On Dec. 3, Stephanie Ybarra officially took her position as the new artistic director of Center Stage in Baltimore, succeeding Kwame Kwei-Armah, who returned to his native England earlier this year to lead London’s Young Vic theatre. Ybarra comes to the job with a background as an artistic producer at New York City’s Public Theater, where her main responsibilities were working on the theatre’s Mobile Unit, which takes original Shakespeare productions to schools, prisons, and community centers, and the Public Forum, a civic engagement and dialogue program.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Your title at the Public was Director of Special Artistic Projects, which has “artistic” and “director” in it. So was this the position you were aspiring to?
STEPHANIE YBARRA: I hoped that would be where my career would take me, but I didn’t know for sure. I started my career as an actor, as so many people do, but I got my graduate degree in theatre management. Ever since then I’ve had to fight my way back to my artistic roots. When I got my promotion at the Public, having the word “artistic” in my title felt really significant to me, because it was so hard won.
How does creative producing contrast with—I’m not sure what to call other aspects of producing. Managerial? Administrative?
The qualifier is interesting, isn’t it? When I was in grad school I spent a lot of time discovering what I wasn’t. I’m not a managing director. I’m not a finance director. And when I finally understood what I was, which is a producer, I immediately felt like I needed to qualify it with “artistic” or “creative,” in order to separate it from the kind of Broadway investor/producer model. Now I feel like my job is facilitative, it’s territorial. People are often asking me which “side” of the administration, the art or the business, that I live on. I think what being a creative producer means to me is that I am most comfortable squarely in the perfect center of that, where I have one foot in each world and am constantly translating one to the other, and leveraging one for the benefit of the other, while maintaining the integrity of both.
So if you’re right in the center of that, where’s the managing or executive director?
I’m not necessarily talking about a division of labor or a division of function. When I am working on a show or thinking about what artist I want to be programming, I am never not aware of the myriad financial or operational or logistical implications. I don’t know how to not think about that stuff at the same time. And I’m constantly navigating when to allow those things to inform or influence the process, and when to keep them at bay because it’s not useful to the creative process. I think that’s more what I mean. I would never say, “Oh, I don’t care about marketing,” or “Don’t bother me with the budget,” because I think it’s false to think about being able to extricate the art from those real-world influencers.
You were at the Public at a really interesting time—I mean, there’s never been an uninteresting time in their history, but the past five years or so have been extraordinary. Can you talk about being in the room where it happened?
My seven years at the Public have altered my professional and artistic DNA. When I started there, honest to God, I thought I would be there for a couple years, max. But I remember sitting in my first senior artistic staff meeting, and in the room were Oskar Eustis, Mark Russell, Jeremy McCarter, Suzan-Lori Parks, Barry Edelstein, Jordan Thaler, Heidi Griffiths, Mandy Hackett, Maria Goyanes, and Meiyin Wang. I’m not a shy person or a wallflower, but I was stunned silent, and my eyes were like bulging open with how high the bar was, how rigorous the intellectual and artistic conversations were. Oskar’s been a huge influence on me, obviously, but more than that, the collective caliber of talent and the wattage of brains that make up the entire artistic staff there is unbelievable.
What was your perception about Center Stage before you considered the job there, and what have you learned about Baltimore and Center Stage since?
I started to get to know Center Stage when I was in grad school at Yale and Yale Rep did a co-production with Center Stage. I think it was A Lie of the Mind that Irene Lewis directed. It was one of those moments where I sat up in the theatre and really leaned in and paid attention. Years later I met Kwame at the Public, when I was line-producing Detroit ’67 and he was directing. And he instantly felt like my people. So I got to know the organization through him, and he became a really trusted collaborator and colleague. When he told me he was leaving, we were at the TCG conference, and I burst into tears right in the middle of the party because I just really didn’t want him to leave the American theatre. It felt like such a huge loss. But when Baltimore called, it felt a little like kismet—I don’t know, it felt right.
Since arriving here, going through process and getting to know the board and the staff and [executive director] Michael Ross and the city a little better, I feel ever more confident in my decision. Appropriately humbled and intimidated, but with the right amount of, yes, I can do this. This is a perfect fit for me. It’s made even sweeter knowing that I get to be here and overlap with Hana Sharif [who is leaving her job as associate artistic director of Center Stage to lead the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis] for a few months, and then I get to continue collaborating with her across a few states, and walking sort of hand in hand with her too.
It feels that with your hiring and Hana’s and Maria Goyanes at Woolly Mammoth that some of the change many of us were hoping to see happen in our field is happening. Do you feel like, great, now our job is done?
[Laughs] Wouldn’t it be great if now it was all just fixed? It does feel a lot less daunting to have other people to link with. I feel like Maria and Hana and I are, in some ways, joining the ranks of Chay Yew and Eric Ting, Joe Haj—the people-of-color contingent. It’s still woefully, inadequately tiny, but it feels good to be building numbers.
I know it’s early days, but you can you tell me anything about your vision for Center Stage?
I don’t have specifics yet; I’m still sort of listening and learning. I do have some pretty big impulses. One is just continuing Center Stage’s beautiful legacy of developing new work and being a home for really exciting artists. The other is that Baltimore feels in so many ways like a microcosm of the country, and I want in on the conversation here. I want all our cultural institutions to be civic institutions. I want civic engagement and cultural activity to go hand in hand.