IRENE LEWIS: HANG ON TO THE BIG QUESTIONS






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Publication: American Theatre
Author: Stoudt, Charlotte
Date published: May 1, 2011

In June, Irene Lewis will step down after 20 years as artistic director of CENTERSTAGE in Baltimore. Known for her bold takes on classics and commitment to diverse programming, the irreverent and ever-curious Lewis sat down to talk about the job, the audience, and the value of making mistakes.

CHARLOTTE STOUDT: You had a steady freelance career before CENTERSTAGE. What made you take the gig?

IRENE LEWIS: When CENTERSTAGE asked me to become acting artistic director, I got on the train, very carefree, and went down to Baltimore to have a look around. The theatre was on a bit of a slide. [Exiting artistic director] Stan Wojewodski said to me, "If you don't take this job, all this is going to disappear." I sort of knew what he meant. It was the culture of this company ? doing plays that were artistically driven, not necessarily reassuring. But they didn't have enough subscribers to maintain the current budget. I was appointed in December, had to pick the season immediately, and direct three plays out of the six. Baptism by fire.

Artistic directors are expected to be both artist and CEO. How did you strike a balance?

It took an adjustment. The first two years, my season selection didn't appeal to a wide enough range of people. Yet \ knew I didn't want to do A Christmas Carol or warmed-over Off Broadway. Once you have those parameters, you have to be more imaginative. But if we're not asking the big guestions, what are we doing?

One of your many successes has been devoting a significant part of your programming to plays that speak to the AfricanAmerican experience.

In the beginning, a lot of people got off the train. We got hate mail. But we rebuilt the audience. Then there were the white people who would say, "Isn't it wonderful you're doing something for the black community!" i tried to explain it was the opposite.

How has your work as a director evolved at CENTERSTAGE?

My growth as an artist has been extraordinarily Important to me. I learned from every play. I remembering reading Ma Ra'mey's Black Bottom and wondering, "How do you hold an audience with five men on stage 'waiting' for Ma to arrive, with 20 pages of dialogue?" You do it by listening to your actors, who actually know what the scene is about. And can you believe that I had never seen a Pinter ptay before I did The Homecoming this season? It can help to have no preconceptions.

The hardest part of leaving is the staff. Only in the past five years have I been able to fully appreciate the camaraderie. In the early years, I didn't have as much fun - you're always putting out fires.

Kwame Kwel-Armah, your successor, is a playwright whose work you programmed. What advice have you given him?

You wrestle with how much to say, because the learning process is the Joy of it But I covered a table with butcherblock paper In Kwame's temporary office. I can just write on it whenever I get an idea.

Directors have led this theatre for almost four decades. How will the theatre change being run by a writer?

I have no Idea. And it's exciting not to know. Everybody has their successes. But you pick somebody for how interesting their mistakes are going to be.

Author affiliation:

Charlotte Stoudt is a writer and producer In Los Angeles.

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