Once More, With Feeling

How a streetwise Ohio City troupe rewrote the book on community theater.

Three Miles Out Hard Rock Café April 21
In the white-bread world of musical theater, there are very few roles for one-eyed black women who talk with a lisp and can't sing a note.

But Stephanie Taylor-Ayers, a one-eyed black woman, doesn't care. She's performed in many a wholesome play, even though she "hates white love stories, hates romantic stuff, and hates wholesomeness." Tears make her squirm, yet she's partaken in countless mushy self-exploration activities where people cry buckets to get in touch with their onstage personas. Why? What self-respecting skeptic who grew up in the projects would do such a thing?

"I love this theater," says Ayers, who goes by her nickname, "Mammy." "They ask people to be real. It's not about 'Did you say all your lines correctly? Did you sing all the notes correctly?' It's about when you sing this song, you really got to feel this song."

Near West Theatre in Ohio City has cast black and Jewish kids as Nazis, a woman as God's only son, and a man in drag as Chita Rivera, yet still managed to honestly carry the banner of wholesomeness. A neighborhood sanctuary in a harsh, less than accepting world, the shoestring troupe has, in its 23 years of existence, stayed true to its mission to "deliver an inclusive, self-esteem-building process," to "educate and raise awareness," and all that other touchy-feely, nonprofit, arts grantspeak that makes people like Mammy want to upchuck their lunch. It's also managed to save some lives, make others more meaningful, and put on some damn good shows.

In the theater's nascent days, the big draw was the snacks. Its director, an impassioned 23-year-old with a degree in French literature, posted "little fliers around the neighborhood that I was going to start a theater program," remembers Stephanie Hrbek, who's now 46 and still the director. "And I said, 'Refreshments will be served.' So a group of kids came, we sat on the yard back here, behind St. Pat's, and I served the refreshments, which is what they came for." She also recruited kids at the nearby Urban Community School for Godspell, Near West's first production.

Watching too many young minds rot, neighborhood church leaders had decided to create Near West as a diversion and hired Hrbek to run it, at St. Patrick's Church on Bridge Avenue. "Drugs were really prevalent," says Mammy, who grew up in the Lakeview Terrace housing projects in the 1970s. "A lot of it was on West 25th Street." Sniffing glue was a favorite teen pastime. "It was a lot easier to get ahold of than marijuana."

Mammy had managed to find other outlets for her "wild imagination. When I was eight and a half, I used to call the priest at St. Malachi's Church at three in the morning, because I wanted to know what priests did at three in the morning," she recalls. "So I'd call 'em and then run up to St. Malachi's and knock on the door and hide.

"One of the homeless guys saw me do this every day, for a while. And finally he told Father, 'Hey, she's hiding around the corner.' So St. Malachi's decided the best thing to do was keep me with them."

Mammy joined the church's after-school program. When her mom had a nervous breakdown, the neighbors helped with childcare, so the court caseworker didn't get called in.

Grateful to the neighbors who looked out for her, Mammy joined the theater in high school, shepherding the younger kids. She eventually earned her irreverent nickname there, because she simultaneously mothered everyone and ordered them around. "My philosophy is, I would either be the Mammy of the house or a dead slave, because I wouldn't be working in anybody's fields," she reasons.

Now 39, she's been a surrogate mom to theater teens. Kids stop by her house late at night when they can't go home because their parents are drunk or abusive or just not there. She tries to get to know the parents, too.

"When I look at the young people at Near West, they give me hope," Mammy says. "I long for the day that all young people know that they have people older than them in their lives who will love them and accept them for who they are."

Sixteen-year-old Wil is having another painful day. Last night, his grandparents, who raised him, were both admitted to the hospital -- one for an illness, the other for a bad fall.

Now he's staying with an aunt, who has health problems, too. She doesn't like him to go out after school, even for theater rehearsal a block away. When rehearsal goes late, she gets upset.

His mom's in a mental institution. His dad, a recovering cocaine addict, is slowly moving back in with the family after being in rehab. "He's a pain in the butt sometimes," Wil says. His father went into treatment because Wil drove him to the hospital and had him admitted. "I got tired of it," Wil says. "I had to push him."

Wil calls the theater "my place. I have friends here," he says. "I've never been fond of my family."

Last fall, before a production of My Fair Lady, Wil was diagnosed with severe depression and recommended for admission to a psychiatric hospital. Worried that he might miss opening night, he talked the doctors out of admitting him. He had a play to do, he implored. A very important play. Everyone he cared about was in it, and he couldn't let them down.

Visibly upset at rehearsal, he confided in Hrbek and two other cast members -- a social worker and another adult who, like Wil, suffers from manic-depression. "That's the first time I knew what was going on," says Wil. One man became like a godparent to him, inviting him to holiday meals and taking him with the family to church. He's also bought Wil some necessities -- like a decent bed.

"There's a lot of teen suicides and teens in distress and having no perspective," says Hrbek. "A number of times, we've had to determine 'Do we need to take this person to a hospital, do we need to just talk with this person, do we need to call in an expert?'"

A few weeks ago, Hrbek announced to the kids that the theater was $70,000 in debt. They'd had hard times before, but not this hard. She encouraged them to sell tickets to the April 26 opening night benefit for Pippin. At $15 apiece, tickets were triple the cost of the regular shows, but included hors d'oeuvres and a live band. If the kids knew anyone who could afford it -- an aunt, co-workers, anybody -- would they try to sell at least five tickets?

Wil did better than that. He walked around his school and raised $300. Hrbek was astounded. "These kids," she says. "They're taking it so seriously."

In a church sanctuary, by the light of three candles, the jumbo Kleenex box is sent around the circle. Bob Navis, the theater's in-touch artistic director, is sobbing and laughing at the same time.

"I want to give this to you," he tells a young man named Pat, holding a curious lampshade-thingy decorated with images of the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. "Because you lost your dad and my dad made this." He tries to present it to him, but "I can't get up! My legs fell asleep!"

Welcome to the Gift Ritual, Near West's twice-yearly emotional endurance test. It began years ago with a teen production of South Pacific. Cast members bring in three meaningful items and give them to three meaningful people of their choice, but not without first delivering a poignant, soul-baring little speech that's slightly embarrassing to watch. Which is OK, because embarrassment's a valid emotion, and exploring your emotions -- even the yucky ones -- will help you become a better actor.

A high school kid named Max gives Bob a dried rose he received years ago at his first Near West performance: "I was having a really rough time," Max shares. "I felt like there was a giant hole in me. One of the reasons why I love coming here is because everyone is so intimate and so vulnerable. I think Bob makes it like this. I want to give this to Bob as a reminder of how much my life has changed."

Later, Bob accidentally sits on the rose, flattening Max's deepest emotion into a pile of papery crumbs. Ouch.

Though it began as a summer youth program, Near West blossomed into an all-ages, year-round theater by the mid-1980s, its annual budget mushrooming from $1,200 to $395,000 last year. Somewhere in the middle of its history, the small staff found time to produce a series of original, well-received oral histories on Cleveland immigrants and people with mental illness.

But now, with so many kids trying out for their plays, Near West sticks with musical theater, "because it involves the greatest amount of people," says Hrbek.

Relating an old chestnut like Carousel or Brigadoon to 21st-century life in Cleveland isn't impossible. "If the play is good, there's always that conflict and dark stuff to explore," says Hrbek. "Like Annie. It conjures up this lollipop, smiley, happy . . . I mean, come on, it's about the Depression. It's about this country falling apart and this young girl turning things around with her energy and her love."

For last fall's production of My Fair Lady, Navis brought in photos of homeless people who lived around England's Covent Garden in 1912, during the time of the play. The kids created personas for their characters -- how they were related to other characters, what they might have done for a living during that time.

The production had a sincerity and genuineness that's lacking in a genre where a saccharine delivery is expected. But in Near West's version, the actors became the people they played, in all their flawed, boisterous beauty. As a result, their production was more subtle than those of most community theaters, and more honest and heartfelt than many professional ones.

Like Wil, 27-year-old Trinidad Rosado bore a heavy burden as a teen. Her family moved to Cleveland from Brooklyn, New York, when she was 15.

"It was very hard for Trinidad in the beginning," remembers Mammy, her confidante. "Her mom was an alcoholic, really causing a lot of problems when they first moved here. Trinidad really became the mom to her [mom] and brothers. At one point, she ran away. Her mother was very, very upset. She was going to pull her out of the show. I kind of talked to her and said, 'You know, it would be a good thing for her. Let's give her another chance.'"

After kicking butt at her first tryout, Rosado, who is Puerto Rican, thought she might snag the part of Coco, the Puerto Rican female lead in Fame. Instead, she won the role of the Jewish girl who has big dreams of becoming the next Barbra Streisand.

In the 12 years that followed, she's had a starring role in almost every Near West production. "Stephanie's my idol," Rosado says of Hrbek. "She's the reason that I do this. I don't think you'll ever find a more genuine, sincere human being if you tried."

As a teen, watching her mom struggle, Rosado decided she never wanted kids of her own. But later, "seeing Stephanie with her boys, I saw that I could be a mom and still be in the theater. If she could do it, I could do it."

Hrbek's two sons grew up with plenty of company. "Noah was always on my back or in a playpen," Hrbek says of her youngest, now a junior in high school. "I have this picture of him in his playpen surrounded by summer youth theater kids, looking up in fear." During a Studs Terkel play that included police sirens, he was there in diapers, screaming his lungs out.

Though she lives a few blocks from the theater, Cassie's mom hasn't come to see her daughter's last four shows. "We've had a lot of arguments," says Cassie, a talkative 18-year-old who likes to share secrets with her best friend in the space underneath the stage. "We argued all the time, really. But it's hard -- she's a single mom raising three kids.

"It got to this point where my mom wouldn't accept anything from me. I got her this really pretty music box for her birthday, and she refused to open it. So I gave it to Stephanie as a Christmas present. She's more of a mother in my life.

"A lot of times, I feel like I'm doing a good job, but I need that affirmation," Cassie observes. "I've always done real well in school. I'd bring home report cards and they were excellent, and I just wanted my mom to look and say how glad she was I got a good grade. I've always wanted her to see my shows and say, 'Look what Cassie's been doing while we've not been around.' But she's been busy and stuff. And I know she tells her friends about it, which makes me feel really proud."

"It's real hard for adults to be nonjudgmental and, at the same time, be real demanding," says Dave Kachadourian, a Cleveland schools teacher who has hosted Near West workshops at Urban Community School and Wilbur Wright Elementary. "Stephanie and Bob are good at that. There are a lot of opportunities for kids -- teen sports and clubs, church youth groups. But from my experience as a parent and a teacher, this is the one that's the most transforming."

"This time, I'd like you to share a little bit about yourself," Navis tells the group. "You have about a minute each. I'm not gonna time you."

"Can we time you?" a kid cracks.

Notorious for long, searching speeches, Navis ceremoniously removes his watch. "Just to show you that I can grow, I'm gonna put this in front of myself." At one minute, they shout "Time!" and, amazingly, he shuts up.

Since this is "Get to Know You" week, the night's sharing games have just begun. Next is Scattegories, another "circle" activity that's like Truth or Dare meets musical chairs. The person in the middle dreams up a category, and those who fit the description try not to be the odd man out.

"Anyone who's had a relative in prison," starts someone. About 10 people dash across the gym.

"Everyone who's ever been in the military," offers another. No one gets up.

"Let's get a little more personal," says Hrbek. "Anyone who's cried in the last 24 hours."

The floodgates open. "Anybody who's every smoked marijuana." "Anyone who thinks black is beautiful." "Anyone who loves oral sex." "Anyone who's ever been hit by their parents." "Anyone who has been censored."

And the classic, innocent-teen selection: "Anyone who has a crush on anyone in this room."

That seems like a good place to stop. Besides, it's time for a little movement exercise to bongos and tambourine.

Alex Nosse's mom, Mary, came to all her kids' plays. "She was the most loving person I've ever been around," says the easygoing St. Ignatius High School junior. "Toward everyone, really. She would make friends with everybody. She didn't have to discipline us much, because we knew how much we could get from her. And she really tried to make us individuals."

An activist at the May Dugan social services center who also ran a free clinic, Mary has a garden there, dedicated in her memory. In 1996, her body racked by cancer, she came to see Alex and another son, David, in Hello Dolly! at Near West.

"She was in a wheelchair, she had an oxygen tank. But still, she was able to make it," reflects Alex. She had to be carried into the theater, which isn't handicap accessible.

"'People were amazed she was there. Hello Dolly! is a notoriously long show, and she stayed for the whole thing. But it was good that she came.'"

A week later, she died.

Like Wil, Alex raised $200 for the theater last month, unasked. He called up all his relatives and asked for donations. Since his mom's death, Hrbek's "the closest thing I have to a mother figure," he says. He's friends with her son, who's the same age. "Right after my mom died, I started going to Noah's house more. It's like I'm a son, because I'm there so much and because [Hrbek] has another son at college. She treats me like she treats them. I stay for dinner, we go to movies like a family."

Alex's most meaningful Near West moment occurred in the play Children of Eden. "The character that played Eve -- there's a whole song where she's about to die, and she's talking about how she's passing along the line . . . She gives a staff to one of her sons. 'Here you go, I'm going to send you out in the world to do what you're going to do.' It was something that spoke to me."

The Pippin rehearsals are clipping along faster than usual. This means a slight abbreviation of the sharing.

"By now, Bob usually would have turned off all the lights and lit candles twice," comments a cast member. Besides the gift ritual, the only other emotional s´ance was the "indoor campfire." For this, they wrote down their hopes and dreams, shared them, then committed them to flame.

"This work affects me," says Navis. "Sometimes, it makes me want to run to the Bahamas for 100 years. Part of it is, I'm about to turn 50 years old; my physical stamina isn't what it used to be. I get to this place where I feel like I'm gonna have a stroke."

The scene at hand is one where Charlemagne, Pippin's father, makes a grand entrance. None too happy with rehearsal, Navis fills his lungs with air and climbs onstage. He speaks passionately of blind faith and allegiance, transcendence and a sense of glory.

"This is like the end of every religious movie ever made in the '30s and '40s," he entreats. "Bernadette, Fatima. This is Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments. It's that kind of passion and allegiance. Charlemagne blew his breath across the continent and changed the face of an entire people. It was Christianity making its mark upon the world."

If Charlemagne ever gets winded, Navis could fill in. "I can't sit at a table and say, 'You move over there, and you move over there.' A director like that would die in this theater."

Right now, his most immediate challenge is getting Ben Gelzer, one of two Pippins (he double-cast the role), to focus. A gangly, adrift 21-year-old, Ben's fond of dropping random profundities like "I believe in the broken, condemned spirit of the actor, the traveling spirit" into everyday conversation.

"He's easily diverted, and his attention span is a nebulous thing sometimes," says Navis. "But the amazing thing about Ben is, he is capable of being so completely involved. The work is 'Ben, you need to do this consistently.' So far, that's been really hard."

The next scene is the pinnacle of focus, the one where a disgusted Pippin slays his father and gets the crown. When it opens, Ben seems more absorbed in what his buddies to his left and right are doing than in his own lines.

But as he's draped in his ermine robe, a glimmer deepens to a flame. He begins to sing, first timidly, then strengthening to a jubilant, rafter-trembling cry. The room is filled with an audible gasp -- the sound of people holding their breath. Then the moment's gone. He's back to being an overgrown boy who can't sit still.

His mom, Terri, a longtime theater supporter who has a small role in this production, watches from the wings. "If he doesn't know his lines, then I feel responsible," she comments later. "'Why didn't you study your lines!' But I did get caught up when he started to sing 'Corner of the Sky.' Oh, that's so pretty. Oh, you move so beautifully. You are a very gifted soul."

As a teen growing up on Cleveland's East Side, Navis began directing the summer youth theater at St. Francis Church on East 71st Street when he was only 18. It was a changing neighborhood -- whites leaving as blacks moved in -- "and St. Francis was right on that line. There was a real joining in: 'We're not leaving,' although the mentality was to get out, get out, get out."

Then the church burned down. Sparks from a fire in a nearby store ignited the wooden window frames, triggering an inferno. "That changed the life of that parish in some really drastic ways," says Navis. "The whole building was water-damaged, the water dripping for months. We set up a makeshift church, wrapped in plastic wrap to keep things half-dry. Out of this complete rubble, we were rehearsing."

The parishioners supported the theater with bake sales and car washes. "It was all-consuming," he says, his voice breaking, "until I fell in love for the first time, at age 30. I hadn't really done anything about my sexuality. In the early '80s, I weighed 330 pounds. There was a whole other part of my life that was, tragically, not getting any attention. Then I woke up one day and realized if I didn't take care of myself, I wasn't gonna be around."

Shortly after he moved in with his new lover, a man he'd met in a Catholic gay group, St. Francis's pastor abruptly fired him. He was devastated, but moved on, starting a dynamic theater program at Erieview Catholic High School.

A third of the student body joined. But the next year, the diocese notified him he could no longer teach there. "All of the nuns there ran scared. That's when it hit the papers. For a while, I was the gay Catholic teacher who had been fired by the diocese. I was out. I was not pretending I wasn't gay."

Navis's supporters held a candlelight vigil on the steps of the school. His parents and friends in the gay community attended, as did another Catholic school teacher -- Stephanie Hrbek, who was teaching theater at Cleveland Central Catholic High School, besides her duties at Near West. Navis and Hrbek had become fast friends, after her musical director went on an alcoholic binge six days before showtime.

"She sent out this SOS into the Cleveland schools," recalls Navis. "I walked into the auditorium, and she's on the stage working with the kids. All I can remember was thinking, 'Oh, my God.' It was like this thunderbolt moment, where I was seeing myself. I had never seen anybody work with people in theater like she was working with them. With passion.

"There was an excitement tangible in the hall. Stephanie and I have been completely entwined since."

Sharron DeCosta's favorite Near West play was her first: Jesus Christ Superstar. "They had a man, a woman, and a child playing Jesus. And they switched off throughout the night. The woman was playing during Gethsemane, when it was very emotional. And then there was the fun Jesus, who was the man. And they crucified the little boy. So we were picketed one night. They had this sign, 'Jesus is not a woman or a child.' But what [the play] was basically saying was, Jesus came for everybody. We had nuns weeping in the front row."

DeCosta, 42, found Near West as an adult. At the time, she had given up hope of ever being in a play, even though she sang beautifully. She'd had a bad experience at another local theater, where the music director made an issue of her weight.

"She told me in front of the 10 other people that were there that she didn't want me on the stage, because I was too large. She said, 'You would draw focus the whole time. You would ruin my chorus. Don't come back until you lose weight.'

"I just resigned myself to singing in choirs the rest of my life. Four or five months later, I came here to see King and I. There were several large women in the cast. One of the ingenues was probably a size 20, 22. Very obviously, this woman was being judged by her voice and her acting ability, not by her size. I thought, 'Well, maybe this is a place. It's really close to where I live.'"

The following fall, she tried out for Jesus Christ Superstar. "I ended up being cast as a principal player. I played Caiaphas, the high priest, a couple octaves up from the original."

The risks have sometimes made for dicey moments with the pastor at St. Patrick's. The relationship reached a low point when Near West staged an original play that portrayed Father Mackenzie -- the character in the Beatles' song "Eleanor Rigby" -- as a gay priest coming to terms with his sexuality.

"We got a call one night from the pastor, saying, 'You need to shut this show down and not have any more performances,'" says Navis. "And he's not come to see one of our shows in 15 years. I was like 'It's way more than that; it's about this struggle and this journey.'"

Pastor Mark DiNardo admits he's a workaholic and doesn't have much time to see plays. "They're in the evenings and on weekends, which are our busy times," he says. "And they're on the lengthy side. It's three hours that I don't have." A few years back, though, he did catch Near West's production of A Christmas Carol, he says.

They agree on one thing: The theater has outgrown the church and should find a new home. Hrbek and her staff began work on a $3 million building campaign, which continues today. Their dream is to buy a nearby Masonic hall and develop an arts center around the theater, but they may have to scale that down.

"We're playing catch-up," says Hrbek. "Kids are showing up to be in our shows, and we're turning them away in droves. The last audition, we had 50 kids. Fifteen were in our cast, so we have 35 kids walk in our door, and we have to say, 'No, we can't do it.'"

When Mammy lost her eye to an injury compounded by diabetes, the theater kids mocked her mercilessly. She had always been "evil," they joked, and now she was the spitting image of Satan's spawn.

She couldn't have been more flattered. "People get like 'Oh my God, how can they say those mean things to you?'" laughs Mammy. "You know, when I was going through this eye ordeal, it was the fun, the laughter, that got me through it."

Besides making her the butt of their jokes, her friends threw an "eye party" at the theater. "Everyone got to design an eye for me," Mammy says. "That was really important. Getting over it was a really big challenge for me."

It wasn't the first time they helped out. There was the time she and her husband adopted a crack baby. The adoption went through more swiftly than they'd planned. (Mammy's husband is HIV-positive, a disqualifier in many adoptions.)

"The judge said, 'Can you take her home today?' and I'm thinking, 'Well, yeah, I could,'" says the 39-year-old day-care worker. Then panic set in. "I called a whole bunch of people from the theater and said, 'You know, I'm getting this baby, and I have nothing.'

"I went to work, and when I came home, there was a nursery all set up. She had a crib and a car seat." The Near West troupe had come through. "People have journeyed with us. My husband has a lot of medical problems, and they've all been very, very supportive."

While Hrbek searches for a new home, Mammy is keeping the kids in line and helping them get into mischief at the same time. One of her newer charges is a high school girl who is struggling, big-time, with her inner demons.

"A part of me agonizes, because I wish I could slap her silly and help her see the beauty that's within," Mammy says. "Of all the people I've met at Near West, she's the fattest soul. I've said this to her several times: 'You want people to like you, you've gotta like yourself first.' I tell her all the time: 'I'm the most beautiful person in the world, and there's nobody here that looks better than me.' You know what? I feel that way about myself, I believe that about myself. Am I perfect? No. Of course I make mistakes. I just wish that she could find that, and I hope she finds it before she goes to college."

The girl sang a one-line solo in the last show. "It was something to the effect that 'Things never change, and I'm afraid, because I think they never will,'" says Mammy. "When people first heard her sing that line, they were saying, 'Oh yeah, right.' And I said, 'You know what? You don't gotta like her, you don't gotta be her friend, but you cannot deny when that young woman sings that line, it sends shivers down your spine.'" There's nothing more fragile, or harder to watch, than a soul that still has a chance.

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