All Her World's A Stage

At Center Stage, Irene Lewis is leading lady.

Baltimore's Drama Queen

For Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis, the play's the only thing.

Cover Story

October 13, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

The fifth-floor rehearsal hall at Baltimore's Center Stage is a room in which the raw materials used to build it are laid open to plain view. Pipes jut unapologetically from floor to ceiling. Where the workers seem to have run out of plaster, bricks are exposed. If you find the stark utilitarianism unsightly, well, the room seems to say, that is your problem.

It is a room that believes in stripping away the finishes and getting back to basics. A room that implicitly honors hard work, false starts, lack of pretense and sore thumbs. In other words, it is an ideal place in which to make plays.

This is the room in which Irene Lewis works in private on very public art. In this room, actors learn to strip away pretense and evasion and expose themselves emotionally. In this room, raw talent is polished to the high gloss required by theater. It is the best place to get to know Lewis -- if she allows you inside.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Arts & Society section of the editions of Oct. 13 misstated these facts: Warren "Wawa" Snipe is an actor currently performing at Center Stage but is not an associate artist. Irene Lewis was appointed Center Stage's artistic director by its board of trustees in December 1991, and the theater's production of The Investigation opened in February 2001. In addition, the name of Lewis' husband, Mitchell Kurtz, was misspelled. The Sun regrets the error.

"Being in the rehearsal room and grappling with the great ideas is what keeps me going," says Lewis, who is beginning her 12th season as Center Stage's artistic director. "It is where I am happiest."

Center Stage, now celebrating its 40th season, is known as one of the country's most respected regional theaters, with an annual budget of $7.2 million and an audience last season of more than 106,000. It has operated in the black for the past 25 years.

As artistic director, Lewis is responsible for the tone and overall quality of the company's output. She selects the slate of shows each year, oversees two or three herself, and is closely involved in those directed by other artists.

The theater's financial stability enables Lewis to take artistic gambles, to mount shows that might not make money but have something important to say. Of Baltimore's professional theaters, only Center Stage can afford to stage last season's Holocaust drama, The Investigation. Only Center Stage can risk alienating audiences by completely re-envisioning the old classics, as it did in 1997 with Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet's devoted, garrulous nurse was portrayed as a gay man. Center Stage's great strength is that it can afford to fail.

By common consent, Lewis is a very fine director. That is not to say that she never falls short, but even when she does, the audience always can tell that an inquisitive and responsive mind is at play.

"Basically, Center Stage puts on only those shows that interest Irene," says Charlotte Stoudt, a dramaturg at the theater. "The shows that Irene or any director chooses to work on are a form of autobiography. It's all about them. Everything we put on stage is about them."

The Lewis trademarks

Lewis, 60, is tall, slender and elegant, a grown-up under any definition. But she dresses as though she were about the age of the title character in the current production, Peter Pan, which runs through Nov. 24.

Graying bangs drift over her forehead, and her chin-length hair is held away from her face by the sort of banana clips that come six to a pack in the grocery store and are marketed to pre-teens. Her clothes seem selected primarily for ease of movement: knit tops and cropped pants that let her kick a leg over the arm of a chair; thick-soled orange rubber sandals on her feet. She has a sharp, New York twang, and likes to say "Yikes!" and "Oy-oy-oy."

Likewise, an Irene Lewis production has trademarks as identifiably hers as her outfits.

The artistic director comes from a blue-collar background, and she sympathizes with the plight of the working poor. For instance, when Lewis directed Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest in 1984, costumed actors pretended to scrub the stage during scene changes and at intermission.

"Irene made sure that the audience knew that this family's wealth was built on the backs of servants," says dramaturg Jim Magruder. "She always makes sure that the voiceless and faceless get their due."

She loves having a real dog onstage, whether the script calls for one or not. Two dogs onstage are even better, as she demonstrated in An Ideal Husband and The Cherry Orchard. (In Peter Pan, Lewis settles for an actor playing a dog.)

But she detests sentimentality, and delights in illuminating the dark, hidden subtext of a work that on the surface is sunny and sweet, as became evident in late August, during the first rehearsal for Peter Pan.

The initial read-through for a new show is an occasion at Center Stage because every employee in the building is allowed to attend. The way the chairs are set up creates an implicit division between Lewis and the people on stage, and the people hired to make the actors look good. The former group sits at four long tables pushed together to form a square. Members of the crew and invited guests sit in chairs lining the rear of the room.

After the cast has finished reading, Lewis explains why she decided to stage not the musical, but the rarely performed play by J.M. Barrie:

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