Rep Stage artistic director Michael Stebbins moving on


Ray Ficca (Bill), Mitchell Hebert (Pete), MaryBeth Wise (Mary), and Danny Gavigan (Paul) in Round House Theatre's production of "How to Write a New Book for the Bible." (Photo by Danisha Crosby/Photo by Danisha Crosby)
April 9, 2013

After a 7 ½-year run as the artistic director of Rep Stage, Michael Stebbins is stepping down to “continue on my . . . artistic journey again,” he said.

Stebbins, who considers himself “first and foremost an actor and director,” is 47 years old. And not to be morbid or anything, but he was kind of thinking about mortality. “And, on the positive side, as an artist or an actor, . . . as long as we don’t completely fall apart, we don’t have to retire. We can play roles until we’re crawling around, playing King Lear.”

He added, “Forty-seven isn’t old, I hope. But it’s time, I think, for another energy to come in.”

A six-person committee chaired by founding artistic director Valerie Lash will oversee the search for Stebbins’s replacement. Stebbins is not involved in the selection process.

“When I came to Rep Stage, I think it was known very much for doing quite a bit of cutting-edge material,” said Stebbins. “Maybe out of the four shows they’d do a year, two or three would be what I’d consider off- or off-off-Broadway fare. And I feel like we’ve opened up in terms of variety. So we may have a little more of a mainstream name, like Shaw or Edward Albee or Shakespeare, . . . but also, at the same time, still keep half the season championing young and up-and-coming playwrights.”

Stebbins is also proud of an administrative accomplishment: helping theater professionals at Rep Stage earn a better living. When Stebbins started in November 2005, actors at Rep Stage — a professional company housed at Howard Community College — made “maybe almost $300 a week,” he said. “But I thought it very important, being an artist myself and knowing how difficult it is to pursue that craft,” to increase actors’ wages. “This coming season, actors and stage managers will be making about $575 to $625 a week.”

He’s not saying a real goodbye just yet; Stebbins will be directing and acting in Rep Stage’s next season. After that, he plans to return to the Midwest — either Chicago or Milwaukee — and “keep a foot in the D.C.-Maryland theater scene.”

“I hate to use the word ‘blessed,’ but I’ve been pretty blessed in my life, ever since I was a little kid doing theater on the front porch in Wisconsin,” said Stebbins. “I’ve never not had a job; I’ve always been in the arts. . . . I’m very optimistic. I guess it’s a Midwestern trait!”

Bill Cain’s revelations

“The title is a problem. The title is scaring people away,” said Bill Cain, playwright of “How to Write a New Book for the Bible.” Cain, a Jesuit priest and writer for the stage and television (when we spoke, he was working on a script for the second season of Netflix’s “House of Cards”), said he thinks people get the wrong impression when they hear the B-word.

His inspiration, he promises, was dramatic, not didactic. He was thinking about “stuff that’s revealed in the entire Bible, . . . the sense that there is a mystery at the heart of who we are that is extraordinary,” he said.

“The Bible, as we have it, isn’t a rule book,” said Cain. “It’s the story of a family, . . . and I believe that every family has these kinds of enormous, Earth-shattering revelations.”

“How to Write” tells the story of Cain’s family: his mother’s death at the age of 82, his brother’s service in Vietnam. In real life, while cleaning out his parents’ apartment, Cain discovered all the letters his brother had written home from Vietnam, organized chronologically, carefully stowed away. He wrote every week — except one week was missing.

“My father, it turned out, had saved old newspaper clippings from the week that my brother didn’t write,” said Cain. “And in that week there was an extraordinary battle that my brother fought in but never wrote about. So I have this very clear image of my dad and mom at home, trying to figure out what happened to my brother, waiting 17 days for the next letter to arrive.”

Though it would be easy to blur the lines between Cain’s facts and his fiction — the characters in the play have the same names as his real family — director Ryan Rilette insisted, “We all are treating it like every other play. . . . We can’t recreate Bill’s family. They are their own people. We are taking the words in the play, trying to understand the relationships in the play, and making them live through the actors.”

Plus, “For every single page of dialogue, there is tons and tons of back story,” said Rilette, adding that whenever he has a question he can just give Cain a call. “It provides a much richer landscape, a much deeper well that we can draw from.”

P.S., for all you “House of Cards” junkies, here’s a little teaser: Cain’s episode includes “three or four” scenes at the Washington Herald (which of course bears no resemblance to this newspaper; I am not Zoe Barnes, so don’t get any ideas) and “there’s a series of revelations that go on there.” How thematically appropriate! “The reporters try to deal with the truth of what Frank Underwood does.”

How to Write a New Book for the Bible

April 10 - May 5, Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, www.roundhousetheatre.org, 240-644-1100

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