Irene Lewis directs Center Stage as if it were a play In the next act: more repertory, options, audiences

COMMENT

August 01, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

In June, Irene Lewis completed her first full season as artistic director of Center Stage. Now, under her guidance, as the theater prepares for its 31st season, it is facing potentially one of the richest periods in its history.

The word "rich," in this case, applies not only to money -- although that cannot be overlooked, since the $1 million National Arts Stabilization Fund grant announced last week is the second grant of at least $1 million that the theater has received in the past three months.

Center Stage's riches, however, also refer to a broadening repertory, in terms of entertainment and education; a broader use of the theater; and most of all, a broader audience blend.

Where some artistic directors might be content to focus their efforts on selecting a season and directing a few of its offerings, Lewis' vision is considerably wider. One way to characterize her impact would be to say that she is directing Center Stage itself as if it were a play.

In this imaginary play called "Center Stage," the audience is as essential a component as the actors.

"The larger stories that blend classic and contemporary voices, comic and tragic tones, contribute mightily to Center Stage's artistic profile. Its audience, however, is a crucial part of that profile," Lewis wrote to subscribers in her season announcement.

It isn't an accident that the most successful subscription offering in Center Stage's history was last season's "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill." Nor can that success solely be attributed to the quality of the production -- although its quality was undeniably high.

Here was a work of major interest to Baltimoreans, since this city rightfully claims Billie Holiday as one of its most famous daughters. It was also a work aimed at attracting an increased number of black patrons to a theater whose audience base has traditionally been white. And finally, it was presented in an extremely user-friendly atmosphere -- the upstairs Head Theater, which was converted into a fully functioning cabaret. In fact, this setting proved so popular that it is going to become a semi-permanent fixture. Next season it may serve, in part, as the setting for some of the offerings of two new series -- stand-up comedy and cabaret acts.

Creating audiences

However, as important as it is to present shows that attract first-time patrons to Center Stage, Lewis also realizes that it isn't enough merely to hope these audiences show up. Instead, she's taking the more aggressive approach of creating audiences, specifically the young audiences who are the hope of the theater's future.

Lewis was the primary author of the grant proposal that won Center Stage a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund grant of $1.4 million, to be distributed over five years. These grants are intended to help regional theaters diversify the ethnic makeup of their audiences.

But Center Stage's intention is more specialized: to develop an audience of students and young adults that is more representative of the ethnic, economic and age range of the area.

Using this grant for a project it calls Theater for a New Generation, Center Stage is initiating and/or enlarging several programs, including expanding the morning matinee schedule and lowering ticket prices to $5 for high-school students; increasing school visits by theater artists to up to 70 high-school visits and 35 college visits by 1998; and expanding the college intern program, particularly in the marketing and education departments.

Perhaps most important in terms of making young people feel part of the theater experience, Center Stage is setting up several forums to actively encourage feedback. Besides adding more post-play discussions, the theater is creating a young audience advisory group and is offering a free ticket to a forthcoming production in exchange for a written response to two previous plays.

In addition, over the next five years, the theater is commissioning five one-hour plays to be produced for student audiences.

The first of these, by Clayton LeBouef, a local black playwright and actor, is 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. If this example is typical, these plays should provide welcome role models, particularly for Baltimore's predominantly black high-school population.

And speaking of role models, under Lewis' leadership Center Stage is making the strongest commitment in its history to diversify its own staff. The most recent and visible hire in this effort is Donna Comegys, who joined the administrative staff last month to oversee Theater for a New Generation. A black lawyer and native Baltimorean with a strong arts background, Comegys is expected to be a visible presence in the community.

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