Baltimore Center Stage was just about to open a new one-woman show called “Where We Stand” when the pandemic forced the closing of its Calvert Street venue.
“Quickly, we captured the play on film, put it on video, got it out and sold pay-what-you-want tickets,” says Michael Ross, the theater’s executive director. “It got sent all over the country and we sold many more tickets than we had anticipated. It was kind of a rewarding experience. But we are about live theater. This piece was about community, and not to have community in the room was sad.”
Like other arts organizations here and around the world, Baltimore Center Stage has struggled to keep its community engaged.
“The first thing we decided was, ‘We’re not going away. We have a role to play in the community. We’re open for storytelling. That’s what we believe in and what we live by,’” says Ross.
With that in mind, Baltimore Center Stage worked efficiently to create several pandemic-era initiatives. The “Play at Home” program was one of those.
“The first purpose was to get dollars into the wallets of playwrights by commissioning 10-minute plays that could be performed at home by amateurs and families,” says Ross. “[Baltimore Center Stage artistic director Stephanie Ybarra] had the idea to bring in four other theaters and over 100 playwrights. Thousands of people have done the plays and the program has gotten national recognition. Theaters can either do virtual performances that are videotaped and shown, or live readings on Zoom or other platforms.”
The theater’s “Camp at Home” is another new program developed for children and families. “That program gives young people the chance to do projects around storytelling at home,” says Ross.
In addition to its virtual programming, the theater has tried to help the community’s health care professionals.
“We are really proud of our production shops, the craftspeople that work with us,” says Ross. “When this all happened, their work stopped. Right away, we heard the call for PPE from hospitals. So quickly, I reached out to Mercy Medical Center, our neighbor, and asked them, ‘Do you need help? Our costume shop has this idea of sewing masks.’ And I got immediately [an email] in all caps, ‘YES! WHATEVER YOU CAN DO!’ Within days, our costume shop and shops all over the city began distributing fabric and patterns that got approved by the CDC and started producing surgical masks and plastic shields.”
Ross notes that theaters, including Baltimore Center Stage, also have played a role during the Black Lives Matter movement protests by opening their lobbies to protesters needing supplies, rest-rooms, phone charging stations and more.
Ross says the pandemic has encouraged arts organizations to work more collaboratively. “We’ve asked ourselves, ‘How do we amplify other organizations and their causes?’ There’s a lot of talk about how do we do this together; who else should we bring along?”
Though Baltimore Center Stage has postponed live theater until late January — if all goes well, they’ll open “The Swindlers” by Noah Diaz on Jan. 28 — the theater will continue offering virtual programs this fall. Its “Bridge” series will include readings of classic plays, as well as conversations about civics and the arts.
On the evening of Nov. 3, the theater will offer a virtual “Election Night Cabaret.” The vision of Ybarra, the cabaret will convene artists, poets, musicians and performers to reflect on “what it means to be in a democracy, what it means to be voting,” says Ross. “Artists have always been involved in civic conversations.”
Ross acknowledges that the future is hard to predict. “We’re planning to go slow with two small shows that will both be in our Head Theater,” he says. “The theater is being completely reconfigured to be in cabaret seating, with free-standing chairs that can be moved around in pods so you can sit with the people you’re with but away from others that you don’t know, and putting in all the protocols of social distancing and how we’ll operate concessions and bathrooms.
“Our hope is that by next May, we can be back to a fuller audience, whatever that might be,” he says. “We’re going to keep looking at it, but we’re not going to do anything that’s not safe for people.”
Regardless of what happens with the pandemic, one thing is for certain, says Ross. “Art will survive. Art has been around forever. We’ll always have artists in our midst,” he says. “I’m not sure what it will look like — probably different than it looked before, but ultimately we’re going to be here.”
For information, visit centerstage.org.