Theater

Irene Lewis leaves Center Stage with the same edge that defined her career

APPETITE FOR CHALLENGE: After 20 years, Irene Lewis departs her post as artistic director of Baltimore's Center Stage, where her ambitious programming has left a rich legacy. "I was always after the widest swings you could get in a six-play season, the widest swings in theatrical experience," Lewis says.
APPETITE FOR CHALLENGE: After 20 years, Irene Lewis departs her post as artistic director of Baltimore's Center Stage, where her ambitious programming has left a rich legacy. "I was always after the widest swings you could get in a six-play season, the widest swings in theatrical experience," Lewis says. (Katherine Frey)

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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 13, 2011

One way to measure Center Stage's departing artistic director, Irene Lewis, is by the way she gauges audience response to her current - and final - show there, Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming," a tough drama that leaves audiences arguing with each other on the way out.

"The thing about 'The Homecoming,' " says the tall, lean Lewis, "is the lack of walkouts. That's what I'm stunned about. I've lost 50, I've lost 75 at some plays. And here, some nights, none."

You could make the case that among the area's larger resident theaters, Lewis has displayed the most consistent appetite for challenge. Where the cluttered Washington theater scene is driven by niche programming (classical, musical, silent, etc.), Lewis's Center Stage is the dominant figure on Baltimore's landscape, and for 20 years Lewis has made sure it has played the field in a serious way.

"I was always after the widest swings you could get in a six-play season, the widest swings in theatrical experience," Lewis says, sitting in a conference room upstairs in Center Stage's two-theater complex.

This season reflects as much. In addition to Pinter's prickly "Homecoming," the 1967 play about a man who helplessly watches his stylish wife fall in with his decadent (and all-male) clan, Lewis also directed "The Wiz," the 1970s black musical adaptation of "The Wizard of Oz." That Lewis can take on such a pop hit without being accused of cynical commercialism is because of a track record of serious black programming. She got in early on the works of such artists as Dael Orlandersmith and Lynn Nottage, and never resorted to what she calls "the robes and tambourines."

"She doesn't want the audience to anticipate what's going to happen," says Peter Culman, a longtime Lewis associate who was Center Stage's managing director from 1967 to 2000. "She wants to surprise the hell out of them."

Leaving Center Stage now wasn't Lewis's idea. Last spring, board President Robert W. Smith Jr. brought up the idea of succession while the theater was in stable shape. Speaking last week, Smith cited Center Stage's "rich legacy, largely due to her efforts," and said the transition was not meant to indicate dissatisfaction with Lewis.

Lewis, who will return to freelance directing (offers and schedules are being ironed out), seems to be fine with the timing.

"I think I just didn't have time, literally, to look up from the page and say, 'Wait, stop,' because I was scrambling so hard," Lewis says of her demanding routine.

The institutional sledding has been rougher than usual at Center Stage lately. A decade ago the staff included an artistic associate - an in-house director to helm shows and share creative and administrative burdens - and featured what was likely the country's leading dramaturgical department (it even had its own endowment). That "think tank," as Lewis calls it, has been reduced. There is no full-time associate now, although Jason Loewith (director of the National New Play Network) is on hand part time. Current dramaturge Gavin Witt picked the 2011-12 season; Lewis didn't see the logic of choosing and leaving.

At present, the theater is without a managing director as well, since Debbie Chinn left in December. Michael Ross, managing director from 2002 to '08, comes in once a week from his post with Connecticut's Westport Country Playhouse to keep an eye on the business side. So when Lewis describes the state of Center Stage as "in transition," it seems like an understatement.

The deflated operating budget is around $6.4 million, down from $7.5 million two seasons ago, the period when the sharp economic downturn rocked so many arts institutions. Baltimore Opera went defunct, but Center Stage weathered the storm, although pension contributions were slowed and Lewis and Chinn took a month's furlough last year.

Yet, in the same breath, Lewis describes Center Stage as healthy, and not without reason. As always, the company is operating in the black. The endowment that used to stand at $20 million is down but recovering. Subscriptions and single-ticket sales are up.

The troupe scored its biggest-ever box-office success last fall with "The Wiz" (when measuring by income, not tickets sold - August Wilson's "Jitney" still holds that title), and right now "The Second City Does Baltimore" is selling briskly in the Head Theater upstairs. Of Second City's knockdowns of Charm City, Lewis says its satire of her isn't harsh enough: "You have to make her much more aggressive. Why don't you just make her nasty, yelling at the audience?"

Over the years, criticisms of Lewis have included charges that she doesn't use enough local talent. Six Baltimore performers, including the lead, were featured in "The Wiz," but Lewis found them during auditions in New York. She sticks to the idea of finding the best actor, period - "I think that's my mandate," she says.

Commuting to Baltimore from her primary home in New York City with her husband, architect Mitchell Kurtz, also opened Lewis to criticism, as has her instinctive reluctance ("I was very shy and did not want to be seen very much") to be the institutional face of the city's top theater. She was happy to let Culman and Ross spearhead those functions, though Culman's retirement prodded her to get out in front more, something she feels the board will be looking for in her successor.

"I always knew it would be a split," Lewis says of the roles she's had to play. "Artists are mostly anarchists, and when you run an institution, you have to be a pragmatist. So that tension is considerable. And you have, what, 70 employees, and they're depending on you to choose things that keep the doors open but not" - she leans forward on the word, and pauses before finishing - "to compromise. So I never did 'A Christmas Carol.' And an old production manager who used to work here said, 'Irene, I don't think a lot of people would stay here if you did.' "

Pressley is a freelance writer.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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