Michael Stebbins, director of Rep Stage at Howard Community… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
A show with "glitz and glamour" production values wasn't exactly the vision in Michael Stebbins' head back in 1983 when he was 17.
The classically trained singer and then-amateur thespian was handed his high school diploma a half-year early in his hometown of Kenosha, Wis., and began touring with a Six Flags entourage.
"I had imagined myself getting into the 'real theater,'" said the producing artistic director of Rep Stage in a mock British accent. "Not the world of spandex and tap shoes."
But by 2005, with many authentic roles of all kinds under his belt, he wound up in a bigger role than he'd dared to imagine when he took the helm of the not-for-profit theater whose home is Howard Community College.
Stebbins is caretaker of the theater's artistic and financial health, a new concept he installed at Rep Stage. The theater had "grown to the point that it was high on the art it was creating, but the financial side wasn't on the same par," he said.
On Dec. 17, 18 and 19, Stebbins will put all that behind him.
For three days, he will again gracefully display the acting chops that brought him to Columbia via Manhattan in four performances of a one-man show, with only a chair and music stand keeping him company on stage.
Titled "Holiday Readings (With Some Surprise Packages)," his 90-minute offering of three of author David Sedaris' stories from 1997's "Holidays on Ice" isn't a bring-the-whole-family seasonal event, he said.
"These readings are for the bitter and angry people who hate crowds at the holidays," Stebbins said. "Sometimes, after buying their umpteenth gift, people just want to escape for a while."
The readings are atypical holiday fare, with adult humor geared toward an audience that is high-school age and older.
To some degree, that disclaimer isn't required, he added, noting that savvy audiences and devoted fans of Sedaris, an American humorist and regular National Public Radio commentator, are familiar with his caustic wit and seek out the experience.
"It's for the hip and even the hip replacements," Stebbins quipped, noting a lot of teens show up for Sedaris readings throughout the region.
Many audience members come attired in sweaters with roaring fireplaces knitted on them or blinking Christmas-light earrings and other seasonal garb, Stebbins said. While playing Robert Goulet songs and "other bad music" on a boombox, he brings up the house lights and asks people who are wearing something holiday-ish to stand. He then singles out those wearing the most ludicrous outfits and invites them to join him on stage.
"I berate them and ask them questions about what's on their bodies and generally make them look stupid," he said. He holds his hand over each of their heads and the audience members applaud to determine the winners for "best" holiday apparel, who then receive a T-shirt, mug or old script as a prize.
"Then I tell the audience that what they're about to hear is totally wrong," Stebbins said. But it's just part of the warm-up for the three readings that will leave patrons who are willing to go along for the ride laughing.
Programming the empty holiday slot at Rep Stage was one of the director's first acts when he arrived at HCC by a somewhat circuitous route.
After a gig at Six Flags Auto World in Flint, Mich., the teenage Stebbins moved on with his fellow performers to the now-defunct Six Flags Power Plant in Baltimore for a Christmas 1985 show. He took a liking to the area and decided to audition for UMBC's theater department.
"A number of acting programs teach you to be technically proficient, but they work from the outside in," he said. "Actors learn the three Ps — pronounce, pose and prance — and can stand and speak in a commanding way. But their acting lacks depth.
"But UMBC was different," said the Columbia resident. "They were an eclectic mix of people, and I credit them for the foundation of my acting."
He lived in Catonsville during his college years and delighted in poking fun at the "Stepford-perfect" image of Columbia, where his girlfriend at that time lived.
After returning to New York in 1993 and working in Manhattan for 13 years, he was discovered in a nationwide talent search and lured back to Columbia.
"I told my New York friends that I was concerned that after being surrounded by culture 24/7, what will there be in Maryland?" Stebbins said, recalling his anxiety about the cultural chasm he assumed he'd have to bridge in his new life.
But once he arrived in Howard County, his fears quickly dissipated when "a vibrant arts community and an intelligentsia" revealed itself here, he said, noting his first impressions of Columbia were way off the mark.
"Whatever Rouse planned, there's still a communal feeling that rallies around all our artistic entities," he said. "We all want the others to survive and do well."
Jason Odell Williams, a Columbia native who is now a New York actor and playwright, said he first met Stebbins 13 years ago, and they have stayed in touch.