. He remembers, vividly, his second interview for the managing director post:

"They told me to come to a cocktail party given by one of the board members," he says, "And I'm thinking: 'A cocktail party?'

"There were about 100 people there, and it's August, and I'm melting. Halfway through the evening, the head of the search committee calls me up to a landing on the stairway to say to a few words to the group, and then throws it open for questions.

"Someone asks: 'Tell us about your management style.'

"I'm standing at the top of the stairs and I'm holding a cocktail in my hand while talking about my management style, and I'm thinking: 'I've finally turned into Auntie Mame. I've come full circle.'"

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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