I wasn’t in the mood to see a show. Sitting in a stiff backed chair in a stuffy church building in Cleveland. It was only Spring, but already hot outside and I was sure there was no entertainment in the world that I would prefer at that moment over sitting in a baby pool with a cold beer. But only mere moments after the house lights went down, I forgot about the temperature and my already-stiffening sciatic nerve and I knew that I was witnessing something extraordinary.
It was just last year and I watching the Near West Theatre production of “The Secret Garden”. I had seen shows at Near West before, but it had been quite a while and this was my first show there after agreeing to produce a series of videos for their upcoming production of “Rent, Jr.”. I certainly didn’t remember an experience at NWT being quite like this. Situated in the round, the audience was literally a part of the story with characters surrounding us amidst dazzling lighting and orchestra members located all around the circumference of the house. It truly was this amazing sensory experience combined with the great performances of the cast that stands out as my first (new) impression of NWT…quality.
Now I was anxious to learn more about the creative minds behind this theatre and was really excited to begin work documenting the unique and, often, life-changing experience of producing a Near West show. As voyeuristic as a documentary camera lens can be sometimes, it can also give one a great perspective on the subject matter. Looking through my cameras, and reviewing in editing what those cameras actually recorded, I could quickly see that while the shows on stage are special, the process of getting them there is what is truly extraordinary.
I interviewed cast members who have been in many NWT shows and whose lives had literally been changed by finding their artistic voices in theatre under the leadership of Artistic Director Bob Navis, Jr. and Executive Director Stephanie Morrison-Hrbek. Kids and adults who very easily could have been lost to the streets now flourish with each production and become great performers and artists with pride in their work and a loyalty to each other and to the theatre that is unmatched anywhere else in Cleveland. While most other theatres may focus on the (important) mechanics of putting a show on stage, at NWT, the journey IS the destination and rehearsals often focus on cast members exploring their own feelings – about themselves, each other and the work – playing games and exercises that draw the actors closer to the piece at hand in deep and personal ways. And the the end products are amazing.
I quickly learned that Near West is a big, beautiful, creative family whose arms and hearts are always open to anyone. And I was in love.
How did you fall in love with Near West?