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Interview: Baltimore Center Stage Artistic Director Stephanie Ybarra on Returning to Live Performance

Ybarra's new season at the Maryland theatre is in full swing.

In the fall of 2018, Stephanie Ybarra was taking over the artistic leadership of Baltimore Center Stage. She had just spent six years at the Public in New York, overseeing, among other things, the company's Public Forum discussion series and its roving Mobile Unit, bringing Shakespeare to underserved communities.

Ybarra was at the theater for a little over a year before Covid struck, and it obviously not just shut down her building, but venues across the country. Now, with live performance returning, she's got a full season planned that celebrates not just Baltimore itself, but the artists who've had to wait almost two years for their shows to see the light of day. It's an impressively ambitious slate of work that kicked off in September with Noah Diaz's raucous The Swindlers, and also includes Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror, R. Eric Thomas's "Baltimore Sitcom" The Folks at Home, and poet Anne Carson's new adaptation Bakkhai, with music by Diana Oh.

It's a season met by the theater community with excitement, though some people, of course, view it less positively. Over Zoom, Ybarra was open to conversation about it in a refreshingly honest way — one that you don't usually see from many artistic leaders across the country, who play their cards close to the vest.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Stephanie Ybarra
(© Jeff Barry)

We follow each other on Twitter and you Retweeted something at the end of August that I've wanted to ask you about:

You don't really see artistic leaders talking about this so openly. How often do notes or calls like this come in?
This is my third season. And since my very first season, I've gotten all manners of…we'll call it "feedback" around, like, my "agenda." It's been slowing down a bit, but it's also right on time. One of the things I've always been aware of, and am more aware of now, is that we, as humans, don't like change. That's a very human thing and I get it. And to whatever extent, it feels like a change to see Black and brown voices or bodies on stage. That's the extent to which people might bristle. But what is so clear to me now is that we have, for generations, cultivated, in the name of loyalty, an audience base that has come to expect a certain kind of story. And now these loyal audience members are really…biting back. I guess it's to be expected. We've sown this. Like, we did this as a field.

As artistic director, how do you respond to emails like that? Like, do you say "I wish you wouldn't go?" or is it a "Feel free to leave and we'll replace you with people who want to be here" situation?
I don't really get to say what I actually want to say. But there are plenty of times where, you know...They're called "core values" for a reason. So for me as an artist, as a curator, as an arts leader, that's often where I say some version of that. "This is where we're going, and if we are not the place for you anymore, then go find a place that is right for you." I feel like the way I calculate that, too, as a business person, is as a short-term loss for a long-term gain. But yeah, I do have an agenda. I'm an artistic director. It's my job to have an agenda. And if you don't like the agenda, then it's time to find a different theater.

I do want to talk about your agenda for this season and how these titles and playwrights got on the docket for the first season back in person.
Some of what the season is about is fulfilling commitments that we made pre-Covid, and then the rest is about honoring Baltimore playwrights. Bakkhai [by Anne Carson and Diana Oh] was supposed to be the closer for my first season and was the Covid collateral. I was pretty committed to following through, because we had cast the show. It seemed fitting to make sure that all of those artists got their day on the stage. Similarly, The Swindlers [by Noah Diaz] we had to postpone. Anna Deavere Smith is from Baltimore and this is the 30th anniversary of Fires in the Mirror. And R. Eric Thomas [writer of The Folks at Home] is a Baltimore-based playwright. There was an impulse in me to reach for contemporary classics along with local artists.

The Swindlers ran live, in person, in September and was also streaming on demand. How important was the streaming aspect and will you continue to do it in the future?
We're working with a new streaming service and platform and I think we'll be able to stream some of the shows in the spring. We're still working on it. But with The Swindlers, we did the live stream, and it was pretty exciting to preserve the live experience. It's a real testament to the adaptability of artists and theaters, but what's also interesting is how quickly new habits and expectations started to form.

For example, we captured our shows and then edited them and then broadcasted on demand, like every other theater in the universe. When we were able to convert that into an actual "streaming live from the theater," we immediately got feedback from our audiences that said "No, I actually need the two weeks you gave us to watch." So in a very short amount of time, our audience has become really accustomed to an on-demand version of the show that they could watch whenever they wanted over the course of two weeks. I was surprised — and it's not a bad thing. This is how quickly we adapt, and how our expectations shift and evolve.

What do you think about the reopening process of the theater itself? It certainly feels to me like a zero-to-60 all around, and that's just as a spectator.
What we have found with Baltimore Center Stage is that there is a logistical timeline and then there's a psychological timeline, and those things are really different. We've been producing again since January 2021 and we've been continuing to flex that muscle and build that muscle back as an organization, so reintroducing the audiences has been just one new element and not trying to restart the entire engine at the exact same time. It's been a relatively seamless process for us, but that was the biggest take away early on. Having the logistics squared away is not even a tiny piece of what needs to be in place to make this thing hum.

Is the in-person audience there, or has that been a slow build?
It's been really slow. We have many more people than I would have expected opting for the streaming or the on-demand version. Lots of folks are saying they're just not comfortable coming and sitting indoors. That said, we have our sort of small but mighty contingent of "come hell or high water, I will have my live theater." Not gonna lie, it was hard to produce a farce with a tiny little audience that was dispersed throughout the theater, but the people who showed up were so generous and grateful and gracious. It's a slow build, but I don't think that's wrong. Even just the stuff of sitting and wearing a mask for a couple of hours, I didn't realize this until I sat through the first stumble through of The Swindlers, I hadn't had to sit with a mask on my face for that long, and I discovered that that kind of mask was tugging on my ears and I was really uncomfortable. I never had to think about that before.

I really appreciate your willingness to be so frank in a conversation like this, especially about the responses you've gotten to your season. I've spoken to many artistic directors across the country in my years doing this who are cagey, at best, when it comes to discussing real issues that might look difficult on paper.
What I also know is that I am far from the only one who is getting that feedback. If you look across the country at my colleagues, particularly the BIPOC artistic directors who are leading historically white organizations, we get quite a few inboxes and DMs, and we talk about it and share with each other so that we don't feel alone. There's a group of artistic directors — we were all sort of appointed in the same 12-month period or so — and it's a mix of BIPOC and white artistic directors, and we've been meeting every Tuesday for the last 18 months. I refer to it as if I'm going to "group" now because it is such a source of healing and nourishment and fellowship. I stick pretty close to my colleagues Maria Manuela Goyanes [Woolly Mammoth], Jacob Padrón [Long Wharf], Hana Sharif [Repertory Theatre of St. Louis], Nataki Garrett [Oregon Shakespeare Festival], and Robert Barry Fleming [Actors Theatre of Louisville]. We have a standing text thread. The brain trust is formidable, and I think we're going to be ok, but I don't know how I would do it without these folks.