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Let's Put on a Show!
Sondheim's Follies marks debut of Short North Stage in the Garden Theater
By Karen Edwards
October 2011 Issue

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Photos © Larry Hamill

A sampling of Short North Stage cast and crew: (L-R) Barb Young, Abby Vaile, Linda Kinnison Roth, Jacquie Miller Dunlop, Sharon Stewart, Deb Colvin-Tener, Doug Joseph and Kelly Friar.

High Street may be a long stretch of road through Columbus, but once you hit the Short North, you know it. It’s that eclectic mix of restaurants, night spots, boutiques and art galleries that promise visitors adventure, discovery and culture – culture, at least in the form of art galleries. Yet culture is more than a painting on canvas. It’s music, dance, writing that dances around imagery, and it’s theater – the performing arts. That’s the piece that has been missing from the Short North for a while.

It was there once, of course. Bread & Circus Theater performed at the Short Stop Youth Center for quite a few years before moving to a northern suburb; and crowds at the Axis Nightclub on High Street cheered musicals and other plays performed by the Reality Theater Company – and Center Stage Players more recently. Shadowbox Cabaret’s little black box theater became 2CO’s Cabaret where musicals, plays, even an opera, was staged; and of course there was the Short North Playhouse itself on N. Pearl Street, where the Red Herring Theater Company held court until the building became a swanky condominium complex. But it has been a few years now since the spotlights have faded and the stages gone dark. Today, not even a ghost light remains to illuminate the area’s theatrical past.

But all that is about to change.

A new company forms

If you’ve driven down High Street recently, you may have noticed the neon green sign, recently restored, outside the Garden Theater. The old vaudeville stage is about to become home to a new theater company – the Short North Stage – founded by a group of theater professionals and Short North business leaders.

Short North Stage won’t be like Short North theater companies of the past, however. Or really like any other theater company in Columbus.

“This will be a professional theater company that performs mostly music-driven theater,” says Rick Gore, a former magazine journalist who founded the new company along with partner Peter Yockel. The pair moved to Columbus two years ago from Washington and Florida where they produced and developed musicals, including a revised production of Nefertiti.

“We had a farmhouse in eastern Ohio that we used as a retreat,” says Gore. But there came a time when both men wanted to settle down and stay in one spot. “We looked at other places besides Columbus,” says Gore. Pittsburgh and Cleveland were definitely contenders, but the pair fell in love with the Short North.

“It’s the arts and entertainment hub of Columbus,” says Gore. “The Short North is almost a brand unto itself, but what was missing was performance art.”

In the spring of 2010, Gore and Yockel began meeting people at parties who agreed the Short North was ripe for its own company. Quickly, a group of 25 theater enthusiasts began meeting regularly to refine their vision. Their first meeting was at the home of Ellen and David Weibel, who, arguably, may be said to have started the ball rolling on the new theater company.

“We met Rick and Peter at a Short North event, and found they were interested in theater,” says David Weibel. “So we had a party, inviting them and some theater people we knew.” That group of invitees, along with a few others, have since become founding members of the new company.

Mission statement developed

“I think we worked on our Mission Statement for months,” says Deb Colvin-Tener, an Equity performer who serves as both secretary on the Short North Stage’s board of directors, and as chair of the group’s artistic committee.

The group’s Mission Statement reads as follows: “Short North Stage is a music-driven, professional theater company dedicated to cultivating the growth of performing arts in our community. Pulling from the past and present, we offer a variety of compelling productions, workshops and concerts, with a focus on originating and developing new works. Through collaboration, education and excellence, our stage is a window through which the world views Columbus and Columbus views the world.”

The fact that Short North Stage will be “music-driven” is no small point. “There hasn’t really been a professional musical theater in Columbus,” says Colvin-Tener. “We’ll do one or two straight plays a year but our focus will be on musicals” – though that is likely to include some staged readings and small concert performances as well as full productions, she adds.

Group opens with ‘Follies’

?The Garden Theater is in rough shape but perfect for the current production, Follies, which is set in a theater scheduled for demolition.

The company’s first production is a concert performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. “It’s the full show with some choreography, costumes and lighting but without a complete set,” says Equity performer Jacquie Miller Dunlop, who has been cast in the production. “The focus is on the story and the theater itself.”

Follies is the perfect inaugural production for the company and the theater, says Gore. “When Kevin McGuire, the show’s director, walked into the Garden Theater, he looked around and said, ‘You have to perform Follies,’” Follies’ story focuses on a group of performers – including former showgirls – who reunite in a crumbling theater to relive memories of performances past.

“The theater will put people in the right setting,” says Dunlop. While the group plans to renovate the Garden Theater and make it the company’s home – right now, it’s in rough shape, says Dunlop. “We’ve cleaned it, for sure, but it’s raw. The walls are bare and the place is crumbling. But that’s the point” – not only because Follies is set in a theater scheduled for demolition but because it will give theater patrons a “before” glimpse of the Garden before its renovation.

“We’re in the middle of fund-raising,” says Dunlop, “and this is an opportunity to see the theater and be a part of its renovation from the ground up.”

Turning the 299-seat theater into a state-of-the-art showplace will be the work of Hardlines Design Company, the same architectural firm that remodeled the Lincoln Theater.

“We’re developing a multi-phase plan for the build-out,” says Gore. A capital campaign to pay for the restoration is already underway, and Gore says a donor for renovation of the ladies’ lounge has already emerged. “Everyone loves the Garden Theater,” says Gore. “People love to come here already.”

Choosing plays

Currently, Short North Stage is operating without an artistic director – the position that typically selects the plays to be performed.

“We’re still such a new company that we didn’t want to turn our artistic vision over to just one individual right now,” says Gore.

For now, then, plays are selected by committee – which is not as onerous as it sounds, assures Colvin-Tener. Members of the artistic committee bring interesting plays to the group and the group discusses them – keeping both the mission statement and the company’s artistic vision in mind. “Over time, an artistic director will be hired,” says Gore. But he adds the artistic committee won’t be abandoned. It will continue in an oversight role – a way to keep the group’s artistic vision on track.

Short North Stage is hesitant, right now, to announce an upcoming season as plays are still being read and rights are still under negotiations. Gore says, however, that you can count Chicago; Into the Woods; Passing Strange; Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson; Lizzie Borden; and Ordinary Days as strong contenders for future staging.

“We’ve identified 12 plays as interesting,” says Colvin-Tener. That includes another Stephen Sondheim musical, Sunday in the Park with George – about Georges Seurat, the French painter whose work, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte,” has been replicated at Columbus’s Topiary Park. If Short North Stage can work out the details, the musical will be performed at the topiary park. “We’ve already had discussions with them, and they’re on board,” says Colvin-Tener.

In addition to full productions and concert performances, Short North Stage also plans to do staged readings. For a musical, that generally means a musical director, a pianist or small band on stage, some choreographed movement, but no set or costumes or memorized lines. Actors perform with scripts in hand.

The acting community

Certainly one of the perks of a new Equity-theater company in town is the opportunity for work it gives to performers, technicians, stage managers and other theater professionals – both Equity and non-Equity.

Traditionally, Columbus has not been a good place to locate if you’re an Equity actor. “There are opportunities in other Midwestern cities like Indianapolis, Rochester, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Dayton,” says Dunlop – but job possibilities here have always been slim. “If you’re an Equity actor based in Columbus,” she continues,” you have to travel to find work.”

It may explain why, when performers showed up recently to audition for Follies, they said things like, “I haven’t done this in years.”

“Then they sang and knocked our socks off,” says Colvin-Tener. “We have a lot of talent in this town.”

Short North Stage will become a home, says Dunlop, for actors who are not only active in theater, but also for those who may have been out of work for a while – but want to “get back on the horse” and perform.

Another theater company?

Hardlines Design Co.’s plan transforms the theater into a state-of-the art-showplace.

While a new theater company will help the city’s performing community – and presumably its theater-going audiences – what will it mean for existing companies? Will more competition dilute the talent pool and thin out audiences for theater groups across the city?

“That was one of the first questions we asked when we started to form,” says Colvin-Tener. Yet the fact that more than one professional theater exists in other Midwest cities is encouraging, she says. “The arts are like a cluster of grapes. When you add a grape, it’s not going to hurt the other grapes in the cluster. In fact, they become more vibrant.”

Gore also believes an additional theater company is good for Columbus. “We have a good relationship with Steven Anderson and Joe Bishara at CATCO,” says Gore. “Steven recently told us that they believe rising waters lift all boats. We really believe this. There’s a natural tendency to feel a competition, but we have tried to carve out a specific niche – musicals, with one drama or comedy a year – and want to avoid anything but a spirit of mutual support. We all want to provide more work for professional theatrical artists and technicians as well as creating a stronger interest in theater of all genres in Columbus.”

Katherine Burkman, a Columbus theater professional for years, and founder of the now-defunct company Women at Play, agrees. “New theaters and new talent are always needed,” she says. “Columbus doesn’t have a theater company that specializes in musicals, so this one, if good, has a great chance.”

And while the Short North Stage is likely to draw an audience from all over the city, Dunlop says she’s sure the Short North community will definitely support it. “I worked in the Short North for a while, and I know this is an area where the people who live here also eat here, shop here and look for entertainment here. It’s a very diverse, outspoken community, it’s one that will support experimental works,” she says.

Colvin-Tener has lived in the Short North for 20 years and says she has appreciated the restaurants and retail and art galleries, “but it’s imperative, now to have a performing arts center.”

Short North Stage’s future

A capital campaign to pay for the restoration is already underway.

But not just any performance arts center, or just any theater company. Ask any one of the founding members of Short North Stage, and they’ll tell you their vision for the future.

“We want a collaborative group of professionals who are willing to work hard to create consistently professional theater,” says Colvin-Tener.

Yet their vision stretches even further – to the idea of a regional theater, a place where new plays can be work shopped, developed and staged, then taken to off-Broadway or Broadway theaters in New York, much the way Hartford’s Goodspeed Opera House or Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company operate.

“Eventually we want to have what they have,” says Colvin-Tener – that is, an opportunity to give birth to and nurture a new hit musical, the same way that Man of La Mancha and Annie grew out of the Goodspeed.

“We’d like the Short North Stage to be a LORT theater,” says Dunlop. LORT stands for League of Resident Theaters, a group of not-for-profit theaters that pay wages to artists and are more likely to be experimental than commercial theaters which rely on ticket sales.

Gore and Yockel have produced and developed musicals for more than a decade, so the potential for a similar, successful LORT theater is there. The Columbus talent is also there – theater professionals who are ready, willing and able to perform. Even the connections for bringing in new works are there, as Rick Gore’s brother Chris is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for Fame) and co-writer of the musical Chicago. So everything is in place.

All that’s needed now is the audience.


WHAT: Follies, by Stephen Sondheim. With a classic score written by Stephen Sondheim, Follies is the story of a reunion of Follies girls the night before the old showplace is to be torn down. As they reminisce, the ghosts of their past reemerge as they struggle to come to terms with unfinished business in their lives. Follies is the perfect play to initiate the Garden in its current state, prior to renovation.

WHEN: October 14, 15, 21 and 22 at 8 p.m.; October 16 and 23 at 3 p.m. 2011

WHERE: Garden Theatre, 1187 N. High Street, Columbus, Ohio

WHO: Short North Stage

ADMISSION: $25 purchase online

DETAILS: www.shortnorthstage.orgFacebook • 614-725-4042 •

© 2011 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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