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YOUNGSTOWN PLAYHOUSE REVIVAL Promising future unfolds in upbeat strategy



Published: Mon, August 8, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Second of a two-part series.

By L. CROW

VINDICATOR CORRESPONDENT

YOUNGSTOWN -- Bentley Lenhoff, Youngstown Playhouse executive director, is excited and optimistic about the community theater's future.

After a season in which Lenhoff led the Playhouse back from a financial abyss, he is well on his way toward implementing new ideas as well as wrapping up old business.

"My first obligation is to pay off the last of the inherited debts, now totaling $55,000," he said.

"We aim to increase season ticket holders to over 2,000, and to present a series of well-performed plays that will build on the success of last season," Lenhoff said. "We want to increase the average seating for each play and expand our services to the community."

One idea that Lenhoff is formulating is the initiation of a senior citizen theater wing. It will function much like the youth theater, housed in the Playhouse, but with its own policies and board of directors.

"Senior citizens make up 60 percent of our audience," Lenhoff said. "We want to provide a means of recreation for them. They can schedule shows that feature seniors, and run the group on their own, although we will provide administrative service and guidance. I am in the process of contacting senior citizen organizations and area agencies on aging. We want to know what we can do to be of service to these folks."

Lenhoff said this is not just a pipe dream. "It may not pan out, but we hope it will."

Paying tribute

Another area that Lenhoff thinks is important is to recognize and honor all the people who have been such an integral part of the Playhouse history. "Within the next nine months, we are going to have a dinner to honor all living former officers and board members, or surviving family, such as spouses, children or grandchildren," Lenhoff said.

"The Playhouse is rich in tradition and history," he added, "and it's time we recognize and celebrate the contributions that have made this place one of the nation's oldest surviving theaters." This event will also function as a fund-raiser.

Lenhoff said the quality of Playhouse productions depend on the excellence of the director: "The director is paramount and central to success of the plays, the person most responsible. I have an obligation to train people. Actors get trained by being in shows, but directors don't. I did this years ago, and had successful directors go on further."

Lenhoff's idea is to conduct workshops one or two nights a week for several months. It would be free, but people would have to apply, with only six or seven chosen to participate. They will direct one-act plays, but in a classroom setting only, not open to the public. "That way they are free to make mistakes," Lenhoff said.

Close quarters

One of the big problems plaguing the Playhouse is lack of space, and Lenhoff said his goal is to raise $175,000 to put on a 6,000-square-foot addition.

"It will adjoin two walls, and be attached to the existing kitchen, and will be used as another dining area," Lenhoff said. "It will also be used for classrooms, rehearsals and another performance area, to take the place of the old arena, but even bigger, by twice the space."

And finally, Lenhoff will begin a national search to find the right person to take over Playhouse leadership. Matthew DiBattiste, who had been assisting Lenhoff since his return, was originally to be the managing director and eventually replace Lenhoff. However, Lenhoff decided this was not working out, and DiBattiste has been relieved of his duties.

"Matt [DiBattiste] worked hard and conscientiously when I was around," Lenhoff said. "But I decided he wasn't ready to take responsibility on his own. He needed more guidance than I was able to give at this time." For now, Lenhoff will remain in charge. He said he may hire a local person, but also is open to someone from elsewhere.

"When I was hired in 1965, I agreed to work for a small wage, with the understanding that when the Playhouse was financially successful, it would be reflected in my paycheck. And it was. My hope is to hire someone who will work under that same agreement."

Coming acts

As for the coming season, Lenhoff is enthusiastic that the plays will be crowd-pleasers.

Joe Scarvell will direct "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" opening in September. "Joe directed this play for me back in the 70s," Lenhoff said. "It is a tragic comedy -- a comedy with elements of drama, with a great script that has stood the test of time."

"Nunsense" will open at the end of October. It is a funny, light-hearted look at the church, and an audience favorite.

The holiday production is still pending. "We are trying to get the rights for 'White Christmas,'" Lenhoff said. "But if we can't, we will substitute another family musical. And we hope David Jendre will direct it." Jendre is a local professional actor, choreographer and director.

The January production will be "I Hate Hamlet," a comedy based on a young actor who hates Shakespeare and gets cast as Hamlet. Kathy Appugliese will direct it. She has had a long relationship with the Playhouse, and worked with Lenhoff years ago.

Veteran director and actor Bob Gray returns to the Playhouse in March. Gray will direct "Move Over Mrs. Markham." Originally, Gray was to direct "Lend Me a Tenor," by Ken Ludwig, the same playwright who wrote "Moon Over Buffalo," which Gray directed last year with success.

"Bob [Gray] has to have confidence in what he's doing," Lenhoff said. "He saw 'Lend Me a Tenor' recently, and didn't think it was that funny. But he said 'Move Over Mrs. Markham' is a riotous farce, and if you liked 'Moon Over Buffalo,' you will love this one."

The last show of the season, "Chicago," is still pending availability. Lenhoff said Jendre will direct.




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