In his first year and a half as artistic director and producer of Rep Stage, Michael Stebbins has made an impression by paying attention to what is on the stage and who is in the seats.
Efforts including backstage tours for community groups, talking up the theater at a booth at the Columbia City Fair and starting an advisory board of community members to promote the theater and raise funds have been part of Rep Stage's recent outreach efforts as the professional theater in residence at Howard Community College begins its 15th year.
"We're getting to know the people," Stebbins said.
What he calls a "concentrated grass-roots effort" seems to be working as attendance has risen and the organization has gotten its finances into the black.
At a time when more people are giving Rep Stage a look, Stebbins and managing director Brett Ashley Crawford have put together a longer season for 2007-2008 that reflects the theater's tradition of offering contemporary and lesser-known works.
The schedule, which begins Aug. 22 and runs through June 29, offers six shows for the first time and includes three Washington-Baltimore-area premieres. They are Mrs. Farnsworth by A.R. Gurney, Thom Pain (based on nothing) by Will Eno and In the Heart of America by Naomi Wallace.
George Bernard Shaw's classic play Mrs. Warren's Profession will be the first Shaw work at Rep Stage. Barbara Lebow's A Shayna Maidel and a return engagement of the holiday comedy The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris round out the season.
"I think Rep Stage provides a variety of voices to the community," Crawford said. "We are offering things that are not done a lot."
She added: "The audience wants to be intellectually engaged. They want to be challenged by new work. ... They want to have a little bit of everything."
Looking at the season as a whole, Stebbins, who will direct The Santaland Diaries and star in Thom Pain (based on nothing), said there are some themes that emerge. One is the role of strong female characters, such as the woman who tells a college writing class about her past with an influential man in Mrs. Farnsworth and the mother and daughter that deal with the elder woman's past as a prostitute in Mrs. Warren's Profession.
Another theme is issues of war and politics, which are particularly important in A Shayna Maidel, in which a family adjusts to life in America in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and In the Heart of America, which Rep Stage describes as "an anti-war love play written in reaction to the Gulf War of 1991."
"I think all of these plays touch on ... something people will respond to on some personal level," Stebbins said.
Because the 420-seat Smith Theatre at HCC is under renovation this year and more groups will be sharing the new black box theatre in the Peter and Elizabeth Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, Rep Stage has made alternate plans for two of its shows.
Mrs. Farnsworth, which takes place in a college writing class, will be staged in a lecture hall on the HCC campus. The Santaland Diaries will appear at Slayton House in Wilde Lake Village Center.
Rep Stage also is expanding the ways audiences can enjoy shows, with "pay what you can" nights during preview weeks, more post-show lectures and midday shows for school groups. It will continue its free New Works Play Reading Series, as well.
Darlene Miller, a former president of the Howard County Arts Council and a member of Rep Stage's new advisory board, said the company has had a strong reputation in the arts community for some time, but in some ways it is still "a hidden jewel."
Founding director Valerie Lash, who heads HCC's arts and humanities division, was well-respected in the community, Miller said. But, "bringing in Michael, I think, was a recognition that Rep Stage could serve the community and the community could serve Rep Stage by getting out there ... and letting people know what's going on."
She added: "It is amazing how few times I had been to Rep Stage, and now I've gone to everything [last season] and I'm really excited about it. We are all working hard to tell people what goes on at Rep Stage."
Stebbins said he has enjoyed getting to know more theater- goers, whether by joining Howard County Tourism's board of directors, acting as master of ceremonies for the Columbia Festival of the Arts' LakeFest or hanging around at performances.
"We're putting a face to the place," he said. "I'm getting on a first-name basis with the people who come through those doors."
He said he also likes getting praise and complaints from patrons on their way out of the theater. "I'm being educated everyday."
Season and ticket information: www.repstage.org, or 410-772-4900.