By Tracy Zollinger Turner
There is no doubt that the age of the internet has presented new challenges for the performing arts. The digital world, with all of its quick-jump editing and highly compressed, rapidly changing forms of storytelling, does little to nurture the aesthetics of, let alone the attention span required for, longer forms of narrative.
But thespians of Central Ohio seem to have plenty of energy and ideas to bring out new audiences and demonstrate the reasons the ancient art form of live theatre has always endured. Look through the event listings for any given weekend and you’ll find that the current theatrical landscape of Columbus is gifted with a concentration of small and mid-sized companies, older and newer, that have passionate and diverse missions.
The wide variety of aims you can find on local stages include commitments to generating and producing original works, creating intergenerational theatrical experiences or promoting theatre literacy in Central Ohio. Groups committed to script readings in front of an audience, doing improv or producing work by notable playwrights that Columbus hasn’t yet seen continue to emerge. Whatever the passion at the core of each ensemble, the result is an increasingly vibrant theatre community.
In addition to the energy and creative power of local companies themselves, the social-media driven consortium the Columbus Theatre Roundtable exists “to further theatre as an art form in Central Ohio.” Similarly, the JEBBY Awards, founded and driven by highly motivated superfan Jeb Bigelow, which gives local theatre companies movie-star attention began as something Facebook-driven and has evolved into a physical event.
“It’s a pretty great environment at the moment,” says Matt Slaybaugh, artistic director of Available Light Theatre. “It’s a large and thriving theatre scene. It’s interconnected, people know each other well and it’s a supportive environment… Everyone is trying to find their niche, picking one or two things to specialize in.”
Trying out new and innovative ideas on the stage that offer something different from the larger, resident professional CATCO or commercial entities like Shadowbox Cabaret isn’t new for the smaller and mid-sized theaters of Columbus. Neither is sharing ideas, talent, set pieces and other resources.
MadLab was founded in 1995 as a theatre ensemble that did a small number of large-scale, high concept shows each year, but it also became a venue for music, other kinds of live performances and other local theatre troupes. While its earlier life as a “laboratory” focused more heavily on creating and workshopping its own individual shows, the space itself is now something of a laboratory for small local theatre, with many new ensembles taking their first shot on MadLab’s downtown stage (now located on Third after 11 years on Grant Avenue).
“There’s a pretty tight-knit community of small and mid-level groups that tend to work well together in Columbus,” says Andy Batt, vice president of the board of MadLab. “One of the biggest ways we collaborate is through the use of our space. We can’t let people use the space for free, so we work our rental rates off of a ticket split system, which often comes nowhere near paying our bills for the month. But we want to help smaller theatre companies get their legs under them.”
“We take a small down payment, and set a maximum payment which is essentially lower than anywhere else. Unlike other venues, we don’t charge for the technical staff. We do that free of charge… we want their experience to go as well as it can.”
With its accessible rentals to nascent ensembles, the seven or eight full-length productions MadLab presents of its own, ongoing series like the late night 3 in 30 and performances by its improv troupe Full Frontal Nudity, the Third Street space is rarely used for anything but theatre nowadays, and it has been able to retain its commitment to producing and hosting original work. Columbus’ longest-running short theatre festival – MadLab’s 13th annual Theatre Roulette runs through most of May, an event that is now so well established that its reputation extends well beyond the city limits. According to Batt, Theatre Roulette is in many ways better recognized by the international theatre community than it is by local patrons. They receive hundreds of script submissions from around the world.
“The space has become a nucleus for people to gravitate toward,” says Batt. “We’re a volunteer organization, so no one gets paid, but we’ve really created a sense of home. We’ve had so many people who thought they could never write a script, but because they have a chance to do something, they take a shot. That really crafts a sense of loyalty.”
“I came to MadLab with barely any theatre experience whatsoever. Being given opportunities, I was coached, I was trained. A lot of theatres are not interested in lack of experience. We tend to see something more in people and try to pull it out of them.”
In spite of the challenges or presenting solely original work, along with the ups in downs of maintaining a volunteer company and a physical space, MadLab has endured.
“I often say that MadLab has survived out of sheer stubbornness,” says Batt. “You need talent, you need resources, you need to grow an audience, but you also just need stubbornness.”
Like MadLab’s commitment to fresh work, the heart of the ideals of several of the city’s smaller and younger theatre companies are their own varied concepts of community service.
Available Light Theatre (AVLT), for example, describes itself and its mission as “a fellowship of artists dedicated to building a more conscious and compassionate world by creating joyful and profound theatre and serving our community. We engage our community by staging provocative works that examine our culture, expose its shortcomings, and reveal the beauty of humankind.”
Established by members of the BlueForms Theatre Group in 2006, AVLT has produced a range of works, from classic plays to world premieres by current playwrights, its own adaptations of novels and graphic novels, and most recently, free readings of the timely and controversial The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
“Our audience has grown,” says Slaybaugh. “We’ve expanded our resources, so we’ve been able to do a lot of experimenting with new toys, new technology and look at ways to integrate the technology with theatrical storytelling.”
But one of the central reasons that AVLT has been able to cultivate and grow its audience, says Slaybaugh, is its “Pay What You Want” ticket policy, which is exactly what it sounds like. While there is an advance ticket price, audience members can also pay “what they want” at the door on the night of the show. And if, by some chance, they realize that they undervalued any particular experience, or are just particularly inspired, they can add extra money, tip-jar style, at the end of the performance.
“We really find that our audience is diverse in all kind of ways,” says Slaybaugh. “Before everything else, we make sure that the theatre is affordable to everybody.
The use of social media to generate excitement about shows, regular free readings and a willingness to take on less conventional subject matter (for purposes of the stage, anyway) – like science fiction and political thrillers – have all contributed to AVLT’s success. The digital age needn’t be the enemy of live theater.
“The Kickstarter phenomenon has been really great for small arts organizations in general and for Columbus theatre companies,” says Slaybaugh. “It’s been a way for emerging ensembles to find an audience that supports them; to get things off the ground. It really greases the wheels.”
Like MadLab, a fair amount of the attention AVLT has received has come from beyond Columbus. Slaybaugh has continually been able to receive permission to adapt novels based on his past work. AVLT’s current production Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, is an adaptation of the science fiction novel by digital activist and co-editor of boingboing.net, Cory Doctorow.
Even though AVLT could be construed as MadLab’s direct competition, Batt says would rather see more companies like it emerge.
“They (AVLT) are doing fantastic work and Columbus needs more theatres like them that are built out of a core of really committed, creative and talented people,” he says.
For the newly established Short North Stage, community service is a multifaceted proposition. When neighborhood organizers, performers and producers came together in the spring of 2011, their primary goal was to bring live performance – particularly musicals - back to the Short North in honor of the city’s 200 year anniversary. When the historic Garden Theater became available, the renovation of the space — originally opened as a space for silent movie and vaudevillian performance — became another of its goals.
A relative newcomer to Central Ohio, Peter Yockel, board president of the new Short North Stage, says that his “impression is that this is a very strong theatre community, despite what people say about this being a sports-oriented town. I think there is maximum growth potential here.”
“I have been overwhelmed by Columbus’ commitment to promoting and restoring old, jewel-box theaters. That in itself is a testament to how seriously people of central Ohio take live performance as a cultural center of gravity, as an important community place where people are able to come together.”
Once initial reviews came out for Short North Stage’s inaugural production of Sondheim’s Follies last October, all subsequent shows sold out. A smaller production, the theater's first non-musical play and cabaret nights have also sold out or sold well.
“We seem to be filling a niche that a lot of people had talked about for years,” says Yockel. “There hadn’t been much movement on it until our group formulated. While there is a great deal more work to be done before the Garden Theater is fully restored, right now there is an organic rawness about the space that appeals to people,” says Yockel. “They have patience for that. Although having it cleaned up is also very exciting to them.”
In the stretch of time before the Garden can be restored to its former glory, planned upcoming productions are set in sparser settings, like the pre-war Germany of Cabaret.
“By the time we want to do something more glamorous, it’ll be ready,” says Yockel.
The Clintonville/Beechwold-based Columbus Civic Theatre was founded in 2008, for the sole purpose of giving local audiences “a general overview of the world theatre canon, in hopes of making more people theatre literate.” says Richard Albert, the Civic Theatre's artistic director and founder.
“There’s a great deal of theatre illiteracy in this country and it contributes to overall illiteracy,” says Albert, who felt that artists like Edward Albee, "possibly the greatest living American playwright,” may be visible “as a crossword puzzle answer” but his work, in all of its living glory, wasn’t making it to local stages. Neither were plays like Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the most produced play in the world after Shakespeare’s works.
CCT’s current production – the 24th since its founding in 2008 — Spanish Federico Garcia Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba, continues its mission of producing great plays of the western world.
“It’s considered his masterpiece,” says Albert. “But a lot of people locally haven’t ever seen it on the stage.”
Strong performing arts programs at Ohio State, Otterbein and Capital University can be stabilizing forces in helping Columbus maintain and grow its theatre patronage, says Albert, who mentions that OSU’s set and lighting design professors – Theater department chair Dan Gray and associate professor Mary Tarantino - each do work that “could rival anyone in New York or London."
The innovative performances brought in by the Wexner Center also serves to infuse a broader worldview of theater into our community, not to mention new ideas and creative energy.
“It shows great promise,” says Albert of the local theatre scene, which he feels, one day can rival cities with longer histories of professional theatre. “One day it will happen, Columbus will be just as big if not bigger than Chicago or Seattle."
GCAC supports local theatre by offering Project Support and Operating Support funding. Operating Support is unrestricted support to nonprofit arts organizations that meet rigorous artistic, administrative and financial benchmarks. Project Support is special, short-term funding for professional and cultural activities. The following theatre companies mentioned in this article receive Project Support: Available Light Theatre, Columbus Civic Theatre, New Players Theater Festival, Senior Reperatory of Ohio/SRO Theatre Company and Short North Stage. The following receive Operating Support: Actors' Theatre of Columbus, CATCO, Columbus Children's Theatre, MadLab and the Wexner Center. To learn more about these and other types of funding opportunities, go to www.gcac.org or contact Ruby Harper, GCAC's Grants & Services director.
Here is a sampling of other small and mid-sized local theaters:
Actors’ Theatre of Columbus
Mission: Columbus’ own Shakespeare in the Park, Actors’ Theatre is set to embark on its 31st season performing works by the Bard in the outdoor amphitheater of German Village’s Schiller Park.
Columbus Children’s Theatre
Mission: To inspire and enrich the lives of children and their families through live theatre and theatre education.
Evolution Theatre Company
Mission: Expose Columbus area audiences to new works and re-visioned classics.
Mission: The longest running community theatre in the Midwest, does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion or gender when casting, and aims to present productions that are of interest to the Jewish and general communities.
New Players Theater Festival
Mission: Focus on classic and modern works.
Raconteur Theatre Company
Mission: To promote storytelling and produce quality theatre that appeals to a range of people.
Senior Repertory of Ohio/SRO Theatre Company
Mission: To create and enhance positive images of aging which enrich the lives of others and contribute to the richness of the community. To celebrate our values, ingenuity, creativity and productivity and dispel myths about aging and to sculpt intergenerational friendship, understanding and compassion in families, communities and cultures.
TAPA (The Academy of Performing Arts)
Mission: To perform shows for adults and for family audiences, and offers theater courses for adults and young people.