Raising funds, awareness on tap at Center Stage

Challenging season awaits group onstage and off


As it gears up for its 43rd year, Center Stage is planning a challenging slate of shows for its 2006-2007 season - and an even more ambitious fundraising campaign.

The offerings for next year include a masterpiece of Russian theater, a bittersweet comedy by American literary giant Eugene O'Neill, a psychological thriller, a musical version of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and a play that explores the obstacles faced by black performers in the mid-20th century.

And just as the Center Stage staff is finessing what audiences see inside its two theaters, administrators also are fine-tuning how they will see it.

A $6.8 million fundraising campaign, now beginning its public phase, will be used partly to renovate the Center Stage lobby and to upgrade scenery, lighting and sound systems. In addition, the theater hopes to increase its endowment from about $17.5 million to $20 million.

In other words, it's business as usual for Baltimore's premier regional theater. It's also a reminder that, despite the widely publicized woes of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, not all arts organizations are in financial distress. (The BSO announced recently that it plans to use about one-third of its endowment to pay off an anticipated $16 million debt.)

"The art comes first, absolutely," said Michael Ross, Center Stage's managing director. "But along with that, hand in hand, we have to be fiscally responsible. Making sure that we are financially healthy and stable is ingrained in our value system. I'm proud that we've balanced our budget and been in the black for the past 28 years."

Here are some highlights of the state of the Stage:

The 2006-2007 season will include Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, which explores the difficulties of fulfilling even simple dreams. Ah, Wilderness! is a coming-of-age story and Eugene O'Neill's only comedy - albeit, a bittersweet comedy. The eerily prescient Death and the Maiden, a 1991 play by Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, deals with terrorism and torture. In The Boys from Syracuse, Shakespeare is "improved" by that genius songwriting team, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Finally, Trouble in Mind is an Obie Award-winning play by African-American playwright Alice Childress that poses complex questions about race relations in 1950s America.

Center Stage will produce a sixth play that has not yet been selected.

"I love wild swings in style and subject matter," said Irene Lewis, Center Stage's artistic director. "I wish I could direct every one of the plays we're doing next season. I think that's the test. If there isn't a burning desire on the part of the entire artistic team to do a particular work, we choose something else. We never pick anything just to fill a slot."

Audiences seem to be responding. Subscriptions this year are up by about 3 percent, to a healthy 12,600. In addition, Ross said, the subscription renewal rate is 80 percent.

"That's well above the industry average," he said.

He and Lewis want those audiences to continue to be happy, and that means they have to be able to see and hear what takes place on stage.

"We are woefully behind with some of the technical systems of this building," Ross said. "The power system hasn't been upgraded since it was installed in the mid-1970s. Now, we have computers on every desk. For a time, we couldn't switch on the house lights in both theaters at the same time."

The solution? Staggered curtain times.

Also planned: Making the lobby more user-friendly, with designated areas for informal, post-show discussions; an automated system that eventually will allow patrons to print tickets at home; changes to the facade that will more clearly identify the red-brick building at 700 N. Calvert St. to passers-by; and overhauled sound and rigging systems.

"Some people have told us that they've walked past our front door and never even known there was a theater inside," Ross said.

To date, the campaign, which began in December 2004, has raised $5.6 million, or 82 percent of its goal. Ross hopes that the remaining $1.2 million will be pledged by the end of this year.

"Throughout this campaign, the community has been incredibly supportive of us," he said. "We are very fortunate, and very grateful."


'06-'07 season

Center Stage's 2006-07 season at a glance:

Three Sisters (Sept. 15-Oct. 29): Anton Chekhov's lament for dreams unattainable

Death and the Maiden (Oct. 26-Nov. 26): Ariel Dorfman's story of torture's haunting presence

The Boys from Syracuse (Dec. 8-Jan. 14): A musical take on a beloved Shakespeare comedy

Ah, Wilderness! (March 16-April 15): Bittersweet comedy from Eugene O'Neill

Trouble in Mind (Feb. 2-March 4): Alice Childress' Obie Award-winning look at race relations in 1950s America

Sixth play TBA (April 27, 2007-June 3, 2007)

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