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The Little Theater That Could 

Near West Theatre's directors on breaking new ground...transforming people through theater...and joining Cleveland's arts community

The groundbreaking last week for Near West Theatre's new home in Gordon Square marked an important milestone not just for the company, but for musical theater in Cleveland. Near West was founded in 1978 by actress, director, and choreographer Stephanie Morrison-Hrbek, who wanted to offer a constructive activity for neighborhood teenagers. The daughter of two ministers, Morrison-Hrbek had two guiding principles: diversity and social justice.

The group set up shop at St. Patrick's Church in Ohio City, where for the past 34 years it has produced passionate, high-quality musical theater with nonprofessional casts. But the parish hall space wasn't always a comfortable fit, due to its limited seating capacity and occasional conflicts over edgy subjects and themes (the church once threatened to shut down a play that featured a gay priest).

The new, 25,550-square foot theater will be at West 67th and Detroit, in the heart of the burgeoning Gordon Square Arts District. As stakes decorated with flowing ribbons were pounded into the site on Nov. 27, a crowd of cast and crew, longtime audience members, and neighborhood supporters cheered, rang bells and banged on drums. The following day, Scene sat down with Executive Director Morrison-Hrbek and Artistic Director Bob Navis, Jr. to talk about the theater's history and their hopes for its future home, scheduled to open in 2014.

Is it true that Near West Theatre was founded to combat a youth problem on the Near West Side?

Navis: There was a negative perception. Kids were getting a bad rap; there was glue-sniffing.

Morrison-Hrbek: There was a desire to have something for young people other than sports, a summer program for 11-to-16-year-olds based on the belief that the young could invest in something. I was teaching at Central Catholic High, doing a big production of Guys and Dolls. At that time, there was no musical theater culture, no "Glee." We did our first program, Godspell, in 1978, with a dozen teenagers. Bob and I met two years later.

Navis: I was teaching at Erieview High and doing church-based theater. When I saw Stephanie, there was something about the way she was talking to these kids — the vitality, the exchange of energy — she was one of them, and they were right with her. That was it!

The productions are unusually accomplished, considering that the cast members aren't trained professionals.

Morrison-Hrbek: It's the process we go through, digging into the themes of the show.

Navis: The worst theater is when everyone's just a vehicle to make a product. We want ours to be dynamic, vital theater that surprises you, challenges your perception, takes the story of the play seriously. What we're doing has power because you're not watching professional actors "do their thing" — you're watching folks who don't have any technique to rely on, telling a story from the guts of who they are. That ends up being a unique kind of power. That's what people try to verbalize when they say, 'I don't know why, but I came to this place and was astounded by this production.'

You've described the experience of NWT as transformational. How does that work?

Navis: Part of our mission is to acknowledge people's giftedness. We call it esteem-building through the arts. In our rehearsal for Rent, we had the company create pieces of art expressing who they are. This young girl papered her body with the names she'd been called her whole life and peeled them off, one by one. It was really eye-opening. That changed everybody in the production.

Morrison-Hrbek: I recently got a letter from a man who, 20 years ago, had gotten a lot of negative messages and just cut himself off from the creative experience. He had enough guts to come and audition. He was so overwhelmed, he left during the audition. Then he got a callback for a principal role, Houdini in Ragtime. Now, he's on fire as a human being.

Do you feel the new theater will bring long-delayed recognition to NWT?

Morrison-Hrbek: At the moment, we're not seen. We're not visible if you're driving by the [church] building. We get misunderstood a lot — people think we're a church group, that we're mainly for kids. We're intergenerational. That's one of the most unique things about us.

Navis: We're not seen in the Plain Dealer or other Cleveland arts writings, either. We don't really care about that — Stephanie and I are from the streets ourselves! But there's a sadness in that, because part of our mission is getting people to step out of the shadows. So if the whole organization is a bastard child in the arts world of Cleveland, it doesn't match our mission.

Can you describe the path you took toward building your own theater space?

Morrison-Hrbek: We started seeking independence in 1989. We got a board and hired a project manager, who located land at W. 67th and Detroit. With Chris Warren and Tom Schorgl, we formed the West Side Arts Consortium and got a $250,000 joint grant from the state. A feasibility analysis was done, the market was tested, and we kicked off fundraising in '07. We raised $30 million, linked in this common cause, the Gordon Square Arts District, in which you share donors and share mission.

Navis: It's collaborating with your competitors in a cataclysmic economic time.

Morrison-Hrbek: Only a year ago, I was losing faith. We were weary and losing traction. Then Tom Sullivan said, I'm giving you $750,000; then someone gave $1 million. The money started flowing.

Aside from amenities like comfortable seats and air conditioning, how will the new building change NWT?

Morrison-Hrbek: What's exciting about the new building is that hundreds of people come to audition, and we can't cast everyone. Now we can involve more people.

Navis: The theater has to expand and change. Will its character change? I hope not. I'm a firm believer that an institution is an animal, and the essence of this animal is to always feel playful, risky, and courageous — a honey badger of an animal! That building has to be where people come for that sense of family. Whether it's used for classes, workshops, or coffee houses, every step has to be intentional, process-based community building. NWT builds loving relationships through theater.

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More by Pamela Zoslov

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