Stephanie Ybarra, the new artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage, comes to Charm City after working for six years at the Public Theater of New York.
As director of Special Artistic Projects, she oversaw the Public’s Mobile Unit, which — like the Center Stage Mobile Unit — performs Shakespeare plays in such non-traditional venues as prisons and homeless shelters.
A native of San Antonio who has worked in theaters across the country for nearly two decades, Ybarra received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Baylor University and a master of fine arts degree from the Yale School of Drama.
Jmore recently spoke with Ybarra, who will transition to Center Stage next month and join the staff full-time in December. She succeeds Kwame Kwei-Armah, who is now the artistic director of London’s Young Vic Theater.
Jmore: You describe yourself as a “creative producer.” Is that an oxymoron, since the business and creative sides sometimes conflict?
Ybarra: Someone recently asked me what my artistic superpower was. For better or for worse – I think for better — it really is being able to speak fluently in both the artistic and business vocabularies, and using the art and the commerce to make both thrive.
I don’t think they’re in conflict. I’ve been lucky to develop skills that allow me to help artists realize their vision and the best versions of their projects, while leveraging sound business practices.
Our choices with entertainment have expanded. But people still talk about authenticity and wanting to have real experiences.
What I see in the theater winds is a return to the celebration of live theater, and the unique value proposition of live storytelling and bringing people together to experience something that no other medium can offer in the same way.
Theater artists aren’t just looking for ways to tell great stories. They’re hungry to push the boundaries of what it means to sit in the theater and experience a quote-unquote play. I think the future of theater holds a lot more joy and fun, and I hope a lot more conversation, with the world writ large.
When the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit performed in non-traditional spaces, did you encounter audience members who had never experienced live theater?
I’ve encountered many, many people who had never seen a play before, or because I’ve been doing this now for six-plus years, the only plays they’ve seen are ours. I love to experience this art through the eyes of someone who is bringing a completely fresh perspective to it. … It’s exhilarating. I hope I never stop seeing theater with people who are brand new to the art form.
One of my most beloved audiences with the mobile unit in New York was at the Taconic [Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, N.Y.]. I will never forget the love and joy that I experienced from some of those women.
One woman — her name is Aisha — said, “Can I write you a review?” I said, “Absolutely.” A couple of weeks later, I got a letter from Aisha. It was beautifully written, such a thoughtful review. She liked the production, she expressed a lot of gratitude. One day, she said this could be her last show because she was getting released. She said, “I hope I can see one of your performances on the outside.” I said, “Absolutely.” Then, she showed up at the Public. I almost burst into tears, I was so happy to see her. She keeps coming back.
The season lineup at Center Stage includes the play “Fun Home,” which was developed at the Public. Is that an homage to you?
“Fun Home” was programmed long before I was in the picture. I would call it fortuitous. One of the first projects I worked on at the Public was the workshop production of “Fun Home.” I’m really excited.
The Center Stage season lineup encompasses a wide range of identities. Is that a trend you’ll continue?
I feel committed to maintaining a breadth of experiences, voices and stories onstage. When I look at the current season, I see not only diversity of voices but also a formal diversity and thematic stretch that feels appropriate for a theater like this. We’ll continue to make the tent bigger and invite more voices into the storytelling.
Each of the plays is pretty accessible. Is that a good approach or will you shoot for more challenging theater?
Yes and both. Aesthetically, I hope we will have a chance to play a bit. I don’t know how to define challenging just yet. My role as artistic director and curator is to love the widest possible swath of the medium.
We can push some boundaries, sort of inch toward informal adventures that I think everyone will be into.
In New York you have everything from Broadway to small theaters with niche audiences. In Baltimore, we have a range of theaters, but we only have one in each category instead of 20. Does that create pressure or opportunity?
I see only opportunity. As you said, the theater community in New York is prolific. There’s no way to see everything. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to dive deeper here. I think I may have a shot at seeing everything, or at least a critical mass of things, which isn’t humanly possible in New York.
Baltimore is seen in a lot of ways as a place of tensions, a microcosm of race problems in the U.S. What did you think about coming to Baltimore?
I thought about it quite a lot throughout the interview-and-search process. Baltimore Center Stage picked me, but I definitely picked Baltimore for this very reason. Baltimore is, like so many places in America, struggling with life-and-death conversations. I believe in the role of the arts, and theater in particular, in informing and facilitating those conversations, and I want to find a way to participate.
Martha Thomas is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.