What scuttled Irene Lewis’ tenure at Center Stage?

Artistic director excelled inside the theater but didn’t embrace the larger community

May 01, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

As the head of Baltimore's most prominent regional theater, Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis not only is intellectually fearless, but she also possesses a big heart.

She is passionately committed to speaking up for the people in society who can't do it for themselves, and she has never once dumbed down a show to attract a mass audience. She has a shrewd eye for talent and a gift for inspiring deep loyalty in actors and members of her staff. And she has built an audience at Center Stage so racially diverse it's the envy of theaters nationwide.

So what went so wrong that Lewis was ousted last week from the organization she has headed for the past 18 years?

It's worth noting that while Lewis insists that she is being fired at the end of the 2010-2011 season, Jay Smith, who heads Center Stage's board of directors, doesn't see it that way. He describes the decision to end Lewis' tenure as "mutual," and points out that people who are forced out generally aren't invited to stay for 15 months.

But he acknowledges that the date of Lewis' departure — she becomes artistic director emeritus in July 2011 — wasn't her choice.

While the timing of the announcement surprised members of Baltimore's tight-knit theater community, the outcome shocked few. Lewis has been a polarizing figure, and her detractors have been as numerous as her supporters are fervent.

People's strengths and their weaknesses frequently are flip sides of the same coin. Lewis excelled at creating an atmosphere within Center Stage where her staff felt valued, and where talented actors and designers loved to work. Shortly after Lewis was named artistic director in 1992, she embarked upon a campaign to persuade her board of directors to increase the salaries of the theater's staff. Now they are among the highest-paid in the industry.

Similarly, when the recession hit the theater hard last year, Lewis and Debbie Chinn, Center Stage's managing director, volunteered to work without pay for a month to soften the financial blow on their lower-paid employees.

And actress E. Faye Butler speaks movingly about Lewis' response when her mother, who lived in the Chicago area, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2003. Butler at the time was under contract with Center Stage to play the role of Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd."

"Irene cried," Butler says. "She let me out of my contract, and she offered to help me find the best specialists for my mother."

So it's no wonder that such talented performers as Lawrence O'Dwyer moved from Houston to Baltimore specifically so he could work more frequently at Center Stage. Both Butler and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, who lives in Britain, also have contemplated moving here.

But Lewis immerses herself so deeply in the theatrical worlds she creates that she often seems indifferent or even hostile to the larger Baltimore arts community.

Unlike Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Lewis rarely, if ever, attends performances of local arts groups.

Lewis has been frequently criticized for splitting her time between Baltimore and New York. Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, also spends much of her time outside Baltimore. But Alsop always seems aware of and engaged with the larger community. She is comfortable being the "brand" of the BSO, a role Lewis doesn't play particularly well.

On the rare occasions when Lewis represents Center Stage in public, she occasionally has embarrassed the theater. There was, for example, the time at a fundraising gala when she was asked to introduce the two African-American co-chairs. She told the couple: "I want to thank you for putting up with all these white people" — a moment that made some in the room cringe.

"That's my idea of humor," Lewis says. "I'm always trying to put African-American people at ease."

Over time, Center Stage has lost talented artists who could have burnished the theater's reputation. For instance, playwright Eric Overmyer developed several of his cerebral comedies, including his best-known work, "On the Verge," at Center Stage. But Overmyer hasn't been invited back since Lewis took over in 1992, though he says he would have welcomed a chance to continue collaborating.

Lewis also rarely casts local actors in her productions. While that complaint might sound like the sour grapes of a small interest group, Lewis' decision has ramifications that affect not just a few Baltimore performers' paychecks but the quality of the shows she stages.

Lewis has frequently expressed her disappointment at Center Stage's failure to win a local Tony Award as the top regional theater — a prize picked up last year by Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va. But the hard truth is that Center Stage isn't doing Tony-caliber work.

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