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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 chedderson@nearwesttheatre.org 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.

Guest Post: Clue Into Near West Theatre and Win!

I wanted to begin 2012 refreshed so Scott and I are taking a road trip to Austin to see two of our favorite Clevelanders. While we’re in the live music capital of the world, I leave you in the very capable hands of a few local bloggers I enjoy.

And with my love for Cleveland’s theatre community, I figured what better way to kick off the guest posts than by clue-ing into Near West Theatre with Sara at Finding the Time?  Plus, she’s hosting a giveaway for tickets to their 2012 benefit – enjoy!

Hi, I’m Sara from a little blog called Finding the Time I’m thrilled to be stopping in to guest post at Clue into Cleveland while Amanda and her husband hit the road.  I actually met Scott 5 years ago in Philadelphia when we both worked at the Walnut Street Theatre.  A native Clevelander myself, I was floored when I found out Scott was moving here and even more amazed when I saw him again years later at the kick-off event for last year’s Jump Back Ball.  Through Scott, Jump Back Ball and our mutual love of blogging, I found that Amanda and I have quite a bit in common.

I’m here today to tell you a little bit about one of my favorite places, Near West Theatre.  You may not have heard of Near West Theatre – lots of theatre-loving Clevelanders haven’t, and it’s truly a shame as Near West Theatre has been putting on high-quality production and fostering their mission of community engagement for over 30 years.

I feel the need for a bit of a disclaimer at this point.  I used to work for Near West Theatre.  Upon my return toCleveland after working at the Walnut, I was hired there and spent 4 amazing years as their Marketing Associate and Office Manager.  That said, I don’t work there anymore, and wouldn’t be promoting them to you CiC readers, if I didn’t love what they do.

Near West Theatre started in 1978 with a teen’s summer theatre production of Godspell.  Founder and Executive Director Stephanie Morrison-Hrbek was given an $800 grant to put on the production in the 3rd floor ballroom of St. Patrick’s Club Building with 13 teens from Urban Community School.  The program was an outlet to keep kids off the street during the summer and show the adults of the neighborhood that they could do something productive.  Each summer since (including this summer with their 34th Annual Summer Youth Theatre production of Miss Saigon) an ever growing and changing group of teens make the trek up the stairs to that ballroom and audiences flock to see them perform.

Near West Theatre’s 2011 Benefit at Trinity Cathedral

Since that first summer, Near West Theatre has been growing … quietly.  Expanding their season and programming (they now have 3 main stage productions with casts that range from age 7-70!), attracting new talent and setting a standard as not only a location for exceptional theatre but a place where actors go for a completely unique experience.  That’s because at Near West Theatre, you don’t just put on a play.  You explore the content, connect with your fellow cast members and build community through your work.  Entire weeks of the rehearsal process are dedicated to team building – something practically unheard of in the theatre world – and this process (perfected over 20 years by Artistic Director, Bob Navis Jr.) is what draws actors and audiences in and, ultimately, what keeps them coming back.

Today, after 33 seasons, Near West Theatre is still at St. Patrick’s Club Building – a space they outgrew years ago.  However, they are currently in the process of raising money to build a new space at W. 68th St. & Detroit Ave. in the Gordon Square Arts District.  This new space will allow them to expand programming, serve more of the community and explore new works.

Want to get in on the act?  Near West Theatre’s 2012 Benefit, “Consider Yourself One of Us,” is right around the corner!  Taking place January 28th at Trinity Cathedral, this is an event that you are not going to want to miss. The night includes an energetic performance by Near West cast members,  fabulous drinks, delicious food (provided by Euro USA and prepared by Spice of Life Catering Co.), desserts by Gypsy Beans & Baking Co., dancing with a live DJ and silent auction & raffle highlighting the best that Cleveland has to offer.  Oh and I’ll be there so that’s cool too, right???  Tickets are $85 and can be purchased by visiting the Near West Theatre website.


Wanna win free tickets?  Near West Theatre has given me 2 tickets to give away to a very lucky Clue Into Cleveland/Finding the Time reader!  There are two easy ways to enter:

  1. Hop over to this post on Finding the Time and say “Hi!”  Be sure to let me know that Clue into Cleveland sent you!
  2. Like Near West Theatre on Facebook (and leave an additional comment on that Finding the Time post to let me know you did!)

The winner will be selected by Random.org and announced on Finding the Time on January 13th so be sure to check back in and see if you’ve won!

Disclosure: I (Sara) was provided by Near West Theatre with 2 tickets to give away and 2 tickets for myself for promoting the event.  All opinions are 100% my own.