Michael Stebbins was making his name mainly as an actor when he took the reins at Rep Stage almost eight years ago as the new Artistic Director. But his go-get-’em spirit and his bright ideas in the seasons since have brought much to the company, which works in residence at Howard Community College in Columbia, MD.
Stebbins’s successor will be chosen by a committee headed by Rep Stage’s founding Artistic Director Valerie Lash. Although Stebbins won’t take part in selecting a candidate, he will remain closely involved with the company through his last few weeks in charge. DC Theatre Scene caught up with Stebbins by phone about his exit strategy, his excitement for the future of Rep Stage, and looking ahead to next steps of his own.
Now that the announcement is public, I imagine planning for the end of your time at Rep Stage has moved into a higher gear. What’s your state of mind right now?
Well, it’s true that when you put something out there like: ‘I’m leaving,’ then the period right after that gets very busy and there’s a little angst in making sure it all plays out. But I’m relieved, because I know I’m making the right decision. I want to explore my artistic side more as an actor and director.
But I think it’s the right thing for Rep Stage too. I’m happy to say that we have, maybe, seventy applications in right now for the position, which are coming in from all around the country. I’m very confident that someone out there is going to be just the right person for this.
When do you officially leave, and what is on your list of things to do before then?
We’ve decided that my departure will time out with the closing of the season, which means the end of the run of Boeing Boeing on May 5. Last night I went to a run-through of that show and it’s going really well. At the beginning of the season I was thinking I’d be in Boeing Boeing as an actor. Then, you know, things come up, and you realize you’re going to be really busy administratively. But I’ll be there watching. I’m really pleased that we’ll have something so celebratory, and rather silly, closing out this season.
My main work, other than making sure Boeing Boeing goes up, is to be dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on the season selection for next year, doing some casting, things like that.
Speaking of Rep Stage’s 2013-2014 season — it hasn’t been announced yet. Will that be happening soon?
All I need to do is plop one more show into the press release and we’re good to go. We’re waiting on an agency to get the final word on whether we’ll get to do this play. It’s one of the great American plays by Horton Foote. We should be getting an answer really soon.
Putting the season together is a great joy. One of the joys of working at a theatre is the task of choosing what you want to share with audiences. I just hope the new leader looks back on what has been done in previous seasons. Radical shifts in programming can be a good thing, but they can also be jarring.
What other advice would you give to your successor about running Rep Stage?
Rep Stage is in the unique situation of being in residence on a college campus. There are intricacies to that relationship that I think are really interesting. And some of them surprised me when I started. So I may be able to impart some information, and some advice, on how that works.
It’s all too easy for an artist to come through, see that the theatre is on a college campus, but then try to operate how they normally would anyway. But there are a lot of benefits, administratively, of being in a theatre on a college campus and working within a certain structure. That will be a new experience for someone who will likely be coming from a regional theatre that has a different kind of autonomy.
And although I knew that I wouldn’t be able to work with students all the time, I still went in embracing the idea that we were at an educational institution. The training of the young is important to me. And HCC students are required to come see a lot of our work. So hopefully the person coming in after me will have the patience to learn the ropes in that respect.
You’re originally from the Midwest. Tell us more about what it was like to come to Rep Stage and find your way into the role of Artistic Director.
Well, I know that I got the question: What does an actor know about running a theatre? I remembering going back and forth with some people about that. Of course, people just needed to give me a chance. Rep Stage at the time had been run by the same people for many years, and the audience was especially loyal and devoted. So I didn’t take these questions personally. It’s just that you’re brand-new to the equation and people don’t know who you are.
I was excited and optimistic. And I was surprised at times by all the opinions from everyone, which sometimes differed, on what Rep Stage should be doing. Audiences who grow to love something can be scared of change and want to be sure that their voices are heard. It was very educational to be on the receiving end of all that.
You’re certainly leaving with a lot of theatre experiences you couldn’t have gotten as an actor.
Yeah, it’s so exciting to show people that you can do more than memorize lines. Not that being an actor is easy. But I’m leaving Rep Stage with a bigger skill set for sure. Actor, director, administrator, teacher… That’s partly why I feel so comfortable making this departure. I don’t think of it as a scary step.
Can you tell us more about how the programming at Rep Stage changed over the years you’ve been there?
When I was arriving at the theatre, I had gotten the sense that they had already reached a place where they were very well-respected, and also that they had some edginess. I really appreciate the championing of up-and-coming playwrights. It’s really important to look at writers whom you think are going to have some stamp on the future. But, for me, it’s equally important to look at the roots of our American and international theatre traditions, like the plays of O’Neill and Williams and Shaw.
So I started to incorporate more of those into the seasons as well. Some people may think of those shows as more ‘tame,’ because they had to read The Glass Menagerie in junior high, but how a show like that resonates when you’re an adult is a totally different matter. These plays don’t need to be considered dusty. So I opened up the seasons to a bit more variety in that way. Some might say it’s safer, but I don’t think so. I see it as a matter of putting more things on the menu for people to choose from. And certainly the audiences over the years have responded to those changes in a positive way.
Looking back, do you have favorite Rep Stage productions that stick in your mind?
I’m proud of so many productions. Off the top of my head: it was great to work with Stephen Karam’s play Speech & Debate in 2011. That show was young and energetic, and it dealt with sexual identity and the difficulties of being a high school graduate. That was a very powerful and beautiful production, and funny.
But then we’re doing older work along with the newer work. Shows like Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession a few years earlier hold up well. Audiences and critics get both. And I should also mention Kasi Campbell and her many times directing with us. Her work is always stellar, and audiences love her. So it’s always exciting to be producing a piece that she’s directing.
You’re out of here, like you said, on May 5. Tell us about what you’re most looking forward to.
As an artist myself, I’m really looking forward to finding new artistic possibilities. There are plenty of times when I’ve been in the administrative groove and felt great doing it. But I’m an actor at heart. So I’ll be reconnecting with a lot of folks, not only in this area but in the Midwest. Like from my graduate school days in Milwaukee. I know people from that program who are running theatres now and doing a variety of artistic things. I think I’ve been good at keeping in contact with people. There are a lot of doors open and conversations to be had.
And in terms of what I’m looking forward to, on a personal note I’m looking forward to finding a partner. I love the theatre, but I don’t want to be married to the theatre. And I’m a good cook, so I want to cook for someone. So, on the real level, I’m looking forward to domesticity. I’ve had it before, but it’s been a while. Finding a partner would be a lovely thing.
My starving artist days are behind me. But I will be thinking creatively about what comes next. I’m looking forward to breathing room. Summer trips in the car. Connecting with family and friends. I’ll be all over the map.