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A new outlook at Oakland theater

Thursday, January 10, 2013

It’s quiet for now at The Oakland Center for the Arts, which is on winter break until the end of February.

But energy is growing at the community theater in downtown Youngstown, with a new commitment to excellence on stage, a more welcoming attitude to the public and a concerted effort to make the most of its physical space.

The Oakland has always been the place for edgy fare, but somewhere along the line, it may have crossed the line between cool and cliquish.

Now its extending its arms to the community in ways that are obvious and not-so-obvious.

Cleric Costes and Kris Harrington took over as president and vice president this summer. They talked about the changes during a walk-through of the theater this week.

A freshly painted lobby area, with signage to guide first- timers, is the most immediate sign of change. The Oakland’s art gallery also has been painted and reconfigured. Marcie Applegate and Tony Nicholas of Artists of the Rust Belt are the new curators.

The stage was recently removed to create a larger and more versatile performance area that also allows for better lighting design. A small section of the former stage still remains — a holdover from a production of “Spring Awakening” last year — but it will be removed after the next production, “Hail to the Chef.”

Backstage, the difference is like night and day. A new staircase has been constructed for actors to enter the upper level of the stage, and the once-cluttered scene shop has been cleaned up and categorized. Next on the improvement agenda are the costume shop and green room.

The second floor (which is downstairs from the 135-seat theater and lobby on the third floor) has been cleared and turned into a rehearsal space. It’s a move that makes for a more professional experience for actors and a better product on stage. The show that’s in tech week can take over the theater without interruption, while rehearsals for the show that will follow can spread out in its own space.

In the future, Costes would like to further utilize the rehearsal space by having it double as a blackbox theater. It would meld with a young- artist’s series slated to begin next season that would offer a place for first-time directors to cut their teeth.

Adam Jackson has been hired as technical coordinator, taking over set building and freeing up directors to focus on their casts. The board of directors includes new faces from different branches of the arts community, including Chris Rutushin and Jaye Mills, with Tricia Terlesky, Danielle Jackson, Monica Purich, David El’Hatton, Chuck Kettering and Pat Foltz.

Costes said duties are being delegated more these days, allowing board members to get comfortable with their niche.

One especially huge difference at the Oakland this season is the sale of season tickets — something the theater hasn’t had in quite a few years. Harrington has spearheaded the drive, which has resulted in 65 season tickets being sold, up from zero last season.

Plans call for partnerships with downtown restaurants so that the Oakland can take advantage of its location in the burgeoning arts and entertainment district.

The quality of the product on stage is always the first priority, and Costes said attendance is up this season, largely because of the quality of the first two productions: “The Normal Heart” and “Spring Awakening.”

“People are returning in droves,” said Costes. Playgoers who haven’t been to the Oakland in years are showing up again and bringing newcomers with them. For “Spring Awakening,” repeaters were coming back for the second weekend with a different set of friends.

The energy is being returned to the theater in other ways as well. New directors are coming forward with ideas and requests to helm shows, said Harrington, who said it wasn’t so long ago when the theater had to cajole directors to get them to come aboard.


The episode of Lifetime reality show “Dance Moms” that was filmed at Stambaugh Auditorium in October will air at 9 p.m. Tuesday. The series used Stambaugh as a last-minute fill-in location when another site in Florida became unavailable.