October 2 , 2003


After 32 years, Center Stage theater takes its final bow

There was a time when local residents could walk in off the street to the community’s black-box theater for an evening of Gilbert and Sullivan at Yellow Springs Center Stage. Audience members could chat in the black-and-white checkered lobby or peruse the art in the gallery before rolling down a red chair for what was sure to feel like an intimate performance put on just for them.



Members of the cast of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical ‘Utopia Unlimited,’ which was performed at Center Stage in 1986 under the direction of Jean Hooper. Ruth Bent served as the musical director.


Last month the signature arch of the show lights went dark outside the Dayton Street theater, and over the weekend the trustees of the nonprofit Yellow Springs Center Stage officially closed the venue because of its deep debt and lack of support.

But even after 32 years of what board members called “a good, long run,” the theater’s founders expressed little regret for their decision. Following the lead of Jean Hooper, Center Stage’s board president and theater manager, many instead said that they were proud of their ability to mount a community theater for such a relatively long time and with little more than box office returns to support it.

“It’s been a lot of fun, and it is with regret that we’re closing,” Hooper said. “But I think it’s O.K. It’s been a reasonable run, and not a whole lot of theaters make it that long.”

The dramatists have been exiting the stage without fanfare for over a month, slowly selling off lighting equipment and the theater’s red chairs and compiling props and costumes possibly to sell at the Oct. 11 Street Fair.

Center Stage will need all the proceeds from these sales to pay down the $8,000 debt the theater has accrued mainly in the past year, Hooper said.

The organization hopes to vacate the building by the end of October, she said.

Center Stage has struggled for a little over five years to attract directors and local support to continue producing quality shows, Hooper said. She and other board members said that times have changed and local residents don’t participate in small community theater the way they once did.

It is becoming more difficult to find enough people willing to spend the intensive weeks of technical set up, stage building and rehearsing, board vice presidents Millard Mier and Rebecca Eschliman said. Though local youth theater productions are going strong, they are also increasing in scope and often need more space than Center Stage can provide, Eschliman said.

Those who have participated in shows at Center Stage since its first production in 1971 are the same people who support it today. The organization is run by a 12-member board, five of whom serve on the executive committee. But the board members are getting tired, they say, and are ready to pass on the responsibility. They have sent out several pleas, but there have been no takers.

“For the most part the community has responded with perfect indifference,” Eschliman said. “It’s been such a struggle to keep it limping along for so long that it’s a relief that finally a decision has been made.”

Center Stage would have needed $1,000 a month and five to six full productions a year to generate enough funds for rent, insurance and incidental costs to maintain itself. But the last in-house show at Center Stage, Androcles and the Lion, was produced about a year ago. The theater hosted just a few outside productions over the last year, including A Cricket in Time Square by YS Kids Playhouse this summer, whose already modest box office receipts the theater split with the production group.

Though the theater’s supporters mean to end their reign gracefully, they still are not quite ready to give up the idea of being a theater company. As far as they are concerned, they remain a loosely formed organization that could rise again in a church hall or on a community stage.

That’s the way they started, after all, Shakespeare Festival veterans and other local thespians who wanted a space to perform after Antioch College decided the “town-gown blend wasn’t the direction they wanted to go,” Eschliman said. A group of around 100 people got together in the old Bryan High School gym in February 1971 to organize, and by June, the Center Stage troupe debuted with the musical The Amorous Flea.

Three years and 15 productions later, the troupe had stabilized enough to move into the current space on Dayton Street, formerly the Antioch Press and Village Ford. They opened up the back room for the auditorium, added the double swinging doors, acquired a space next door for a dressing room and soon became known across the state for having produced the entire Gilbert and Sullivan canon.

The theater was self-supporting, putting on five and six shows a year, such as The Mikado, Lysistrata and Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. The group even had its own night watchman when Don Carr occupied the garage out back and would open it up during intermission to show off his Dussenberg, originally owned by the oil industrialist Jean Paul Getty.

Center Stage continued to average six shows each year, even through the mid-1990s, when many high school and area troupes rented the space for their productions.

And though the theater has declined in recent years, its founders are not disheartened. They expect to get out of debt and free up the space for others to use. Bob Baldwin, who owns the building, said that he plans to refurbish the space for future renters.

“Dayton Street is a prime place for business, and I don’t think Mr. Baldwin will have any problem renting it for a business space,” Hooper said.

Center Stage trustees still feel that theater has a place in Yellow Springs.

“There’s always been theater in Yellow Springs,” Hooper said, “it’s kind of like a tradition.”

—Lauren Heaton