Profile// Michael Ross

A part he was born to play



When Peter Culman stepped down in 2000 after 34 years as Center Stage's managing director, the footlights dimmed on one of the longest and most successful runs in the history of Baltimore theater. Many observers thought that his was an impossible act to follow.

But just six years later, Michael Ross' administration has all the hallmarks of another hit production. And that production just might just be Mame.

At first glance, the free-spirited heroine of the 1966 musical would seem to have little in common with a guy who next month will celebrate his fourth anniversary in the decidedly sober position of being Center Stage's managing director, or head of the business side of the theater's operations. But Ross shares certain qualities with the fictitious woman who famously declared: "Life's a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death."

Though the managing director's job description lists among his duties fundraising, balancing the budget and overseeing building projects, Ross' real job is being Center Stage's goodwill ambassador - and that means attending lots of parties.

If Irene Lewis, Center Stage's artistic director, does her job well, people will feel good about what they see on the boards. If Ross succeeds, people will feel good about the institution itself.

"I love the whole piped piper part fo theis job," Ross says. "What I really what to do is to open the theater up and engage people in what we're doing. I enjoy being invovled in the community in all of its aspects."

That's more difficult than it might seem.

During Culman's tenure, Center Stage became one of the most artistically respected and financially sound regional theaters in the U.S. - a theater that has balanced its budget now for 28 years in a row.

It also became a theater that has slowly built up an impressive minority audience - thanks largely to Lewis' decision, backed by Culman and the board, to stage two of six shows each season with themes that appeal particularly to audiences of color.

Over time, those audiences have become a significant force in the theater's success; the three most popular productions in Center Stage history were the Fats Waller musical Ain't Misbehavin' in 2003, and two plays by African-American dramatist August Wilson: Jitney in 1999 and Radio Golf earlier this year.

But success created its own set of problems. So deeply were Culman and Center Stage enmeshed, it was difficult for some to imagine anyone else being managing director.

Indeed, Tom Pechar, Culman's immediate successor (and Ross' predecessor), lasted just 17 months.

Ross' extroverted personal style couldn't be more different from that of the spiritual, tea-sipping Culman, but in one way they are alike: To a degree that is unusual in theater circles, each man became the public face of Center Stage.

Usually, the artistic director, not the managing director, is identified with his or her theater. Think of Everyman Theatre's Vincent Lancisi, Shakespeare Theatre's Michael Kahn or Arena Stage's Molly Smith. Now, quick: Name the managing directors of those institutions.

By choice, Lewis stays out of the limelight, at least as far as public relations is concerned, because that frees her up to concentrate on developing her artistic vision.

"Michael [Ross] seems to like going out to dinner with people," Lewis says.

"He's interested in everyone he meets. There's nothing fake about it. Quite frankly, I'm not really that great at that. When he asks me, I accompany him, but he doesn't ask very often."

Almost from his first day at the theater, Ross has made a major effort to reach out to the area's arts, cultural and social organizations - and to reverse a long-standing perception that Center Stage has held itself apart from the city.

For instance, many in the artistic community grumbled that Center Stage was the only major arts organization in Baltimore that didn't mount a significant production for Vivat! St. Petersburg!, the three-week Baltimore-wide celebration of Russian arts in early 2003.

Programming decisions for the 2002-2003 season were made before Ross began at Center Stage; it is difficult to imagine that the theater would take a similar stance now.

It's Ross who has spearheaded efforts to donate aging but still-usable sound equipment and lights to smaller local theaters.

And it was Ross who was the driving force behind a program in 2004 commemorating the 50th anniversary of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation in public schools. The program intertwined excerpts from the oral arguments made before the justices, newspaper articles and comments from students about what the ruling means to them today.

More recently, Ross secured the money to sponsor 100 participants in Baltimore's Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative to attend a performance of Radio Golf.

"The different groups had displays all over the lobby about what they were doing to improve life in their neighborhoods," he says. "I love that kind of thing."

He also genuinely enjoys fundraising.

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