Q&A: Stephanie Ybarra discusses her vision for Center Stage, diversity in the arts and more

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Photo courtesy of Baltimore Center Stage.

Stephanie Ybarra is only a couple of months into her full-time role as the artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage, but already she has met for listening sessions and meet-and-greets with dozens of leaders in the Baltimore community, been named the keynote speaker of Maryland Arts Day in Annapolis on Feb. 14, and completely rearranged the admin offices at 700 N. Calvert St.

If that’s what she’s done in less than two months, you can imagine what she’s accomplished in her almost two decades at theaters of all sizes across the United States. Some achievements include bringing full Shakespeare productions to prisons and community centers as the director of special artistic projects for The Public Theater in New York; curating and casting Two River Theater’s Crossing Borders Festival of Latinx plays; and serving as associate managing director of new play development for Yale Repertory Theater and Yale School of Drama, among other impressive positions and honors.

In 2016, she co-founded the Artists’ Anti-Racism Coalition, a grassroots effort to help the Off Broadway community dismantle systems of exclusion and oppression. A couple of years ago, instead of just complaining about the lack of representation in theaters’ seasons, she and colleagues wrote directly to artistic directors and had discussions about how they could represent more content creators of color.

As the State Theater of Maryland’s newest creative leader, Ybarra brings her perspective of challenging oppression, along with a commitment to involving the Baltimore community and entire state of Maryland in Baltimore Center Stage’s work.

Baltimore Fishbowl: You have already become an important figure in the local arts community, being named a woman to watch by The Baltimore Sun and selected as they keynote speaker of Maryland Arts Day on Feb. 14 in Annapolis. How does it feel to be embraced so quickly?

Stephanie Ybarra: In every encounter I’ve been welcomed with so much enthusiasm and warmth; it’s beyond anything I hoped for or expected. I hope I can rise to everyone’s expectations. I hope I don’t disappoint.

BFB: You have been participating in a number of listening sessions and meet-and-greets with different people. What’s your impression of where the Baltimore’s arts community is and where it could be?

SY: My impression of the Baltimore arts community is that it is incredibly tight knit, which is so refreshing, and incredibly collaborative, which is also incredibly refreshing. I hope that Center Stage will continue to be an integral part of the arts community and that we can partner with other institutions to reach even more people. It’s important to try to make sure all of our arts and culture institutions are connected to our most pressing issues in the city.

BFB: How have you personally been getting to know the city?

SY: I haven’t been here full-time for that long! I landed in Hampden. I have focused the last few weeks, in addition to going to work every day, spending a lot of time walking around my own neighborhood and visiting the local businesses and eateries, supporting the hyper local economy. I’ve been lucky to get multiple tours of the city. Last week a board member gave me a tour of Baltimore to hear about different, important, aspects of the city–the good and the bad aspects of its history and heritage.

BFB: Baltimore Center Stage’s three-year-old Mobile Unit program was inspired by The Public Theater’s Mobile Unit, which was one of your main responsibilities as director of special artistic projects at the theater and brought original Shakespeare productions to schools, prisons and community centers. Are you thinking of ways to expand Center Stage’s reach into the community?

SY: Baltimore Center Stage’s mobile unit was born out of [former artistic director of the theater] Kwame [Kwei-Armah] directing the Public’s mobile unit, which was inspired by a theater in Minneapolis called Ten Thousand Things Theater. It is absolutely my intention that Center Stage will continue to push beyond its own walls and doors. Sometimes that will look like a play, sometimes a story circle, sometimes a town hall, sometimes music. My hope is for Center Stage to be showing up all over Baltimore and all over Maryland.

BFB: You collaborated at the Public with Kwame, and knew the work he did at Center Stage. Do you think your vision for the theater will reflect his in any way, or are you focused on a new direction?

SY: Kwame and I are friends, and we share a lot of the same values as people. One of those animating values is joy, and I’m carrying that value into my curation and ways that I’m thinking about work. Not everything will be a comedy, but everything will be made with joy. I’m a different artist. I’m me, and I will naturally push forward in a different direction, because he and I are not the same people, but like my predecessors, I’m looking forward to serving as many audience members as possible.

BFB: What does your work load at Center Stage look like right now?

SY: I jumped right into season planning, and a big part of my job right now is to observe and listen and meet as many people as possible and do some really deep thinking about next season and beyond.

BFB: What keeps coming up in your listening and observations?

SY: What I’m been most thrilled by is the amount of pride for this city, and for the arts in the city. It’s infectious. I’ve definitely got it now.

Another thing that’s struck me is arts consumers and audiences and the appetite for new and challenging work, and I see that in my arts leader peers. I see the impulse around pushing to a place of deliberate conversations. Some of my favorite conversations have been with Sammy Hoi at MICA and Julia Marciari-Alexander at The Walters Art Museum.

BFB: There’s a lot of conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion right now. You, especially as a founder of The Artists’ Anti-Racism Coalition, have been taking action to disrupt the status quo. What would you would want other gatekeepers and institutional leaders, especially in Baltimore, to think about in regards to breaking down barriers created by a racist system?

SY: I love that question. There’s so much to say, it’s hard to distill. I think that I myself am constantly trying to pay rigorous attention to the things that are going “right.” The things that we love the most, where things are thriving, are usually where the most work is needed.

It’s necessary for leaders to be really looking with an anti-racist critical eye at the initiatives that are purporting to be in service to diversity, equity and inclusion. I try to look beyond the representation in the theater world. It’s not enough to say, “Look at all the actors of color on stage,” you have to look further, and you often see a different story reflected in the power structures and economic structures of the art making, especially if you follow the money.

BFB: Can you give an example of specific areas where that is happening?

SY: Usually in the theater world, anywhere you see the language like “community impact” and “community outreach,” or even sometimes the word “education,” something that is done to somebody. There’s really complicated language that becomes coded. All of the good intentions could be doing more harm than good. There’s usually some amount of colonial savior complex happening. I’m as interested in the arts scene here in Baltimore as I am in being a part of the social justice and activist scene, and I hope to get to have those conversations.

BFB: What are you looking forward to in the immediate future of Center Stage in the coming months?

SY: “How to Catch Creation” written by Christina Anderson and directed by Nataki Garrett. The central idea of this new work is how each of us as individuals have the capacity to create. The role of creation in all of our lives. I’m also really looking forward to getting my season planned.

Cassandra Miller

Cassandra Miller writes about theater for Baltimore Fishbowl. Regionally, she has written about the arts for Baltimore magazine, Bmore Art, City Paper, DC Metro Theater Arts, The Bad Oracle, Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, and The Washington Post, where she was the Entertainment Editor of Express. She can be reached at [email protected]

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