What silenced the Oakland, and can the theater recover?


The Oakland Center for the Arts shocked some folks last month when it closed up shop and left its longtime theater home in the Morley Building in downtown Youngstown.

But most theater-goers weren’t all that surprised. The Oakland scarcely had a pulse since the 2014-15 season began.

There is a chance that the final curtain hasn’t come down. The board says it aims to resurrect the theater — always the Valley’s edgiest — in a new location. If it does happen, it would be for the 2016-17 season, at the earliest.

But the sudden closing left some unanswered questions.

What went wrong?

Why did it run out of money to the point where it could no longer pay its rent?

And why were no productions scheduled for most of the 2014-15 season? If a theater desperately needs to get the revenue flowing to keep its doors open, the most obvious way to make money would be to put on a show and sell tickets. But yet no season was put together.

Answers haven’t been easy to come by.

Jaye Mills, who was the president of the Oakland from the fall of 2013 until some point within the past few months, walked away from the job and has not responded to interview requests.

It’s typically up to the president to spearhead the task of putting together the next season. It’s no small job and it requires money — something the Oakland was running low on.

Board president Mary James, who has taken over the reins, has said there was a decline in interest in the theater. But was that diminishing support in the theater’s front office, which may have been getting overwhelmed with problems?

As recent as the 2012-13 season, when Cleric Costes was president, the Oakland was in the black. It remained artistically relevant until last summer by presenting strong-selling and critically acclaimed shows, including “The Normal Heart” (October 2012), “Spring Awakening” (November 2012), “Doubleheader” (February 2013), “Hair” (July 2013), “Equus” (April 2014) and “Bare” (July 2014).

In 2013, the theater even obtained a $25,000 grant from the Youngstown Foundation and a $6,000 grant from the Mukti Foundation.

But by spring 2014, the theater was running low on money — and options.

At that time, the financially squeezed Oakland was nearing a deal to move to another location, but worked out a deal to keep its tenuous hold on the space it called home for nearly 20 years.

There were also plans for John Holt, former Youngstown Playhouse chief and the director of “Hair,” to direct a summer repertory season on a pro bono basis in 2015.

That never happened. The theater was unable to provide necessary info to Holt — dates, budgets, and whether it would be staying in its current space.

Holt — who lives in West Virginia and would have had to move to Youngstown — also was offered the position of creative director in August but declined because the Oakland could not provide firm details on its future.

Running a theater like the Oakland is not cheap. Between rent and utilities, its average fixed monthly expenses were in the $1,500 range. Add to that the costs associated with staging a production — rights fees, costuming, equipment — and that figure gets substantially higher.

The theater also was facing a rise in its rent.

In short, the board and its president would have had to redouble their efforts to have a shot at survival. It’s unclear why they fell short. Was it burnout on the part of the small group — perhaps too small — of volunteers who were shouldering the burden? Or had the growing financial pressure already gotten out of control?

What’s left of the Oakland’s board — James, Amy Banks and Tricia Terleskey — has not given up hope. They intend to grow and reinvigorate their ranks with some new people, and mount a comeback at a new location in two years or so.

The future will reveal if there is another act to this story.

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