Theater: Peter Culman has served as Center Stage's managing director for 30 years, a remarkable achievement in an unsteady business.

STAGE PRESENCE

November 24, 1996|By HOLLY SELBY | HOLLY SELBY,SUN STAFF

A conversation with Peter Culman is a cup of tea. But which tea is it? Sometimes Lapsang Souchong -- exotic, its smoky flavor hinting at mysteries and promising still deeper richness if allowed to steep. Sometimes herbal -- softly spicy, a drink of comfort. Or perhaps a Japanese green tea -- invigorating, its tannic edge a challenge.

Tea and conversation have been signature elements of Culman's tenure as managing director of Center Stage. He's made the drama of preparing tea a precursor to every important discussion, budget battle, board meeting and fund solicitation. "It allows for a little ritual, a little sociability before getting to business," he says, describing a notion that seems integral to his success.

Culman marks 30 years with Center Stage this month, an accomplishment in a business not known for stability. Through good times and bad, there has been Culman -- "St. Peter," some say -- gangly, gentlemanly, civilizing, effective.

During those years, the Baltimore theater has weathered times so lean that the payroll was made by passing a hat during intermission. Once it burned to the ground. A few seasons have bombed.

But Center Stage, founded three years before Culman's arrival, also has grown from a fledgling organization to one considered among the top 10 regional theaters in the country. Culman has presided over the development of a new theater in the old Loyola College and Preparatory School on Calvert Street; overseen expansions that include a second stage and a rehearsal room; fostered an atmosphere that has a national reputation for being artist-friendly; and led a successful $13 million capital campaign.

Perhaps most notably, Culman has kept Center Stage running in the black for 19 straight years. "And I'll tell you there's something miraculous in that," says T. Edward Hambleton, a longtime trustee.

Now -- Culman would say as always -- the theater faces new financial challenges. To keep Center Stage vital, he and artistic director Irene Lewis say, they must continue putting on six plays a season, hire enough actors and staffers to do classic dramas with large casts, and broaden the audience.

And, on top of the ever-dwindling amounts of federal and local funding available, over the next two years Center Stage will lose the revenue it has gotten from two large grants that are expiring. Without new sources of money, the theater could face annual budget deficits as high as $1.2 million in year 2000.

All of which makes Culman push harder. To increase theater subscriptions. To increase ticket sales. To increase the endowment. To plan another capital fund drive. And always, always to balance the budget.

"The only way we are going to ensure our survival is to avoid the perils of red ink," he says firmly. "The healthier the institution of Center Stage is, the more able we are to produce excellent art."

'Triumph'

Sunlight streams into the rehearsal room. Airy, and large enough for the actual dimensions of the theater's main stage to be blocked out, it is the physical feature of Center Stage loved most by actors.

On this October afternoon, the cast of the musical "Triumph of Love" sits around a table. Beyond them sits a ring of theater managers -- Culman, Lewis and former artistic director Stan Wojewodski, who is now at the Yale Repertory Theatre. In an even wider circle, sit the theater staff, the interns, a few trustees.

The show is being co-produced with the Yale Rep in one of three collaborations that Center Stage is undertaking as part of the effort to maintain its balanced budget. And the first reading is about to begin.

In this informal setting, the actors will speak their lines for the first time as an ensemble. For many, it is a magical moment: the beginning of the process during which the vision of a playwright is melded with the imaginations of actors, director, dramaturg, set designers, costume designers and lighting technicians -- and becomes theater.

It is also a quintessential Culman moment. Part of his philosophy is that the actors, most of whom come from New York, should get to know the Center Stage staff.

"The truth is, the ritual is a crazy process and periodically there's a discussion about how important it is, but I think it is," he says. "When you are trying to foster an institution, it is important that people get to know each other."

From intern to lead actor, each person introduces himself. Then Culman gives a small speech about the history of the theater, which ends as it always ends, with the remark: "And so I welcome you all, and if I fall asleep, it has nothing to do with you or your abilities."

Culman delights in such witticisms. But from now until the show closes, the actors know that Culman will haunt it. He will be there, often prowling backstage to visit with the actors and staff. At the first rehearsal. The first preview. Opening night. Closing night.

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