Center Stage Michael Ross Kwame Kwei-Armah

Michael Ross keeps coming back to Baltimore. This past July, the Milwaukee native returned to the city for the fourth time to take over as managing director of Center Stage, a position he previously held from 2002 to 2008. During his eight-year hiatus from Baltimore’s largest nonprofit professional theater, Ross served as managing director of the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut. Throughout his career, he also has consulted on fundraising, board development, executive search, and strategic planning for theaters nationwide.

Upon meeting Ross, his firm handshake, quick smile, and roaring laugh make him seem at once like a trusted friend and the centerpiece of the room. After spending some time with him, what also becomes evident is Ross’s love of Baltimore and his desire to grow its cultural scene, his devotion to Center Stage in particular, and his belief in the power of the theater in general. Recently, he expounded on these themes and more in an interview with Baltimore Fishbowl.

Why have you decided to return to Center Stage?

In a word, Kwame Kwei-Armah.

In addition to your great respect for Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director at Center Stage, what other factors drew you back?

I had always stayed connected to Baltimore and Center Stage. I actually returned to Center Stage five years ago on a consulting basis when the theater’s artistic director stepped down, and the managing director left. They asked me to help during the transition. I was also here a year and a half ago with Everyman Theatre, helping them with their strategic planning process. So I’ve had a continual relationship with Baltimore.

What did you miss most about the city during your time away?

Orioles games. I’ve already been to two since I’ve been back. But more than that, it’s really about urban living, the diversity of a community, the walkability of the city. It’s funny; I was once being recruited by a theater company in San Diego. My friends and family were like, You’re not going to San Diego? But there’s something about Baltimore. It’s that small town, big-city feel, that you can be connected to everything and make a difference—that hometown pride, hard work ethic that Baltimore has that just fits my DNA.

What most excites you about your return to Center Stage?

Again, in a word, Kwame—his vision and where he’s taking this theater. His is the most current and forward-thinking vision for theater in America. For him, it’s all about how the theater has an impact on the community and the world. His vision is so big; it is truly for everyone. He is setting up avenues, breaking down every barrier to make sure Center Stage is accessible to anyone—from new plays to classic plays, to plays about social issues, to plays of young and different voices. By adding the new 99-seat theater space, we’ll be able to produce more diverse works in addition to our main stage plays. It’s also about how the audiences will engage in the larger Center Stage space: It’s about comfort, hospitality, high tech. It’s a gathering place. And, we’re taking the theater outside of our four walls, into the community, with Center Stage (CS) Mobile. Last year, we brought theater to Healthcare for the Homeless, to a prison, to a domestic violence shelter. We reach audiences digitally as well.

Having already held this position once, do you feel there are more or fewer expectations placed on you this time around?        

I love Baltimore and Center Stage. But I asked myself before my return: Can I go back? I talked to a trusted advisor about it. He said: There’s so much that’s gone on in Baltimore in the past eight years. Think of it as a new place, but you know where the bathrooms are. I joked that with the renovations to the theater, I don’t even know where those are anymore. But the thought was that I knew some of the infrastructure, how it worked in the past. I knew how to get around in Baltimore, had met some of the major players. But there’s also a completely new world here. Maybe it’s the best of both worlds.

What’s different about Baltimore now than eight years ago?

There’s a lot going on here. A lot of development, cranes in the air. What Under Armour is doing alone is fantastic. There are so many investments in the community—it feels very different than eight years ago. As for the arts scene, I know the GBCA [Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance] has grown and has some new members. When I returned to Baltimore, I attended an event sponsored by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts celebrating arts and culture throughout the city. I thought I would see a lot of old, white-haired people like myself. (He pauses for a big laugh.) I didn’t recognize anyone. They were all younger. I loved it. Theaters like Everyman and Single Carrot have grown into new spaces. There are new theater companies that weren’t here before. It seems like there’s a real positive energy, the hope and the reality that things need to be better for everybody in the community.

What new skills or insights are you bringing to the job from your time away?

You learn along the way. Before my time with Center Stage, I had worked in regional theaters. Then, in Westport, Connecticut, in a more suburban setting, in a different kind of theater. The operating model was a little different, being closer to New York. I’ve learned from that. Kwame’s vision encompasses a whole realm of education programs and community engagement, including community partnerships. In fact, at Center Stage, we have an internal committee on community partnerships. We include employees from all departments and we ask ourselves: Is there something another group out in the Baltimore community is doing that’s a thread back to what we’re doing here? Already, I’ve toured the archives of the Maryland Historical Society and the Jewish Museum of Maryland and visited with the Maryland Humanities Council. I’m so interested in all the work others are doing, trying to figure out that thread that may connect us to them, and how we can help each other.

I understand that Center Stage’s building at 700 N. Calvert Street is in the midst of a $32 million capital campaign to support major renovations to the Calvert Street venue of Center Stage including a redesigned 400-seat Head Theater, a new lobby and entrance plaza, a new 99-seat theater, and a dedicated education and community programming studio. Tell me a little about that, and about your role in the campaign.

What a privilege it has been to come on board when most of the hard work has already happened. (Another hearty laugh.) The campaign, to date, has been very successful. We are more than halfway there in terms of fundraising, and about half in terms of construction. What I want is to make sure everybody’s involved. My message is this: Please help us make this a really transformational moment for Center Stage. We added a new space that will become the Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Community Programs & Education Department. It will allow us to hold more classes, more professional development for area educators, to have small performances, and provide space to run our summer camp.

When is the renovated Center Stage set to open?

At the end of November we’ll show the first play of the season in the Pearlstone Theater downstairs in our home on Calvert Street. The entire building won’t really be open until the end of February. March 3, 2017 we’ll have our grand re-opening.

What is at the top of your to-do list as managing director of Center Stage?

To engage the community and figure out how best to use our new spaces.

What do you think your biggest challenge will be in your role?

There are some small, tactical challenges. In so many ways, it’s about audience development—getting people off their couches and to the theater. There’s also the ongoing challenge of being relevant, interesting, welcoming.

When you were younger, did you envision a professional life in the theater?

No. I didn’t do any theater until late in high school. Terrified, I auditioned for a part in The Matchmaker. It was probably the smallest part in American theater—four words. (He breaks into a big laugh.) But it transformed my life in many ways.

I went to college to be an accountant, but I quickly decided I wanted to do theater. For awhile, I thought I wanted to be a drama teacher, but I realized early on I wasn’t equipped for teaching. In an observational class in education, someone told me to make a bulletin board. I’m not the least bit creative, so I stopped that idea and walked out. Later in college, I thought: I want to be a managing director of a nonprofit regional theater. And now, I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do. I love coming to work every day. Thankfully, I did eventually serve as an adjunct professor in The Yale University School of Drama Theater Management Program. 

It sounds as if you’re just as taken with the artistic element of theater as the management aspect.

I think theater really matters in people’s lives. It teaches us empathy as we engage in other people’s stories. I love the sort of personal impact it has: It gives us a chance to laugh, a chance to cry. A director once told me: There’s always one person in this audience whose life you’re going to change. Here’s an example. Years ago, in Hartford, we were doing a production of Falsettos, a musical that deals with a gay man who has AIDS. A friend of mine had come to see the show. She was always an effervescent, fun person, full of laughs. Afterward, she couldn’t move from her seat. She was just sobbing. She had lost friends to AIDS but had never cried for them. That piece, that night, she did.  The theater unlocks things in us.

Elizabeth Heubeck

Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore Fishbowl contributor and local freelance writer.