Since the Ocoee Players, Cleveland’s last community theater group, disbanded in 2010, opportunities to act in plays have not been widely available outside the confines of local schools, colleges and churches. This past February, planning began in earnest for StageWorks, and the group is set to perform its first play this October.
“One of the reasons we started this was because of the talent in Cleveland,” said Michelle Castleberry, treasurer of StageWorks, adding that anyone who had wanted to participate in community theater before had to travel to cities like Chattanooga or Athens to perform. “There was no real venue for it.”
Some longtime Cleveland residents may have seen the performances of various community theater groups over the years, but what many do not know is how much work often goes into getting a theater group started. After all, stage acting does not often show you what is happening behind the scenes.
“It’s a lot more involved than what I’d thought it would be,” said Michael Myers, president of StageWorks.
The group has had the experience of getting to choose its first play to perform and members recently laughed their way through their first round of auditions Aug. 26 and 27. However, the day they finally welcomed people to audition came after several months of talking and planning as a group.
It all started near the end of last year when Myers and Castleberry, both actors who had been part of the Ocoee Players, began to talk about how they wished there was a still a venue for Cleveland actors to use their skills. They then began to discuss what they would need to do to make sure the town has community theater again.
Myers and Castleberry approached Anna Kalfayan, who became secretary of StageWorks, and Jamie Newberg, now the group’s vice president, with their idea to start a new group.
Newberg said she still remembers the day the other three approached her to discuss StageWorks business. She said she loves how theater can help build community within a given city, so she said the group should get the process started even though they the did not have all the financial resources they needed right away.
StageWorks was started by four people with four very different day jobs. The group’s board of directors consists of a retail manager, a librarian, a church worker and a hotel desk clerk. What they all have in common is a love for theater, and all have acted, directed or stage managed over the years.
“When we started focusing on everything, it was unbelievable how doors started opening,” Newberg said.
Newberg said she was able to make connections with people at local organizations like Family Promise where some of the staff helped her navigate the process StageWorks is going through to become a nonprofit organization.
Finances are the subject of many of StageWorks’ planning discussions, said Newberg. She said they still need the money to offset the costs of things like applying for nonprofit status, renting performance venues, buying the rights to perform plays publicly, and getting things like set building supplies and costumes. The group is in the process of planning its first fundraising event, a masquerade gala and silent auction to take place Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. at the Old Woolen Mill.
However, Myers said the thing the group needs most is for people to get involved as group members. He said he is encouraged by the number of people who say they are supportive of the group, but he hopes they will actually want to get involved with the stage productions.
Myers adds it’s hard to actually get people involved “who say they want this.”
When it comes down to it, the group’s goal is to assemble enough people and resources for the theater group to continue year after year. The group is still lacking things like its own practice and performance space, but has been able to cast its first show because of the people who have shown interest in it.
“One goal we have is to make this last a long time in Cleveland,” Newberg said. “We want this to be something that gets off the ground well.”
The group has a list of ideas for its future, and many include unifying people around an interest in the performing arts. Their hope is that people of all ages will eventually get involved.
“One of my passions is youth, and I want this to be a place for youth to use their talents,” Castleberry said.
While the group’s first play was geared toward adult actors, future productions will include roles for young people. They are even considering putting on a children’s play at some point, Newberg said.
Their first production will be “The Dining Room” by A.R. Gurney, a play featuring several different scenes in the same location — around the same dining room table — over different time periods. The play will present its six actors with the unique challenge of each playing multiple parts. Performances will be Oct. 19-21 at the auditorium at Cleveland State Community College. Times and ticketing details have not yet been announced.
StageWorks is planning a season of about four productions this year, the number depending on various factors such as the amount of interest the first play generates. In addition to audiences, members have said they need people to do everything from acting to ushering at performances.
“We need all kinds of members, not just actors and actresses,” Newberg said.
The groups asks anyone wanting to donate time or resources to find “StageWorks of Cleveland” on Facebook or email email@example.com.
With all the things needing doing to prepare for the new theater group’s first season, it has been easy for the board of directors to get overwhelmed by the planning process. However, the group hopes the hard work will pay off as actors and crew set the stage for their first production.
“The show must go on” is an old theater mantra that StageWorks’ founders have said applies to them today.
“If you really believe in it, you have to go for it,” Newberg said. “So we did.”