Look Both Ways

Dobama enters its second 50 years with a new theater and a new play

Everywhere you look at Dobama Theatre this week, you'll find the past and future pulling against each other. After more than four decades in a Coventry Road basement and four years without a home, the company begins its 50th season in a new facility on Lee Road, in the former YMCA building across the street from the Cleveland Heights/University Heights Public Library. Beneath the stage are the tile remains of the swimming pool. Upstairs in the offices, there's a new managing director, Dianne Boduszek, and a new artistic director, Joel Hammer.

And on that stage Friday night, they'll premiere a new play by Cleveland playwright Eric Coble. Ten More Minutes From Cleveland focuses on the journeys of two main characters: a Cleveland lifer who's just lost his job and a newcomer who's just starting hers. There's an opening gala Friday night and a regular-priced performance with a poster-art signing by Derf after the show Saturday. Ten More Minutes is the follow up to Coble's Ten Minutes From Cleveland, the last play Dobama presented in the Coventry location.

All that looking backward and forward sends Dobama into its second half-century with all kinds of potential. The facility — which Boduszek says costs about a $350,000 — puts an end to Dobama's years of homelessness and stays within the company's means. She says Dobama's capital campaign — sensibly scaled back from initial plans — has most of that money in hand and pledges that will pay off a $50,000 loan from the City of Cleveland Heights. The company also benefited from approximately $140,000 worth of investment by the library, which owns the building and paid for the renovation of restrooms and a new HVAC system.

Audiences will enjoy substantial improvements over the old site. The new theater looks like the old one, a black box with a thrust stage and 188 seats on three sides. But it doesn't have pillars blocking views, as the old theater did, or the occasional sound of toilets flushing overhead. But it also shares with the old theater a lack of fly space and proper wings.

Production crews, however, will be pleased with a small scene shop, plus prop and costume storage space, luxuries unheard of in the old venue. There are also freshly built dressing rooms and a green room for which, as of last week, the company had yet to settle on the proper shade of green.

PLAYWRIGHT Eric Coble says one of the characters in Ten More Minutes From Cleveland, the lifer Brian, is looking for something — anything — that has stayed the same in his hometown. He's just lost his job. All around him, churches are closing. Everything, it seems, is in transition or decay. The other character — Sherese, who moved to Cleveland from Phoenix for a marketing job — is looking for what's new in town. She rides the RTA Health Line down Euclid to get to work. But she keeps running into people who are stuck in the past, seemingly unable to change — like a perpetual Browns tailgate party of ultimate diehard fans in the Muni Lot.

As days go on, Brian and Sherese encounter familiar places and character types. There are references to some famous people — like Frank Jackson and his re-election campaign and two characters vying for the ninth seat on Parma city council — but no famous people appear as characters. Lots of familiar types show up, though. The ensemble's six actors play 29 different characters.

Among the locations are the Juniper Road Arabica (where a cybersex scene takes place and which Coble notes is now called "The Coffee House at University Circle") and St. Rocco's Catholic Church, where a priest re-assigned Chagrin Falls worries about neighborhood violence and his lack of understanding of his new urban flock. (Coble notes that he wrote the scene well before the recent assault there.)

The theatre has several talkback events scheduled after performances, including a closing-night panel discussion with city leaders taking up the play's overarching question: Where does Cleveland go from here?

WHERE DOBAMA goes from here is in the hands of Hammer and Boduszek. Five shows are scheduled for the 2009-2010 season. Boduszek says she hopes to eventually go back to their former schedule of seven. She's optimistic about the company's new relationship with the library, and looking to build educational programming, starting with kids' acting classes.

Hammer, whose history at Dobama goes back 20 years and includes acting and directing credits, as well as terms on the board of trustees, says he's looking forward to working in the new venue because he believes it will help the company build a new audience.

"We definitely had an audience on Coventry," says Hammer. "I'm sure we lost some people in four years on the road. I'm excited about doing theatre that will attract a new crowd."

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Winning entries from Scene and Dobama's Ten More Minutes essay contest are posted at the Artscape blog at clevescene.com.

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