Aug. '02 Cover Story

Photo of Frank Barnhart by Kaizaad Kotwal

Frankly Speaking:
The North and Short of Transforming
a Theatrical Wasteland into an Oasis

By Kaizaad Kotwal

Frank Barnhart has been an integral part of the Short North arts community nearly from the start, when gentrification became the salvation of a neighborhood overrun by crack houses, prostitutes and decaying architecture. Barnhart started the Reality Theatre Company in the Short North in the fall of 1984. Though initially conceived in 1983, Barnhart says the company "found fruition only a year later when things started to come together."

Born on New Year's Day in 1961, Barnhart grew up in Ironton, a factory town in Ohio's southeast corner, at the nexus where the Buckeye State snuggles cozily with West Virginia and Kentucky. Living in Ironton was "very comfortable, very nice and extremely relaxed," he says. "But because I didn't really know anything else, in retrospect, I can say that this existence was also somewhat sheltered."

That sheltered life began to change radically when Barnhart decided to leave Ironton and move to Athens to pursue his undergraduate studies in theatre at Ohio University. Even though Barnhart had no previous exposure to theater in his small-town life, he said he instinctively knew, "from the third grade on," that he wanted to be an actor. "Maybe it was from watching movies and television, but I somehow always had that drive to be in the theater."

The transition from high school to college was easy because Barnhart was the ideal student &endash; intelligent, hard-working and heavily involved in non-academic activities. "The adjustment to a larger environment, however, took about a year. It was the first time I was in a whole new world of different people, and for the first time I was on my own, having to make my own decisions and having to live with the consequences."

After getting his bachelor's degree, he auditioned for the prestigious Goodman School of Acting in Chicago and was accepted. While Barnhart was thrilled, he was forced to take a year off to work and save money to attend the school. In the early 1980s, when factories across America were closing down, Barnhart's father lost his job in Ironton and relocated to Columbus to make his livelihood. Barnhart made the move as well in 1983, working and trying to stash away cash for his eventual move to the Windy City. Although that dream never came to fruition, the Goodman School's loss became Columbus' gain

Columbus was a theatrical wasteland in the early 1980s. Although community theatre was in abundance, barely a handful of semi-professional (and no full-time professional) companies existed. During this time, Players Theatre, Columbus Ensemble Theatre and CATCO were evolving into semi-professional companies that represented traditional and contem-porary theatre. But Barnhart sowed the seeds for the start of a more experimental yet stable theatrical milieu in town. Partly by design and partly by accident, the Short North became the birthplace of Barnhart's theatrical energy.

"We were 23 years old," he says, "and we wanted to change the world. So we started Reality Theatre to focus on doing plays that were socially relevant." The "we" he refers to are the seven founding members of Reality Theatre: Barnhart, Dee Shepard, Michael Dutcher, Jenny Russi, Carla Banks, Craig Hardesty, and Gracie James.

The fledgling company had no money and, in order to avoid paying hefty royalties were forced to perform only original scripts. Early works included This Is Not A Test, which dealt with the culture of nuclear proliferation in the 1980s, and Neon, a performance about street-people in America.

"It was Neon that really got Reality Theatre noticed," Barnhart says. "This was a collection of poems, short stories and songs centered around the issues of people who live on the streets - from bag ladies and alcoholics to prostitutes and drug dealers." Through social and cultural synergy (or serendipity) - with the newly gentrified Short North bringing real stories of displaced residents to the forefront, the play caught the attention of Columbus.

Neon became a huge hit. Reality Theatre received coverage from The Columbus Dispatch for the first time, and the Greater Columbus Arts Council came to see the show and eventually became a granting agency for this neophyte company. Initially the company performed its works at a variety of locations including the Columbus Children's Theatre's former Front Street space (now a dance club) and the YMCA. In 1985, the theater moved into the "Mona Lisa" building. Says Barnhart, "We were the first theatrical company to get our very own space." CATCO, which also got its start in the Short North, found its own space two years after Reality did.

The Mona Lisa building, in fact, has become synonymous with the Short North and is used as the main logo on signs and banners related to the district. When Reality was looking for a home in 1984, local developer Sandy Wood told Barnhart, "I have something I want you to see." Barnhart was shown the warehouse upon whose side the horizontal Mona Lisa now sits. "Wood wanted much more than we could afford as rent," he says, "so he asked me what we were able to pay." In agreeing to the lower rent, Wood gave Reality a much-needed leg-up in getting started.

Over the years, Reality developed a reputation for being a gay and lesbian theater company, but the group has always produced works with greater diversity than that. "We were focused on socially relevant issues," Barnhart explains. "It just so happened that gay and lesbian issues were some of the socially relevant matters we wanted to tackle." The company's seasons have always included non-GLBT works alongside plays for, by and about gays and lesbians.

Barnhart served Reality Theatre for 14 years before resigning in 1999. "I started Act Out Productions in 1994 and for five years I was doing double duty," he says. He realized that he couldn't continue doing justice to both, and since Act Out was where he made his livelihood, Barnhart stepped down from Reality Theatre.

Act Out also grew out of the Short North. The company, lacking a permanent home, uses a variety of venues in the neighborhood, such as Reality Theatre's space and AXIS Nightclub, among others.

Barnhart's second company focuses solely on GLBT works &endash; "plays that (are) more marketable and ones that Reality Theatre wasn't going to produce."

What also distinguishes Act Out from Reality is its emphasis on "plays with smaller casts and by lesser known playwrights." Act Out enabled Barnhart to go national, as he took works developed in Columbus to cities across the country, including New York and Los Angeles. In fact, later this year, Barnhart is taking Member of the Tribe, which premiered in Columbus in 1999, to New York for an extended Off-Broadway run.

As though being the founder of two theater companies wasn't enough, Barnhart also started Columbus' second Actors' Equity company (CATCO being the only other one) with Stage 5 Rep. Stage 5 was founded three years ago by five Equity actors&emdash;Barnhart, Jess Hanks, Elaine Miracle, Jennifer Milligan and Ross Shirley. Born out of the of the Short North's artistic environs, Stage 5 Rep debuted with the extremely well-received Rocky Horror Picture Show at AXIS. According to Barnhart, Stage 5 Rep's focus is on classic American pieces. In addition to Rocky Horror, the group has staged The Good Doctor by Neil Simon, Our Town by Thornton Wilder, and most recently The Cradle Will Rock.

Bringing nearly 20 years of theatre to the Short North, it would be no exaggeration to say that Barnhart has contributed greatly to the neighborhood's reputation as a hotbed for the arts.

Among his most significant achieve-ments, Barnhart cites his 1997 production of One Edward 2, which eventually had a run off-Broadway in New York and resulted in Barnhart winning the Central Ohio Critics Award.

In 1998 Barnhart was awarded the Stonewall Community Service Award for providing positive and celebratory images of GLBT folk through his acting, directing and producing of relevant and entertaining works.

As an actor he believes that the high points of his career include his performance in One Edward 2 and the popular and critically acclaimed The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me. As a director, Barnhart is most proud of his production of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christy. "For me," he says, "it was the most fulfilling theatrical venture I have ever been involved with. I had a wonderful cast, we had sold-out audiences for all our shows, and the whole experience was fabulously rewarding." With Corpus Christy, which examines, in part, violence towards homosexuals, he and Act Out Productions raised $1,500 for BRAVO (Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization).

The cast of Corpus Christi, directed by Frank Barnhart. The play sold out every performance and raised $1500 for Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization in 2001.

Perhaps Barnhart's most compelling achievement, however, is the fact that all three companies that he helped found- Reality, Act Out, and Stage 5 Rep - are still actively contributing to Columbus's theatrical milieu. Equally important is that these arts organizations have managed to create an ever-growing synergy with other businesses in the Short North.

Noting Barnhart's connection to the Short North, I am compelled to ask why he has gravitated so much and so often to this neighborhood. "Well, at a fundamental level," he explains, "it is the arts district of Columbus and people expect to see the arts here, including the performing arts." He adds, "This community is very gay friendly and heavily populated by GLBT folk."

Barnhart's opinions are borne out by Advocate magazine's recent ranking of Columbus as one of the "Ten Best Places to Live" for gays and lesbians in the United States. Franklin County, in the 2000 census, listed 3,241 homosexual households (and that only included people brave and open enough to self-identify as such) - more than any other Ohio county.

According to Barnhart, "Not only are there many, many gay- and lesbian-owned businesses in the Short North, but even among the ones not owned by us, there is an awareness and acknowledgement of the

importance of the GLBT consumer base to the survival of these establishments." The GLBT community has not only contributed greatly and indelibly to both the regeneration and sustainability of the Short North district, but they have also managed to encourage the straight community to co-exist alongside them in unique, profitable, and harmonious ways.

However, with all its big plans for further development and re-gentrification, the Short North's future must be scrutinized, particularly with reference to the sustainability of the performing arts. According to Barnhart, "The nature of how the Short North is changing is detrimental to the performing arts." Most of this has to do with the paucity of parking in the district. A performance company requires parking for a hundred or more vehicles in one place at the same time; because this is virtually impossible in the area, performance spaces are being squeezed out.

"In all the recent plans I have seen for the area," Barnhart says, "the parking situation is not getting any better." His fear is that the performing arts will eventually move out of the area altogether because it is less and less suitable for viable performance houses.

The Short North is a finite area, even though the boundaries have been edging as far north and south down High Street as possible, eventually running into The Ohio State University campus and downtown respectively. The finite space simply means that as the area becomes more and more commercial and mainstream, edgier and more avant-garde artists and work will be priced out of the district. The fringe artists are already being squeezed out, by what can only be identified as the boutique-ification of the district.

Barnhart concurs agrees. "However, at the same time, as the area becomes more and more residential, I hope that the neighborhood can sustain it all - the arts, residential facilities and businesses." Barnhart likens the potential for this area to a new Midwestern Greenwich Village where chi-chi boutiques co-exist with avant-garde performance spaces alongside small businesses and an eclectic assort-ment of residents. "As the Short North grows with residences," he offers, "the neighborhood is going to have to meet more and more of the inhabitants' daily needs by developing local hardware stores, small groceries and drug stores, in addition to all the specialized businesses and arts spaces that already exist."

Barnhart hopes to continue working in the Short North at places like 2Co's Cabaret, AXIS, the Mona Lisa building (now known as the Short North Playhouse), and other galleries and found spaces. In fact, Barnhart's most recent undertaking is to bring the 2002 National Gay and Lesbian Theatre (NGLT) Festival to Columbus.

The festival has been scheduled sporadically in the past, sort of like a World's Fair, according to Barnhart. "Until a city decides it wants to host the World's Fair, there is no regularity with which they occur," he says. Barnhart went to the last NGLT festival in Los Angeles in 1996. "It was very poorly organized and caused a lot of frustration for the performers, including issues of very low attendance," he says. Barnhart decided to host the next festival, and "having been privy to everything that went wrong at the last one," he knew he "was going to get it right."

Performance companies from New York, Austin, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Montreal, Toronto, St. Louis, and Provincetown, Mass., among other cities, will descend upon Columbus and the Short North, September 12-21, according to Barnhart. In addition to more than 100 performances by over 200 actors and theater professionals, the festival is also sponsoring workshops and discussions by the participants for audiences. A series of receptions and parties will accompany the festival.

Barnhart has spent the last two years working to bring the festival to fruition. With the goal of producing an "experience for the community as well as for the performers," his hard work will result in a nine-day event, bringing 27 groups from across the United States and Canada, to perform at five main venues, including a few in the Short North. The festival has already received a letter of recognition by the Mayor's Office and has experienced unprecedented support, financially and in-kind, from the Columbus community, particularly businesses and organizations housed in the Short North.

In return, the festival will mean good business for even the non-theatrical establishments in the Short North &endash; from restaurants and hotels to art galleries and gift stores.

The cost of bringing the festival to Columbus is $123,000, including hard dollars and in-kind contributions. The Ohio Arts Council and the Greater Columbus Arts Council have contributed generously. Spaces, including the ones in the Short North, are providing their venues gratis to the festival's participants., the second largest GLBT web portal of its kind in the country, headquartered in the Short North, is the main media sponsor of the festival, providing Barnhart with statewide and national exposure for this dream project. Stonewall Columbus, also housed in the Short North, is the festival's fiscal agent.

Participants in the festival will be provided with rent-free performance venues, as well as free publicity and promotion for their work. In addition, each group will be able to take home 50 percent of the box office grosses from their particular performances. Each group will perform three to four times throughout the festival, culminating in an awards ceremony where prizes will be given in various categories, voted on by a distinguished panel, as well as special awards voted on by the audience.

"The festival has something for everyone," says Barnhart, "including non-GLBT audiences." From comedies and dramas to musicals and polemic pieces, the festival will feature solo performances alongside larger ensemble casts. "Many of the shows, even though they have gay and lesbian themes, will resonate with straight audiences." There's a piece called Mother/Son that examines the relationship between a gay Jewish man and his mother. P-FLAG (Parents of Lesbians and Gays) is very much behind this show, hoping to educate and entertain parents of homosexual children. There's Mimi's Wedding, about a lesbian who has always wanted the traditional, perfect, dream-like heterosexual wedding &endash; except that she wants it with another woman. Most importantly, gay or otherwise, audiences will have a chance to see some great entertainment by some well-honed performers and reputed theatrical companies.

Several local groups are also performing, including 2Co's, which is producing an original work, titled I Didn't Know You Could Cook; the African-American group Hit the Ground Running will perform Sexy Hotpants, and a new group called the Puppetqueers will be doing a puppet-play.

Barnhart continues in his efforts to keep the Columbus theatrical scene vital and vibrant. Thus, that detour that Barnhart took, when he decided to come to Columbus instead of going to Chicago, has proved beneficial not simply for him, but for the city's artistic milieu as well. p