Baltimore Center Stage: Company History

Baltimore Center Stage

Baltimore Center Stage History

Designated the State Theater of Maryland in 1978, Baltimore Center Stage provides the highest quality theater and programming for youth, families, and all members of our community under the leadership of Artistic Director Stephanie Ybarra and Executive Director Michael Ross. Baltimore Center Stage ignites conversations and imaginations by producing an eclectic season of professional productions across two main stages and an intimate 99-seat theater, and through engaging and inspiring community and education programs. Everything we do at Center Stage is led by our core values—chief among them being Access For All. Our mission is heavily rooted in providing active and open accessibility to our Mainstage performances, as well as education initiatives and community programming to everyone regardless of barriers, be it financial, racial, orientation, or other.

Launched in 1963 by an ambitious community drama group, Baltimore Center Stage soon became a leader in the regional theater movement. In the years since its founding, the theater has not only survived its growing pains—including a disastrous arson fire in 1974—it has become Baltimore’s leading professional producing theater, now welcoming nearly 100,000 people each season to its award-winning facility in Baltimore’s historic Mt. Vernon Cultural District, the home of Center Stage since 1975.

The guiding force behind Baltimore Center Stage’s growth and development in its early years came from the inspirational spirit of Managing Director Peter Culman. In his 33 seasons at Center Stage, his creative integrity and devotion to the arts fostered an environment of diversity and high production quality that set Center Stage apart.

In 1975, Stan Wojewodski, Jr. began his 16-year tenure as Artistic Director, a period of significant expansion for the theater. The theater produced the first Young Playwrights Festival in 1985, featuring the work of school age writers and establishing an in-school residency program that still flourishes today. On the stage, contemporary writers like Eric Overmyer, Sybille Pearson, August Wilson, George C. Wolfe, Jon Robin Baitz, and David Feldshuh joined the likes of Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Shaw in a challenging, ever-expanding repertory.

The 1990s brought the leadership of Artistic Director Irene Lewis, who remained at the helm for 20 years (1991–2011). To accommodate the theater’s growing audience, a second stage was completed in 1991. Named for longtime trustee Howard Head and his wife Martha, the Head Theater opened with the world premiere of Eric Overmyer's The Heliotrope Bouquet, and the production took full advantage of the new space’s architectural assets—featuring a spiral staircase descending from the catwalk, with light projected through the arched windows from equipment mounted across the street.

In the 1990’s, Baltimore Center Stage also continued its dedication to developing new works, from staged readings and workshops to commissions of new playwrights and world premiere productions, producing such works as Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, David Feldshuh's Miss Evers' Boys, Elizabeth Egloff's The Lover, as well as plays by Eric Bogosian, Tony Kushner, and Heather MacDonald.

In 2002, current Executive Director Michael Ross first joined Baltimore Center Stage, serving as Managing Director through 2008. The 2000s also saw the world premiere of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel directed by Kate Whoriskey, as well as the regional premiere of August Wilson’s Radio Golfdirected by Kenny Leon. Kwame Kwei-Armah began his relationship with Baltimore with his playElmina’s Kitchen in 2004. Kwame then joined Baltimore Center Stage as Artistic Director for seven seasons (2011­­­–18) and during this time prioritized community, conversation, and access for all. The world premiere production of Kwame’s Marley (2015) was the high grossing play in Center Stage history—until the 2018 world premiere of SOUL The Stax Musical. The 2015 production of One Night in Miami… was another milestone—with a twice-extended run playing to sold-out crowds. Kwame subsequently directed Miami for the Donmar Warehouse in London, which was nominated for the Olivier Award for Best New Play.

The signature program developed under Kwame’s tenure is the Baltimore Center Stage Mobile Unit. Beginning in 2014, the Mobile Unit has gone on to reimagine and restage a variety of work from the canon. Each new Mobile production is conceived for a small cast of professional actors, a compact playing time, and a simple travelling production that breaks down the walls of traditional theater and offers access to the highest-quality theater for those in often-overlooked communities, performing for organizations like Health Care for the Homeless, Weinberg Housing and Resource Center, and Sandtown Winchester Senior Center.

In 2017, the theater completed a $28 million building renovation that created more opportunities for art making and community building, with new public spaces to gather before and after shows and state-of-the-art performance spaces with the best in theater design and technology. This season also welcomed back Michael Ross in 2016.

The 2018/19 Season welcomes Artistic Director Stephanie Ybarra, an artistic producer most recently at The Public Theater, where she has led the Mobile Unit and Public Forum programs. Stephanie is already exploring how Baltimore Center Stage can serve as both a participant in civic life and a space of joy and entertainment. She is also eager to explore how non-traditional theater can enhance and excite audiences as she works to expand our existing programs and our reach throughout Baltimore. We are thrilled to welcome Stephanie as she leads our theater into a bright and exciting future.