The Art of Engagement, Part 2: Near West Theatre

Today is part 2 in my blog series “The Art of Engagement” (your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you; I slightly changed the name), which takes a look at Cleveland theatres and the different ways they engage their audiences.

If you want to catch up, check out last week’s post which focused on the Cleveland Play House and how their move downtown wasn’t the only change the theatre underwent this season to better reach the Cleveland community.

For part 2, we’re heading to the Gordon Square Arts District for Near West Theatre.

Community engagement is at the heart of Near West Theatre’s philosophy.  In addition to making their shows accessible to the entire community with $8 tickets and post/pre-show talkbacks, Near West has spent the last 30 years building a home where “Ordinary People Create Extraordinary Theatre.”

Although Near West places an emphasis on serving youth, they are an intergenerational theatre with casts and crews that range across all ages, social/economic backgrounds and theatre experience.  By sharing their wide spectrum of backgrounds and experiences with one another, both personal and communal growth happens within the production process, resulting in authentic, passionate theatre for audiences to enjoy.

Last season's production of Willy Wonka

For the audience member who has always wanted to try out the “other side” of the footlights, Near West’s audition nights are unlike other theatres of their calibur, offering a group audition process designed for everyone in the community.

Don’t worry about preparing a monologue or a headshot, as everyone is led through a series of acting, movement and improvisational exercises and taught a song as a group. Although you will eventually need to sing a bit, you can do it as a solo or duet.

The idea behind this is that people often don’t realize their potential to perform or how personally enriching the experience could be. Subsequently, regardless of whether it is honed or raw talent, every individual who auditions for a show is considered of equal value.

Earlier this week, Julie Cajigas from CoolCleveland posted an article on Near West’s upcoming benefit and shared her experiences from attending one of their auditions. Although she originally attended the audition to observe, she was invited to participate and has a great story to share about the transformative audition process that’s open to everyone. Definitely check the article out.

If you don’t want to step on stage (like me), but are still looking for an enriching experience, there are many other volunteer opportunities open to the public.

Those interested in volunteering as a house manager or at the concession-counter can learn what makes a theater tick by hearing pre-show warm-ups, mike checks and all of the craziness that happens before the curtain goes up.  As someone who got hooked on theatre this way, it is an easy commitment that has a lot of benefits.  There are longer-term opportunities, as well, for volunteering on the Production Crew over the course of a show’s run and helping with the set constructions, props and costuming.

Auditions and volunteer opportunities for Near West's next production are coming soon

Near West Theatre’s next production is Ragtime, which will run May 4-20.  And the opportunities to be involved are coming up soon:

Auditions will take place Feb. 28, Feb. 29 and March 1 at 7:30pm each night.  The auditions will take place at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 1349 W. 78th St. Because the characters in this show almost entirely consist of teens and adults, the group auditions are open to those age 16 and older.  The auditions for the three younger roles will be offered at a different time for children.

As with previous productions, the experience is designed especially for someone who’s always admired theater but never auditioned.

Hans Holznagel, Near West’s Chief Operating Officer, shared some advice for first timers: There’s no need to prepare anything. Come dressed for movement and in shoes you can dance in. Be ready and willing to listen, learn about the themes of the show, work with others, and share yourself.

Advanced registration isn’t necessary. Show up on any one of the three evenings and arrive a little early to fill out some information about yourself and your availability (in case you should later be cast!).

Even if you’re not cast you’ll get first-hand experience of improvisational exercises, learn a bit of song and dance, and meet with Artistic Director Bob Navis Jr. and other members of the Near West staff.

Learn more about the auditions for Ragtime and Near West’s two other Spring shows by visiting their auditions experience page.

In addition to auditioning, there are also opportunities to volunteer on the production crew. Pictured is a shot of Near West's Into the Woods set in the middle of the rehersal process.

Backstage volunteers are also needed for Ragtime, including people to specifically help with lighting, sound, set construction, properties, costumes, and on-stage crew. Production crew volunteers are needed at every rehearsal for the last couple of weeks of April and in early May and then at every show in May.

If you want some flexibility or can’t make a huge time commitment (a hurdle I know a lot of us face), house managers, assistant house managers, and volunteers to work concessions, gift shop and ticketing are needed during the run. You can volunteer at just one or multiple performances and only need to show up an hour or so before curtain.

Or (and this is what I’m most excited to learn about) keep an eye out on their website and sign up for their newsletter to learn when the Community Work Day is going to be held (I was told it’ll likely be sometime in March or April). Set building, painting, organizing of costumes and props, and other tasks are done that day. And because you’ll have the help of Near West’s professional production team, no experience is necessary for any of this.

If you want more information or coordinate volunteering, Near West’s Business and Operations Director Carole-Leiblinger-Hedderson can be reached at or 216-961-9750 .

This Saturday's Near West Benefit will help raise funds to continue the theatre's mission of community engagement

Ultimately, the result of all of this is a community and audience that is engaged in a production even months before they see it take the stage.  It’s because they’ve had the unique opportunity to see how a show develops from audition to dress rehersal. And I can share from previous experience that even when all I did was paint a section of set, the connection you feel when sitting in your seat is ten-fold and that’s some of the best audience enrichment you can ask for.

Come back next week for part 3 of the Art of Engagement and a spotlight on Great Lakes Theatre!  In the meantime, if you’re free this Saturday evening, you can still get tickets at the door for Near West’s Consider Yourself One of Us Benefit.  Funds raised through the evening go to support the theatre’s mission of accessibility and engagement.

Many thanks to Hans Holznagel for sharing Near West’s mission with me and discussing their community engagement. All images are courtesy of Near West Theatre.

3 thoughts on “The Art of Engagement, Part 2: Near West Theatre

  1. Pingback: The Art of Engagement, Part 1: Cleveland Play House « Clue Into Cleveland

  2. Pingback: The Art of Engagement, Part 3: Great Lakes Theater « Clue Into Cleveland

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