Story: Joe DiPaula
Multimedia: Samantha Torosian
Before his first play even started, Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director in what is now his first full season, received a standing ovation from the audience. That is how the community of Baltimore feels about the upcoming season at Centerstage.
This is no ordinary season for the theater, however. This season marks the 50th Anniversary season of the theater Which means that people are expecting big things from the theater they know and love.
“The theater feels like it belongs to the community and the community feels like the theater belongs to it,” said Susanna Gellert, artistic director. “The fact this theater survived after the fire is entirely because of the city and surrounding community that supported it.”
There was a dark time in 1972 when an arson fire burned the theater to the ground during the season. But the community gathered around the theater and insisted that the season go on.
“The city rallied around the theater,” said Public Relations Manager Heather Jackson. “They did the performance at the BMA and Loyola [University of Maryland] for the rest of the season and this building stood here empty.”
But the community would not let the building stand-alone by itself for long.
“Then the city and Jesuits got together to deed the building to Centerstage for a dollar,” Jackson said.
The only condition was the theater remained non-profit. And for that, the theater is grateful.
“It’s always been the community that has built up Centerstage. Everything we do is done here.” Jackson said.
Centerstage kicked off the season with 50 Fest. For the event, the theater located on Calvert Street, teamed up with the Baltimore Book Festival, which was being held on Monument Street. Centerstage did not disappoint.
We had lots of street performances, face painting for the kids and booths occupied by other theaters companies in the Baltimore areas,” said House Manager Faith Savill. “It was really cool that people could come down from the book festival and experience all that.”
And Centerstage is doing everything they can to keep the excitement going throughout the current season. Picking plays based on what is going on in the community and trying to do one thing, start a conversation.
“All the plays he (Kwei-Armah) chose this season were so that there would be conversation and debate about each of the plays,” Jackson said. “All the pieces have some sort of dialogue that they open up to the community.”
To go along with the debates that are going on right now in the United States, Centerstage decided to put on their take of Arthur Miller’s Enemy of the People.
“We wanted to start the season with something that would get at the notion of debate and the nature of politics, not just the way we see it, either,” said Gellert. “But maybe through the eyes of the press and the eyes of the family. It’s a political debate that plays out in the living room as well as in the public.”
The play pits a man trying to do what he feels is right and for that, he must stand up to his family, friends and his town itself.
The poem began its previews on September 19th and had opening night September 27th, will stop showing October 21st. The following play, though, gets right at the community. Centerstage began showing their original play, Poe, on October 14th and it will be on stage until November 25th.
The full title of the play is The Completely Fictional—Utterly True—Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe. It is a poem that, according to Jackson, the staff put a lot of thought into when putting the schedule together.
“Poe is a dedication to Baltimore,” Jackson said. “It looks at the life of an artist on the last night of their life. It’s a Baltimore favorite, a Baltimore actor in the lead role,It tells the story of a character of Baltimore in our own way.”
And there is no way that Centerstage would overlook the fact that the show runs through Halloween.
“A lot of different elements go into planning the season There’s the practicality of it and then there’s the seasonally appropriateness. Poe itself is very Gothic, creepy, morbid but in a fun magical whimsical way,” Jackson said. “It’s Poe going back through time so it is about ghosts and magic as a spectacle.”
The season is off to a fantastic start and seems to have only just begun what appears to be a tremendous season at the theater One in which it will be tough to see just one so perhaps a season or go pass may be in order.
“Every single one I’m like, well actually” Gellert said and then paused. “They’re all gonna be great. And I’m not that to sell the season, I’m genuinely excited. There’s a lot of great stuff going on.”
And it doesn’t stop once the actors leave the stage. Centerstage has also grown accustomed to hosting live bands playing in their lobby playing after shows as well as hosting readings seemingly every night.