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BWW Blog: Sharing Their Stories- An Interview With Stephanie Ybarra

“Nothing is linear. There is no one path. We all get to co-construct and make this stuff up as we go” – Stephanie Ybarra

BWW Blog: Sharing Their Stories- An Interview With Stephanie Ybarra

Hello Broadway lovers, creators, and theatre students around the world! Welcome back to the blog, and to a new segment I'm starting: Sharing Their Stories. For the next few weeks, I've decided to focus my writing on sharing the journeys and artistic discoveries of notable artists in my DC area, and around the world. Every person I've had the honor to speak with carries unique experiences and perspectives about the constantly changing world of the arts, with their own advice to share. I hope their stories serve as inspiration, demystification of the road to artistic success, and as fuel to keep creating. Below kicks off this series with our first interview featuring Stephanie Ybarra, Center Stage's Artistic Director. Read on for a glimpse into her artistic progression, stories, and words she wants to leave with us.

Approaching the theatre business as young artists often feels like holding a blank map. You can see the starting and ending points, and you instinctively know paths to AVOID, but exactly how you get from point A to B remains unclear. I approached my interview with Stephanie ready to learn a proven path, a foolproof way to navigate my personal map to success. And I walked away with exact opposite realization. There is NO proven path.

Stephanie taught me that progression does not move in a straight line, and that everyone's story looks different. Instead, you must listen to your instincts when you make choices, find spaces to collaborate with other artists, and speak up to inspire change in this field. Stephanie sums it up with a career platitude from her early days. "I was just putting one foot in front of the other, thinking to myself...what do I want to learn next? I wasn't super concerned with my career's linear progression, instead trying to find the balance between paying my bills, doing what I love, and making sure I stay true to my different facets."

Stephanie Ybarra began her career in Texas, working on both sides of the proverbial table. She pursued a BFA in theatre at college, and initially worked in her regional market. Stephanie didn't pursue the typical day job routes, instead working for children's theatres in the fundraising/marketing departments. At night, she acted professionally. Sounds exhausting? She thought so too. While she credited the discovery of her work-life boundaries to starting out in a smaller market, "what became an finding time to rest. I didn't do that very well."

Post-regionally, Stephanie actually took a three-year hiatus from theatre. She worked in Boston with Citizen Schools, a national after school nonprofit. "It was a place for me to see if I could live without my actor self, to explore my love of education and teaching. And there was a moment, I don't know how we each know these things in different ways...but there was a moment when I was like...okay. It's time. It's time to go back to theatre. It's time to go home." And go home she did.

Stephanie travelled to Connecticut, where she pursued her MFA at Yale. When asked whether she applied to any other grad schools, the answer was a resounding no. From an early age, Stephanie knew that Yale was the place for her. "There was just something about Yale...there were two major factors. The first was all the artistic disciplines under one roof... this ridiculous community of people who practice their craft under intense circumstances. The relationships that come from that are incredibly strong. It was also a way for me to combat the sexism and racism that were coming my way. I felt that a degree from Yale, no matter what it is, was irrefutable. No one could take it away from me."

Post-Yale, she moved into a New York apartment with her closest friend and reverse-commuted out to her interim general management job at a theatre company in Redbank, New Jersey. During that time, two paths emerged. The first was a full-time management role in her current company in Redbank. The second was an associate producer role, offered to her by two people starting a theatre company. Stephanie recalls, "I had before me two paths. The first [management position] was a path to lots of financial stability, a six-figure salary, and doing...not what I wanted. And the other path [associate producer] was no career guarantee, with people I had no idea about, doing what I wanted to do."

The choice was an easy one for Stephanie. While the position in Redbank offered stability and safety, her instincts told her to take a risk and follow the job she really wanted. Stephanie left Redbank to join the couple as an associate producer for what is now known as The Playwright's Realm. While there was a risk in leaving Redbank behind, accepting the associate producer role "felt like I was finally being me." From there, she continued onto The Public Theatre, where started work as an artistic associate. This meant that, for the first time, Stephanie didn't have to work with the business side of theatre (like fundraising or marketing). Instead, she could focus solely on managing special artistic projects. She remained there for seven years, and when the opportunity to apply for Baltimore Center Stage came up, "it felt a little too good to be true." Stephanie knew that it was time for a change, and instinctively left for Baltimore. And now, here she is.

Above is a highly condensed version of a true success story in the theatre, filled with following instincts, trusting in your own path, and creating a supportive network along the way. But there's also threads of discrimination woven throughout Stephanie's journey, the factor pushing her to use her artistic voice to speak up for change. The theatre industry, for all its magic, also houses years of racism, classism, and widespread bigotry. As a female Latinx artist, Stephanie was victim of it all throughout her career, specifically citing when her commercial agent dumped her after figuring out that she didn't speak Spanish. People she met in her theatre journeys as well were quick to stereotype, frequently assigning her roles solely based on her ethnicity. Stephanie carried that damage with her in her fight to speak out, educate, and help change theatre for the better.

Stephanie taught me that following a theatre journey is not just about you and your personal path, but how you can pave the way for the next generation of artists. While Stephanie worked at The Public Theatre, she started the Artist's Anti-Racism Coalition alongside several friends from Yale. "We all got formal anti-racism training and started studying more sophisticated ways of community organizing. Those things aligned with our own understanding of our positions as gatekeepers, and the ways we could speak out in relative safety. We felt we could advocate and speak truth for the freelance artists that couldn't."

Today, the coalition's work carries on...even as Stephanie's focus has shifted to a more hyper-local lens (specifically the work happening at Center Stage). But her friends still in New York continue to expand upon the coalition, working to make general policy and culture shifts in the theatre world, so that real change can grow. Because of Stephanie and others like her, the theatre begins to become a more inclusive space.

Stephanie has worn many hats over her artistic progression: actor, fundraiser, director, administrator manager, producer, and activist. And her theatrical journey was not easy nor straightforward. Instead it spanned the course of several years, schools, states, theatres, and jobs. She did not place artificial deadlines on herself, nor attempt to replicate anyone else's path to success. Instead, she prioritized listening to her gut, that inner voice telling her which way to turn. She kept her personal beliefs close, tested the waters of different professions, and experimented with finding her own artistic/professional balance.

Stephanie defines what it truly means to be an artist. She uses her unique voice and path to make the arts, and the world, a better and more collaborative place. And what she hopes to leave with us creators? "You are more powerful than you understand. You have more agency than anyone want you to believe. Your collective voice is the most powerful thing that anyone has. Nothing is linear, there is no one path. There is not definitive path. We all get to co construct and make this stuff up as we go." So, as we all embark on our journeys, we not only work to free ourselves from the artificial timelines of success, but we go stronger together. Like Stephanie, we can use our art and each other to change the future of theatre.

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