Veteran theater executive brings his expertise to Center Stage

Stephen Richard spent almost two decades with D.C.'s respected Arena Stage

  • Stephen Richard recently joined Center Stage as the theater troupe's new managing director.
Stephen Richard recently joined Center Stage as the theater… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
January 27, 2012|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Even in his first job, Stephen Richard showed a flair for devising unorthodox methods of helping a cash-strapped California theater festival make ends meet.

"In Los Angeles in the early 1980s, it was kind of the custom that when a rock group went off tour, the crew got a bonus by selling the equipment off the back of the truck," he said during an interview in his new work space at Center Stage.

"Their wasn't much market for used stuff, and it was kind of expected. They'd back the truck right up to our door. That was how we got our lights."

Richard, who started Thursday as the organization's new managing director, rearranged his features into an expression of mock innocence, and added:

"I promise not to do that here."

Well-heeled Baltimoreans might nonetheless be advised to lock up their checkbooks before meeting with Richard, who comes to Baltimore after spending 18 years at Washington's Arena Stage, one of the nation's flagship troupes.

Richard will be responsible for overseeing the business side of Maryland's largest nonprofit theater. Artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah will determine the company's creative direction, though both men say their roles will overlap.

As the old joke goes, Richard isn't afraid of change — but he vastly prefers dollars. It would be fair to describe the 60-year-old with the deceptively relaxed manner as a prodigious fundraiser.

During his tenure, Richard led a $125 million campaign to renovate the complex in Southwest Washington. The total raised included a gift of $35 million gift from Gilbert and Jaylee Mead — the largest donation from a single household ever given to a nonprofit theater in the U.S.

As a result, Richard's arrival in Baltimore can't help but raise questions about Center Stage's future, questions that Jay Smith, the president of the theater's board of trustees, is eager to dispel.

"Fundraising is an important part of what we do, and certainly, Stephen's experience was attractive to us," Smith said. "But we don't have a capital or any other fundraising campaign in the offing. We hired him primarily to help manage the theater and put Kwame's vision on stage."

Center Stage has a history of hiring top-notch managing directors, starting with Peter Culman, who was the troupe's heart and soul for three decades. But there's no denying that securing Richard's services is a coup.

Arena Stage's current budget of $18.5 million is more than twice Center Stage's budget of $7.1 million for the 2011-2012 season.

As Smith put it: "We never expected to hire someone with the credentials and level of experience as a managing director that Stephen has."

For his part, Richard was so eager to work in Baltimore that he turned his back on an appealing job opportunity on the West Coast.

After learning that he was a finalist for the California job, Richard met first with Kwei-Armah, and later with the Center Stage board. He withdrew his name from consideration for the West Coast position, even though the search process here was still under way, and Richard says he received no guarantees that Center Stage would hire him.

"I would have been so [ticked] off if I hadn't gotten this job after I walked away from the other opportunity," he says. "I guess I thought I had a decent chance."

Richard's father was a reporter for The Houston Post, and the boy spent part of his childhood hanging around newspaper offices. As a young man, he tried his hand at playwriting. Perhaps as a consequence, Richard's approach to his job combines a journalist's tenacity with an author's inventiveness.

"He's bright, he's passionate, and when he feels strongly about a project, he will dig in and find a way to make it work," says Molly Smith, Arena's artistic director. "When people said 'no,' what Stephen hears is, 'Maybe. Come back later.'"

Richard says he's attracted to organizations in the throes of reinventing themselves. He stepped down from Arena in 2008 after breaking ground on the new theater complex because he says he couldn't imagine topping that accomplishment.

From 2008 through 2011, Richard was executive director of the planned National Children's Museum in Prince George's County.

"I took the job because I think it has the potential for being the world's leading museum for children and families," he says.

But he found that he missed live theater, though he was determined to be selective. He says he turned down offers from other troupes before accepting the post in Baltimore.

"I'm 60, and at this stage in my life, I get maybe one more bite at the apple," he said.

"If I had met with Kwame and the board, and if it had been business as usual, this job would have been much less attractive to me. Theater needs to reimagine itself in a changing world, and Kwame's the guy to do it. Most of us are set in our ways, and he's not.

"If we can start to solve problems that are significant in the community, that would be a good career capper."

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