I first saw Michael Stebbins, Artistic Director of Rep Stage, in 2005 juggling several phone lines and over a dozen roles in the solo show Fully Committed. Juggling seems to be what Stebbins is all about. He’s managed to take lead roles, direct plays, nurture a subscription base, and balance budgets for a small professional theatre in Columbia Maryland. Since he took over in 2005, Rep Stage has used its location – on the Howard Community College Campus – to build up an audience from both DC and Baltimore.
When I called him last week, the phones were still ringing off the hook. Rep Stage’s latest production, Las Meninas, had just come to a close, and Stebbins was already in the middle of a long string of auditions for the first production of the next season, Temperamentals.
You sound pretty busy. What’s going on?
Well, with Rep Stage, because we’re Equity, we’re required to hold BEA principle auditions. So for the last two days from nine to six PM, I’ve been seeing a lot of people coming through the door. I can’t help but learn a little bit and work a little bit with everyone. So I realize on that side of the table, it’s exhausting. Then I have to fly to Milwaukee.
Is that where you live?
I grew up in Buffalo, but I was raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I went to graduate school and spent three years in a conservatory in Milwaukee. Now I have a lot of friends there.
When did you become an actor?
I just talked to some of the people in the audition. They tell me they wanted to become a doctor, or a lawyer. But growing up I never had that conflict. I never wanted to be anything else. So here I am at 46. Doing what I’ve wanted to do.
How long have you been in Baltimore?
Well, I was a singer/dancer on cruise ships and theme parks. We passed through Baltimore in 1985 … to the indoor entertainment facility known as Baltimore’s Power Plant. Six Flags corporation. I would sing and dance. The troupe moved on to Texas. I auditioned at UMBC for a scholarship. So I spent three years there, 1986-1989. So I had a mix-’80’s pass-through.
You learned about acting on a cruise ship. What was that like?
I spent from age 17 to 20 making money and having a ball. I couldn’t imagine anything better. Then I remembered, oh, I wanted to be a serious actor. They offered me a real foundation. In graduate school, they say, you learn the three p’s. Pronouncing, Prancing, Parrying. I learned a lot in graduate school, but UMBC was really important to me.
So when did you come here after that?
I spent 13 years in Manhattan. In the fall of 2005, I came down here. Right after 9/11, I came down to Rep Stage to direct Moon for the Misbegotten. But that happened because the artistic director of Rep Stage, Valerie Lasch, and I had both studied with my acting mentor, Walt Whitcover. Walt suggested me to Valerie.
When I was hired as artistic director for Rep Stage in fall 2005, I had already been cast, prior to that, to do the one-person show Fully Committed. So I was first hired as an actor and then as artistic director. I was always worried that it came out as a vanity project.
Sort of … I’ll give myself the only part in my first show?
Right. Every once in awhile people tell me I should do that thing again. I don’t know. I’m older now.
So how does one get to be an artistic director?
Well, I was surprised. A friend of mine in New Hampshire was telling me that in New York there are headhunters looking for people who are able to balance financing with art. I applied first because I had run a small, small nonprofit like everyone does in New York. Because when I wasn’t acting outside of the city, I was trying to keep my instrument healthy. And once you get that not-for-profit status, suddenly, you are creating budgets and fundraising and marketing. So I became interested in many facets of the theatre, not just the acting. Rep Stage seemed like the natural next step. It wasn’t so large that I felt I’d be overwhelmed.
You come in the first day. You have different ways of approaching it. You can change things dramatically. Or not. What did you decide to do?
To approach it carefully. For 13 years, Rep Stage had been paying a lot of attention to the art part. The college had been committing more in the way of resources. By a certain point, though, Howard Community College said that they’d like to get to the point where [Rep Stage]would be self-sufficient.
At the time I came in, the financial side of things wasn’t strong. So that first year, there wasn’t a lot of movement on that front. On the artistic side, I have to say, I received welcome emails, and some from subscribers, before I even said hello to them, asking, ‘Why? Who are you? Where do you come from? You’re just an actor! You’re unknown, and you seem to be a threat.’ That was a little weird. Over time, I realized that subscribers are very vocal about things that they like and don’t like. Now, of course, it’s much more comfortable.
Now, when Kwame Kwei-Armah, at Center Stage, came in, people were ready to welcome someone new. The first thing he said was, I want to know the city I reside in. He also promised to employ regional talent. People, in an artistic sense, were so ready for a breath of fresh air. But on the Rep Stage side, it was different. People were looking for someone who could put them on firm financial ground.
So you were a hired juggler?
Yeah. That’s part of getting to do theatre 24-7. There is never a day that is not full of many different tasks. I understand that the administrative side needs to be strong to support any visiting actor or director. So they come into rehearsal not wondering whether they’ll be getting paid. So it’s a healthy way of living. Just when you think one side of the brain, the administrative side, has stopped working, all of a sudden you come to the end of your fiscal year, and you’re prepping the budgets for the next season…so there’s a pattern of sorts that the artistic director goes through. So right now, I’m closing books, getting the budget straight for next season, auditioning people for next season. It’s an onslaught of admin and arts at the same time.
So on the artistic side, what are some of the plays that you produced that changed Rep Stage?
I was looking at the history of what they’ve done. At the time Kasi Campbell, who was directing manager at the time, was directing two of four shows a year. She tended to more cutting edge stuff. But based on my own training, I spent my time looking for more classic anchors to the season. Like Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Or two seasons ago, we did two plays by J.M. Barrie. These are plays that a lot of people were forced to read in high school, when we had no idea what the writers were talking about. I don’t think of these as dusty things, but as fresh things, which you can watch as if you’re reading them for the first time.
So the anchor is something you add.
Yeah, and the audience seemed to like that. We did a show called Swan [by Elizabeth Egloff] a few years ago, in 2002, when a man jumps around in white wings and is naked. They’re all up for that. But a subscription audience has an investment, and introducing some kind of anchor, for them, gives them something they can hold on to. So the cutting edge work is part of the season, but not the focus of the season.
So in 2007-2008 you did Will Eno’s Thom Pain….
[Groans]. Oh my god. Thom Pain. Originally I was going to play the lead. But the director, Lee, told me, well, I think someone should be administratively minding this production.
She was working for us at the time as an interim managing director. But when I saw it in New York. That actor – the name escapes me – wore his black Mad Men suit and rimmed glasses. He almost didn’t move a muscle. That was what it was going to be. But in this production, with Timothy Pabon, they took it into a whole other direction. After the first preview, an audience member came up to me and screamed at me. How dare you insult us! You made us look under our seats for a door prize! I was, like, ha! Yeah…thanks…
So, if it’s going to be cutting edge, how far out do you want to go? Some people appreciated it.
I liked it.
Yeah, you were the one.
In the night I was there, four or five different people got up and left. How much of that was scripted?
There are two plants in the audience. But….[laughs]
You didn’t need them!
More times than not. Many more people walked out. They saw those plants, and thought they were audience members, and decided, ‘well, I don’t know if I need this shit.’ One guy walked out and threw a program at the actor. But now, when I start to talk to people, it’s a show that sticks in peoples’ mind! ‘Oh yeah, I hated that!’ Yeah, that was quite a, um…’
Some people are saying that the subscription based model is a thing of the past. Is that true in Howard County?
Well, our subscriber base hasn’t grown greatly in the last few seasons. But we’re trying to bolster that, by switching from subscriber to membership. They’re not tied to any one specific night. They can switch around. And we’re adding perks to bring those numbers up. Once the economy tanked a few years ago, and people became a bit more selective, we realized we also had to focus on individual tickets. We have seen the revenue rise in the single ticket area. That’s where they say the money’s at. People are a lot more selective about what they do with their entertainment dollars these days.
2008 must have been a tough year.
Yeah. I went from four shows a year when I came in, then after a couple of years, to six shows a year. Then, we had to compose that letter…Dear subscriber….We know you subscribed, but we have to drop one of our shows. But that was a very moving time in a way. A lot of subscribers came around and told me how glad they were that we were still going to be around. And a lot of small theatres were shutting their doors. We were really fortunate. In the end, the experience with small theatre helped, because the real question was, how do you stretch that dollar?
Did those one-person plays help?
Yes they did. And some people say, quit doing those goddamned one-person plays! Other people ask, when’s Bruce Nelson coming to do a one-person show? But we did Las Meninas. The audience was, like, Whoo-hoo! Twelve one-person shows! But next year we don’t have any one-person shows, and none at the moment for the next few seasons….
So tell us about your next season: Temperamentals (John Marans), Mary Rose (J.M. Barrie), Home (Samm-Art Williams), Boeing Boeing (Marc Camoletti). What’s the dominant theme here?
A couple of seasons ago, I directed two JM Barrie one-act plays. I realized working in those readings, that I’d been raised on Cathy Rigby’s Peter Pan. I mean, I thought he was just a gymnast. But you read Barrie’s notebooks. He would jot things, almost everything he wrote was in response to what was going on at the time. These weren’t war plays, but they were written about family life during the World War I era. The audience’s response was overwhelming. Though they were wearing clothes from a century ago, all the basic touchstones were there. The passage of time didn’t seem to matter. Mary Rose is one I’ve wanted to do for awhile. It’s not one that’s performed very often. Which is strange, considering the popularity of JM Barrie.
So then, with that as a starting point, how would you characterize the upcoming season?
The college always says that they have a theme for the year. Last year was sensuality and identity. But this year,it was community. I thought, well, that’s kind of lame. So instead of community, I thought that for Rep Stage’s 20th season, one of the things that Rep Stage reminded me of was that if you want diversity, it’s so un-pc, but people are like, you’ve got to do a black play. So that to you is diversity, is it?
And I was thinking, well, there are all sorts of diversities. This coming year, I took a few things that I thought of as being diverse. Certainly the first play, The Temperamentals, a very early moment in the struggle for gay rights. It takes place in 1950’s LA. As my mentor in New York, who is now 87, talks about those days – where you had to go to meet someone, where you had to go to shed your straight persona to be who you were. This is what Temperamentals deals with: people who have to figure out how to legitimize themselves and be taken seriously and not hide.
I saw Temperamentals when it opened in New York, and I realized that when everyone started to stand up and cheer, I was surrounded by my brothers and sisters, lesbian and gay friends. I’m also into the history docudrama. Then someone asked me, ‘Are you sure it’s time for this?’ I’m, like, what? And they’re like, Do you think Columbia is ready for it? Yeah. And there’s going to be someone in the audience who’s wearing a suit and tie, who is married. Him too. This touches people who aren’t gay.
You mention Columbia. I always thought as a kid, I was growing up in DC, that Columbia was some strange suburban machine. You moved here from New York. How did that change you?
Well, it’s really weird. I was an undergraduate at UMBC. At the time I had a girlfriend, and her parents lived in Columbia on something called Starsfoot Lane. I don’t know what that means. But when I realized that I’d gotten the job here, in this community I used to joke about. But once I moved here, and I joke about it to audience members and funders, I would tell people that Columbia to me is sort of like the 1974 film The Stepford Wives. Everyone dresses a certain way to go to the grocery store. They seem to have personalities, at the same time they seem to have no personalities. But they didn’t think that was funny at all. But I still think it’s funny. I still can’t find my way around Columbia.
All the cul-de-sacs.
Yeah, I get the impression that they’re creating these dozens of little gated communities. And you never have to leave them. They have a town center and a grocery store. They make it really confusing. So that…do they really want people to be able to find them? Hell, the 7-Elevens are hidden. The gas stations are, you know, under trees. It’s very odd.
So the diversity theme means something here.
I think so. Because I know quite a few people who were founding fathers and mothers, as they call themselves. They’re 75 year old hippies. I think that’s really cool. In terms of ethnicity, there’s a cool variety, although now I think it’s starting to have some identity problems. Wegmans is creeping in an hour away, all the little town center stores are shutting down. It’s a big time of change for Columbia. But I often wonder, are there gay people in Columbia now? There doesn’t seem to be. I have the gaydar. I was like, I’m certainly going to meet someone, maybe a doctor…But I haven’t met anyone since I’ve been here. I know gay people. But I think Columbia is an intellectually savvy community, and I think they’re interested in history. So. I think this will appeal to them.
One other question. I see Bruce Nelson here. Vinnie Lancisi, of Everyman, has worked here. Sometimes I think you and Everyman Theatre are one big theatre. How would you distinguish them from one another?
There’s a couple of things. We operate as a nonprofit under the umbrella of Howard Community College’s educational foundation. So, we don’t have a board of directors. We have to go with the college’s board. Everyman has its own board of directors, which helps them a lot in terms of audience outreach.
The other thing is, Vinnie [artistic director of Everyman Theatre] chose to go the company route – he uses company actors. I toyed with that for awhile. I chose not to go that route. Even if it works well with Everyman, where they have the same company exchanging dialogue with the same people.
So, now, you can shake things up.
Adding something new to the mix can often invigorate things. We have a small core group, but there aren’t any guarantees. Our audience loves to see people when they return, but they love to see people they’ve never seen before too.
And Everyman is in a very different neighborhood.
Well, with Everyman having a Tapas restaurant next door, theatre is much more part of a larger evening downtown. With Rep Stage, you have to at least get in the car after dinner to drive here. There’s very little else.
Some people in Baltimore seem to resent the fact that you get reviews from the Post and they don’t.
That’s a funny thing. It’s really because of proximity. We have also worked them for years. At a seminar, you know Peter Marks was saying, ‘we go as far as Columbia.’ I found it sort of interesting that, you know, Nelson Pressley, who reviews for the Post, checked out something by Single Carrot Theatre. So I think if there’s a piece that’s really attractive to DC, they’ll come up here. The fact that we sit on the corridor between the two cities helps us. You know. Location, location….
So you must have a dedicated and discriminating audience.
Yeah. Certainly we have devotees. And being where we are, we get a lot of DC folks. The focus when I came here was, how to we keep pulling in that DC audience? There’s very little attention paid to the city of Baltimore.
Okay, great, so I guess you’re heading back to auditions.
Tomorrow morning , ten o’clock! We’re going to have five guys in one room for that one first piece. I promised them all Dunkin’ Donuts.