Category Archives: Alumni

In the spotlight: NWT actor Patrick Ciamacco

Patrick Ciamacco

Patrick Ciamacco

Look closely and you may recognize the leading ogre in Shrek the Musical, the first-ever main-stage show in Near West Theatre’s brand-new performance venue, opening April 24. He’s played by Patrick Ciamacco, who since 1996 has made dozens of appearances at Near West’s old Ohio City venue and on many other Cleveland-area stages. Perhaps you’ve seen him at his very own Blank Canvas Theatre, which he founded in 2011. He even played Shrek once before, in Mercury Summer Stock’s 2013 production of the musical, alongside Justin Woody, who likewise is reprising the role of Donkey at Near West.

Patrick with Katie Klaus in The Baker's Wife (2002)

Patrick with Katie Klaus in The Baker’s Wife at Near West (2002)

Patrick and buddy Joe Kenderes came in from suburban Brunswick to audition for Near West’s youth production of South Pacific in 1996. It was the start of a long relationship with Near West, where both of them have performed many times since and where Patrick has also directed and assisted in other capacities over the years.

Patrick as Che Guevara in NWT's producton of Evita (2002)

As Che Guevara in Evita (2002)

“I remember walking up to St. Pat’s for that first audition and not being sure if we were in the right place,” Patrick says. “When we got upstairs, I was scared, thinking, ‘There are so many teens here.’ I ended up getting cast in the ensemble and had no idea it would change my life like it did: performing in so many shows, directing, working with some amazing kids, and now seeing those kids all grown up. It has brought so many friends and ‘family’ into my life.”

As one of the four narrators in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (2004), with, from left Kristy Cruz, Trinidad Snider, Carlos Cruz, and Ralph Pack as Jacob

As one of the four narrators in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (2004), with, from left, Kristy Cruz, Trinidad Snider, Carlos Cruz, and Ralph Pack as Jacob

Patrick graduated from Brunswick High School in 1998 and recently became the youngest inductee into its Alumni Hall of Fame. He now lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood, close to Near West’s new Gordon Square theater and Blank Canvas’ West 78th Street venue, where he spends long hours. “I love that I can produce smaller musical and non-musical shows there that can also provide entertainment and community outreach. We are about to open Extremities, a searing play about an attempted rape and its aftermath as the victim turns the tables on her attacker. It explores themes that are part of a national conversation about domestic abuse, rape and assault. We’ve even partnered with the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. They’ll be doing talk-backs after some of our shows.”

As Mr. Bumble in Oliver! (2011), with Skipper Rankin as Oliver and Gwen Stembridge as Mrs. Bumble

As the Beadle in Oliver! (2011), with Skipper Rankin as Oliver and Gwen Stembridge as Mrs. Bumble

He answered an e-mail in the middle of the night, in a week filled with Near West rehearsals and Blank Canvas tech, to answer three questions about Shrek the Musical. It’s on stage April 24 through May 17 at 6702 Detroit Ave. Tickets are available online or by calling 216-961-6891, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.

1. What’s unique about Near West’s take on Shrek the Musical? The actors and staff who are telling the story. The process of developing any production at Near West Theatre allows the cast to really put themselves into the story: their experiences, their feelings, their heart. You’ll see that on this wonderful new stage. All of them, from the Donkey to the Gingerbread Cookie, are pouring their souls into the show.

2. What’s the greatest challenge in playing the role of Shrek? Living up to the expectations people have while still exploring the role from an actor’s point of view. It’s a character we all know and love. My goal is to put my own nuances into the role while balancing what the audience comes expecting to see and hear. I don’t want to reinvent Shrek. Kids, especially, want to see the green ogre they have watched over and over again. The smile on their faces after a show is better than anything.

3. What kind of an era do you hope you’re helping to launch with this first show ever in this brand-new venue? This show is a giant fairy tale. It quite possibly could be one of the largest shows NWT has ever done. Ogres, donkeys, dragons, castles — it’s huge! This show will bring in the era of Broadway-esque spectacle and magic that this neighborhood has not yet ever seen.

— Hans Holznagel

As Harold Hill, with Joe Kenders as Marcellus, in The Music Man (2006)

As Harold Hill, with Joe Kenderes as Marcellus, in The Music Man (2006)

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Near West Theatre’s 2015 opening events, including Shrek the Musical, are presented by Thompson Hine and its subsidiary, PMC. Near West Theatre is grateful for ongoing operating support from the Ohio Arts CouncilCuyahoga Arts and Culture, and Greater Cleveland Community Shares, and for special support from Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northeastern Ohio for equipment used by young people in technical workshops and other backstage experiences.

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In the spotlight: NWT alumna Mariah Burks

Mariah Burks during a recent benefit performance at Bowling Green State.

Mariah Burks during a recent benefit performance at Bowling Green State University.

Mariah Burks (right) with Molly Nagin in The Truth About Cinderella (2002).

Mariah (right) with Molly Nagin in The Truth About Cinderella (2002).

Mariah Victoria Burks, a 3rd-grader at Cleveland’s Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, was living right around the corner from Near West Theatre when she first took the stage as one of the orphans in Annie (2001). She was a regular cast member for years to come, even after her family moved to North Royalton, where she graduated from high school in 2011. At Near West she played leading roles in The Wiz (2009), Rent (2010) and Miss Saigon (2011), and was most recently seen at NWT in Move On! (2014), our farewell show at the St. Pat’s Club Building. A recent Region II winner of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival’s Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship competition, she’ll compete nationally in April in Washington, D.C. She will graduate from Bowling Green State University this spring with a B.A. degree in communications with a specialization in musical theater. This fall she’ll enter the three-year Master of Fine Arts acting program at Case Western Reserve University. We recently asked her three questions.

Mariah as Dorothy in The Wiz (2009) with Pat Ciamacco (foreground) and (from left) Darius Stubbs, Edwin Smith and Cory Zukoski.

Mariah as Dorothy in The Wiz (2009) with Pat Ciamacco (foreground) and (from left) Darius Stubbs, Edwin Smith and Cory Zukoski.

1. What’s something you learned at Near West Theatre that sticks with you, even now, as an advanced student of acting? No matter what you’re going through, you too have a story to tell that can change and impact anybody, anywhere, as long as you, the performer, are open and willing to let your story constantly change something in you. That way, your story never becomes old but consistently refreshed and revived.

Mariah as Kim, with Michael Glavan as Chris, in Miss Saigon (2011).

Mariah as Kim, with Michael Glavan as Chris, in Miss Saigon (2011).

2. Any thoughts on growing up on West 41st Street, then moving away but staying connected to NWT? At first it was a challenge to have moved away from the place I knew I could easily go to just to have fun and let loose. But even after moving, I found that the pull of NWT was even stronger and that I had to be part of it some way, somehow. I could not let myself not be in this closely knit family. Even now, knowing that my collegiate schedule conflicts with the Annual Benefit is always a heart breaker for me. But I know that no matter where I go, I always have NWT family and friends that will welcome me back with open arms and hearts!

3. What are your hopes for Near West as we open a new building and a new chapter in our history? My hope is that for every show that is produced, hundreds and hundreds upon hundreds of people will flock to see what makes NWT not just a diamond in the rough, but the epitome of raw, cultured and love-woven theater. I truly hope that NWT and its people flourish in whatever they do!

Mariah (in headband) in Move On! (2014).

Mariah (left center, in headband) in Move On! (2014).

 — Hans Holznagel

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Near West Theatre is grateful for ongoing operating support from the Ohio Arts CouncilCuyahoga Arts and Culture, and Greater Cleveland Community Shares, and for special support from Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northeastern Ohio for equipment used by young people in technical workshops and other backstage experiences.


In the spotlight: NWT alumna Autumn Smith

Autumn Smith

Autumn Smith

Autumn Smith started hanging around Near West Theatre at age 3. She’s now about to finish college, majoring in East Asian studies and Japanese language. “My family had been doing Near West for a long time, so it was only natural I join in,” she says of her years growing up on Cleveland’s Near West Side. “My mother, Julie Smith, worked in shows and on costumes.” Autumn got on stage at age 7 in Follow the Yellow Brick Road (2001) and many more appearances followed — in Snoopy! (2003), Aladdin Jr. (2006) and Finian’s Rainbow (2008), to name a few. She graduated from St. Martin de Porres High School in 2011; is now a senior at Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio, where overseas studies have taken her to Japan and China (and where she hasn’t been afraid to speak out for justice on campus); and is looking at graduate schools in Colorado and England. “I was interested in Japanese studies because of a draw to the language and the sounds of the language itself. I am pursuing them now with the aim of exploring intercultural relations, identity, and globalization as manifest through Japanese literature and how they can relate to the big-scale cultural gaps between Japan and the United States.”And she’s an accomplished poet. Check out her blog of verse, “I Am Aki,” here. We recently asked her three questions.

1. What’s one strong memory from your years at Near West Theatre?
Autumn Smith (right) as Princess Jasmine in Aladdin Jr. (2006).

Autumn Smith (right front) as Princess Jasmine in Aladdin Jr. (2006), with Jason Dugger as Aladdin.

My strongest memories of Near West are the Annual Benefit and the pumpkin pals/secret pals aspect. I met my best friend through “Meat Pie Pals” during Sweeney Todd (2009) and I am still lucky enough to call her my sister. The Benefit shows, for me, were like one big reunion every year, of people I grew up with and loved, and the opportunity to not only be in one show but in an amalgam of them. They were always my favorite time of the year. I remember one year, a particularly hectic one for me, I came into the Benefit space that was full of hugs and tears and how-have-you-been’s. No matter how many times or how few times I come back to NWT, it’s nice to know that I have people there that will always make it feel like a homecoming.

2. You’re clearly a “words” person. Any connection between your stage experiences and your poetry and language studies?
Autumn (right) belting it out with the Snoopy cast in 2003.

Autumn (right), pencil in hand, in Snoopy! (2003).

I think I mostly got interested in language because it’s a new world you enter when you get the language itself down. Just like poetry, if you get the language down, you can completely transform the way you see the world. When I speak in Japanese, I feel like I enter a different reality, like I can somehow shape it. Obviously, there is a correlation with the stage there. Words give me a medium to interact with the world around me and shape it with the way I use them. It’s my favorite type of Art. People underestimate how much words have brought us to where we are now, but honestly, words have defined everything. Without them, there wouldn’t even be a reality to talk about. Literally though, someone defined reality and made it exist. Think about it.

3. What’s your hope for Near West Theatre now that we’re opening our long-awaited new building and a new chapter in our history?

I’m really excited to see the new and creative ways in which Near West is bound to tackle this new space! I want to see poetry, I want to see one-acts — all the things our old space didn’t really have the room for. I know if anyplace knows how to bring the potential out of the space it is given, it’s Near West! I can’t wait to come home to see the legacy live on in its new reincarnation!

Autumn (left) in Follow the Yellow Brick Road (2001).

Autumn (second from left) in Follow the Yellow Brick Road (2001).

— Hans Holznagel

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Near West Theatre is grateful for ongoing operating support from the Ohio Arts CouncilCuyahoga Arts and Culture, and Greater Cleveland Community Shares, and for special support from Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northeastern Ohio for equipment used by young people in technical workshops and other backstage experiences. A version of this article will also be featured in the March 2015 edition of Near West Theatre’s e-newsletter, The Near West Circle.


In the spotlight: NWT alumnus Daniel Caraballo

Daniel Caraballo

Danny Caraballo

Danny Caraballo first came to Near West Theatre’s stage in Merrily We Roll Along (2006) while a student at St. Ignatius High School. He earned a B.F.A. in musical theater from Kent State University in 2012 and now performs professionally. His credits include the national tour of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story (Richie Valens), and, this past summer, Celtic Fyre (The Inkeeper, who is the narrator and lead singer) at Busch Gardens, Virginia. We recently asked him three questions:

1. What role did Near West Theatre play in your life as a young person?

I have always considered NWT as the birthplace of my craft. Bob Navis and Stephanie Morrison Hrbek opened my eyes to a form of artistry so fulfilling and wholesome back in 2006. I couldn’t get enough of each cast’s comaraderie and the lifelong friends that would follow. Growing up in Cleveland’s inner city, NWT lit a passion and a flame that still burns bright and helps drive me here in New York City.

2. Now that you’re a professional actor, what’s something that sticks with you even now from those days?

Danny Caraballo (r.) as Bernardo, with Max Kantor as Tony, in NWT's West Side Story (2008).

Danny Caraballo (r.) as Bernardo, with Max Kantor as Tony, in West Side Story at NWT (2008).

Since moving to The City and even while fine-tuning my craft at Kent State, NWT’s process has stayed as my catalyst for every show I’m a part of. I learned to open my heart and allow my peers as well as the audience take the journey with me. I can rock out or show my vulnerability no matter what the stage because NWT made every performance venue a sanctuary for me.

3. What’s your hope for Near West Theatre now that we’re about to open our long-awaited new building and a new chapter in our history?

Jerome, with Doug Bailey as Franklin, in Merrily We Roll Along (2006).

Danny Caraballo (l.) as Jerome, with Doug Bailey as Franklin, in Merrily We Roll Along (2006).

My hope for the new theater is that it becomes the heart and soul of Detroit Shoreway. I grew up a few blocks away from the new venue and when I was a child I hadn’t the slightest idea of what live theater was. My hope is that Near West Theatre becomes one of Cleveland’s most prevalent artistic hubs, a magnet for children and teens to find an outlet to express themselves.

— Hans Holznagel

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Near West Theatre is grateful for ongoing operating support from the Ohio Arts CouncilCuyahoga Arts and Culture, and Greater Cleveland Community Shares, and for special support from Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northeastern Ohio for equipment used by young people in technical workshops and other backstage experiences. A version of this article was also featured in the February 2015 edition of Near West Theatre’s monthly e-newsletter, The Near West Circle.


In the spotlight: NWT alumna Katie Klaus

Katie Klaus

Katie Klaus

Katie Klaus’s credits as a Broadway actor include The Bridges of Madison County, Bonnie and Clyde, A Catered Affair, and Inherit the Wind. Her first show at Near West Theatre, while she was a student at Brunswick High School, was Brigadoon (2001). She graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2006 with a degree in musical theater.

1. What’s one strong early Near West Theatre memory you have?
Warmups with Stephanie Morrison Hrbek and Bob Navis are a memory I won’t ever forget. I was nervous to join NWT, but after Stephanie and Bob got in front of the cast and wiggled around with no inhibitions, my nerves instantly melted away. It was so freeing to be around them and the cast.

2. Now that you’re a professional actor, what’s something that sticks with you even now from your Near West Theatre days? 
I always bring myself into my work. NWT gave me a safe place to shatter my boundaries and explore who I am. Because I learned that freedom, the work I do as an actor has a uniqueness found only in trusting yourself and

Katie Klaus with Alex Nosse in The Baker's Wife (2002). Photo by Rob Sommerfelt.

Katie Klaus with Alex Nosse in The Baker’s Wife (2002). Photo by Rob Sommerfelt.

the people around you to create something wonderful together. This is a gift from NWT I am very grateful for.

3. What’s your hope for Near West Theatre now that we’re about to open our long-awaited new building and a new chapter in our history? 
I hope that the summer shows won’t have to perform in 100-degree heat anymore! (just kiddin’!) Although that will be a welcomed perk, I know the NWT, with the group it was when I was there and the people it consistently attracts to do shows, will always give people a place to let their creativity fly free and grow. My hope is that it reaches an even wider group of people in Ohio and shows them what a unique and amazing place it is. Ohio needs more places like Near West Theatre.

Katie Klaus (right) as Pontius Pilate, with Carlos Cruz as Jesus, in Jesus Christ Superstar (2003). Photo by Rob Sommerfelt

Katie Klaus (right) as Pontius Pilate, with Carlos Cruz as Jesus, in Jesus Christ Superstar (2003). Photo by Rob Sommerfelt

— Hans Holznagel

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Near West Theatre is grateful for ongoing operating support from the Ohio Arts CouncilCuyahoga Arts and Culture, and Greater Cleveland Community Shares, and for special support from Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northeastern Ohio for equipment used by young people in technical workshops and other backstage experiences. A version of this article was also featured in the January 2015 edition of Near West Theatre’s monthly e-newsletter, The Near West Circle.