Wednesday, May 10, 2000

The Arts Life: A theater is born

Arts community puts money and sweat into professional Actor's Repertory in Middletown

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        This is the fifth in a monthly series focusing on small arts groups and the people devoted to them

        MIDDLETOWN — The floodlights will brighten the sky, the silk banners will unfurl, the doors will open wide and the audience will enter the theater via a red carpeted staircase when Actor's Repertory Theatre debuts in October.

[photo] The former Middletown Masonic Hall
(Tony Jones photo)
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        The opening will be followed by an ambitious season of 12 productions in two spaces making Actor's Rep the fifth professional theater to open in Greater Cincinnati in the last three years. It's the first one not based in downtown Cincinnati.

        That's the dream.

        At the moment there's no marquee, and no red carpet, just a lot of backbreaking work. The locals and college students dreaming the Actor's Rep dream have discovered that sometimes before you can make art, you have to make the place to make the art.

        One Saturday in April, a volunteer work crew — on this day, mostly from Wright State University, is scrubbing away at the former Masonic Hall on Middletown's Main Street. Workers can be found there on most Saturdays.

        Jeff Fortney is investing serious sweat equity into this project. On this day he's cleaning up the front staircase in preparation for the red carpet.

        “Basically, I do anything that needs to be done,” says the Wright State senior, majoring in technical theater.

        “It's a good opportunity. Not a lot of theater majors have a friend opening a professional theater. I was sort of looking for a place” to settle after graduation. Now, at least for the time being, he'll stay in Southwest Ohio.

        At the top of the stairs, Beth Grunenwald of Youngstown and Carrie Thurston of Centerville are polishing years of dirt and grime from solid brass window sills in what will be the theater company's administrative offices.

        Beth is here because she's a friend of Carrie's. Carrie is here because when the place becomes a theater, she plans to be production stage manager.

        “I'm very excited to be a part of this,” she says. “This is a train that's left the station and it's not stopping. That's the coolest thing to me.”

        At the heart of all the activity is Michael Coyan, the repertory's Pied Piper and Wright State instructor who has persuaded a lot of students to buy into his dream and make it their own.

What: Actor's Repertory Theatre.
Mainstage season: Into the Woods, Oct. 19-29; Private Lives, Nov. 16-26; Christmas with the Boys: 1944, Dec. 14-17; Twelfth Night, Feb. 22-March 4; Long Day's Journey into Night, March 28-April 8; The Real Inspector Hound, May 3-13.
Second Stage (subject to change): Sam Shepard's double bill Cowboy Mouth/Savage Love, Nov. 2-12; regional professional premiere of Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World, Jan. 11-21; Shakespeare's R&J, Feb. 1-11 (rights pending); New Playwrights Festival, March 15-18; Contemporary Dance Festival, April 26-28; TBA, May 17-27.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Where: Actor's Repertory Theatre, 2 N. Main St., Middletown.
Tickets: Mainstage: $18, students and seniors $15. Season subscriptions now on sale: $90, students and seniors $75. Second stage: $12, students and seniors $10. (513) 727-9361.
        When he's not teaching or overseeing the birth of Actor's Repertory, Mr. Coyan is executive director of Arts in Middletown. In his spare time, he talks up the new project up “at retirement homes, schools, chambers of commerce, downtown business groups.”

        He shows off the ugly room that will be the theater and sees it not as what it is but what it will become. It will be re-gilded, molding will be restored, so will a stained-glass window. It will be Prussian blue and burgundy. There will be new carpeting and intimate seating for 150 to 175.

        “I kept bringing people in, saying, "Tell me I'm totally insane.' ” No one did.

        Supportive calls and visits poured in, including one from old pal (and longtime Cincinnati Ballet conductor) Carmon DeLeone, offering his services as music director of Actor's Rep opener Into the Woods. He and Mr. Coyan are huddling over June audition dates.

        Six members of what will be a core acting company already have been hired, among them Ty Yadzinski, a musical theater powerhouse who was an anchor at Downtown Theatre Classics for the past two seasons. He starred in It's a Wonderful Life and 1776, among other shows.

        Mr. Coyan is hoping to find actors to complete the company at Cincinnati's unified auditions in June.

[photo] Michael Coyan, executive director of Arts in Middletown.
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        Mr. Coyan and the theater's general manager, Deborah Walker, estimate a $180,000 budget for the first year. That includes renovation costs for the building, contributed by Middletown civic booster Perry Thatcher, who's also covering installation of heating and air conditioning.

        Between volunteer time, donations and in-kind services, they say $100,000 is a “conservative” estimate of what's already gone toward the project. They expect electrical and plaster work to be the primary expenses.

        “A lot has been donated,” says Mrs. Walker. Local folks have come forward with offerings. Sconces from the 1920s will be installed in the theater.

        Chandeliers already have been secured for the top and bottom of the staircase. There's a commitment for carpeting and mirrors that will be installed in an upstairs studio for movement classes.

        “I've been so surprised” by the number of people who've come forward, Mr. Coyan says, and that includes a Springoro couple who walked in one day and offered their services as a seamstress and janitor.

        “Two people have expressed an interest in donating seats,” says Mr. Coyan, 46, who so far has no plans to abandon his day job.

        There's a buy-a-seat campaign under way with the subscription campaign. For anyone who can't make a large contribution, seats cost $36.

        Nearby, Jared Berry is wielding a paint roller on a pole and reaching for the highest section of wall. The wall color, he laughs “will be whatever's on sale.”

        Mr. Berry started on the project in mid-February. He will be workshop director for Actor's Rep, “making arrangements with guest artists and teaching master classes.”

        Eli Keel, artistically bedecked in goatee and bandana, gleefully shows off a third floor space with accordion partitions and a jagged hole in one wall big enough to be a dinosaur bite.

        This is going to be the studio theater, which will seat 50 to 75 and which Mr. Keel, another Wright State senior, originally from Louisville, will produce. “It's going to be beautiful,” he sighs.

        Mr. Keel “jumped on board” when he saw the space. “I got to know Michael last year. It's amazing to sit with people and talk about theater.”

        Mr. Keel is thinking about original one-acts for the space and an evening of original choreography — an underwriter has already signed on. He started working on a film festival in early April.

        “Film shorts and small independent films often aren't seen,” agrees Mr. Coyan. “Wouldn't it be wonderful to bring Cincinnati, Dayton and Yellow Springs filmmakers together at this mid-point?

        “We don't want things someone can jump into a car and drive two hours and see somewhere else.”

        Mr. Coyan nods. “We want this to be a space where we can dream, play, look at possibilities.”


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