The performance stage inside the Garden Theatre building went dark decades ago, but a new nonprofit is dedicated to bringing it back to life. Short North Stage began organizing over a year ago with the mission to create a new performing arts theatre group in Columbus and have taken on the task of rebuilding the Garden Theatre as their new home.
We recently spoke to Peter Yockel, President of the Board at Short North Stage to find out more about their organization and what type of productions we can expect to be attending in the near future.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your background, theatrical credentials and your role in the Short North Stage project?
A: First, Short North Stage is not one person. It’s a group of individuals with diverse backgrounds, ranging from performers to stage technicians, educators and business professionals who have worked together for the past year and a half to make Short North Stage a reality. I was elected President of the board, which means I coordinate our plans and activities. My own theatrical background began as co-producer with my partner, Rick Gore, of a Broadway-scale musical, called Nefertiti, in south Florida. We’ve been involved with two subsequent productions of that musical in Chicago and Dayton, and I have co-written two musicals. But I am primarily a community organizer and trainer. I trained Peace Corps volunteers for more than 20 years. Those skills are very useful in helping to organize a new arts group.
Q: So how did the Short North Stage come about?
A: When Rick and I moved to Columbus in late 2009 we began seeking out people interested in theater. A good friend, who is the managing director of the Cleveland Playhouse, had suggested that the city seemed ripe for a new regional professional company. Some of the people we met agreed, and two of our new friends, Dave and Ellen Weibel, organized a party at which the other guests got excited about the idea of organizing a new company. We started holding monthly meetings and the group grew to about 25 people. By August of 2010 we had elected a Board and by November applied for 501 (c)(3) status, which was approved by the IRS this past March. Since then we have successfully applied for and received a BOOST grant from the Greater Columbus Arts Council.
Q: Do you envision that what the Short North Stage is looking to accomplish as a part of a return to more of an arts-focused district in the Short North?
A: Although there’s been increasing influence of the bars and restaurants in the Short North, it remains the most vibrant arts scene in Ohio. Short North Stage can certainly help spearhead a new emphasis on performing arts. The Short North Business Association and the Special Investment District have announced goals which include revitalization of the north end of the Short North and a new emphasis on the Bohemian feeling of the district. On July 12th we signed a long-term lease that would let us renovate the landmark Garden Theater just south of Fifth Avenue on High Street. If we succeed in relighting that wonderful old Garden Theater at the gateway to the Short North, we can transform that stretch of High Street into a vibrant performing arts zone. Professional theaters have a synergistic economic power to reshape neighborhoods. Washington DC, Chicago, Louisville, South Florida, Seattle all provide examples of how that happens. And look at Playhouse Square in Cleveland. There’s no reason a first rate professional theater could not evolve in the Short North.
Q: How would you describe the role of Short North Stage as it fits with the performing arts scene throughout all of Columbus?
A: Short North Stage wants to complement the current performing arts scene by adding the focus of musicals. A strong new professional company helps the community by building a larger audience for theater. More locally produced theater means more jobs and more opportunities for actors, directors, designers, and technicians to hone their crafts right here in Ohio. The Short North is a unique cultural feature of central Ohio. We like to say that “the Short North is the window through which Columbus views the world and conversely it’s the window through which the world views Columbus.”
Q: How was the Garden Theater decided upon as a fitting venue?
A: Most people in the Short North know the Garden from driving or walking by. But few people have been inside the building since the 1970s and 80s when it functioned as an X-rated entertainment venue. Even then people recall it as dimly-lit and seedy. But the Garden began life as a handsome state-of-the-art vaudeville house and silent-movie theater. It’s been out of the entertainment business for about twenty years, and despite its recent scurrilous reputation and disrepair, it is structurally a gem. The moment we walked inside we knew the Garden had to be a live theater again. Fortunately, Kevin Lykens, one of the owners, agrees, and he has worked with us to make its renewal feasible.
Q: Do you think that Short North Stage will serve as a catalyst for development in the northern end of the District?
A: If we do our job well, it has to. I think it already is starting to. We hear weekly from other entities in the neighborhood about the excitement Short North Stage has generated. We are bringing grant money into the area, and have already forged a relationship with the Short North Business Association.
Q: Can you tell us more about the history of the Garden Theater building?
A: It’s a much more interesting history than people realize. The Garden is the second oldest surviving theater in Columbus… only the Southern Theater is older. Construction on the main part of the building began in 1917 on the site of a carriage house and stable for the working horses of Columbus. That stable was built around 1850 and there was a paddock on most of the block. A portion of that stable and carriage house persists as the back wall and foundation of the present theater structure. Apparently the Garden was the first theater in Ohio to be air-conditioned and other aspects of the building were quite advanced for 1920 — including its reinforced concrete construction and the façade which is decorated with some of Columbus’s earliest examples of Art Deco motifs.
Q: What is the current condition of the Garden Theater building, and will it require much renovation?
A: The landmark Garden sign just needs repainting and rewiring, and we already have a donor who wants to take care of that. The marquee blew down in a storm in 1986 and will need to be replaced in a style approved by the Victorian Village Association. The charming box office just needs some simple restoration. The lobby remains in fairly good shape. The auditorium, though, has largely been gutted. The seats were removed long ago and the balcony was torn down. The classic proscenium is in shabby shape. But the potential is enormous. Thanks to a generous grant from the Greater Columbus Arts Council, we have hired a terrific Columbus-based theatrical architectural firm, Hardlines Design, Inc. to plan a renovation. Hardlines is the same group that oversaw the restoration of the Lincoln Theater. They have done a structural analysis and are drawing up plans that can convert the Garden into a state-of-the-art performance space with almost 300 seats. It’s not going to be a historic renovation like the Lincoln. Too many pieces of the past are missing. The auditorium itself will have a brick-and-timbers feeling typical of today’s Short North, while the nearly intact lobby will remind patrons of the original 1920s architecture. There will be ample dressing rooms, a costume shop and rehearsal rooms, as well as a scene and props shop. The renovation will require time and a significant capital campaign fund. Fortunately, we can do renovation in two phases, and the initial one is relatively simple. During the first phase we will create a 99-seat house with a platform stage within the larger auditorium. This will enable us to offer small-scale performances relatively soon—perhaps by this fall.
Q: What type of programming will Short North Stage focus on?
A: Short North Stage will focus on musicals. We also want to originate new works, and help develop promising musicals that are works in progress. We’ve been in touch with the writers of a number of exciting new projects, both in New York and closer to home. That doesn’t mean we’ll ignore more familiar works. Reinventions of favorite classics such as Cabaret or Chicago would fit in our space beautifully. And there are plenty of lesser known gems to be revisited. While our emphasis is on musicals, we also plan to present at least one drama or comedy each season. We will also develop educational programs to help train aspiring young local theater professionals.
Q: What type of balance will there be between original productions and classic performances?
A: We do want to attract audiences with some familiar titles, but we want them to come to Short North Stage mainly to see original or edgier pieces that have not been presented in Ohio. We will sponsor readings and workshops and those will almost all be original works.
Q: So when will the first season officially begin?
A: We will begin programming as soon as possible. For example, we are investigating offering a concert version of a famous musical this Fall in the unrenovated space. Then we will begin work on the 99 seat theater. We’ve begun our capital and operational funding campaigns and are optimistic that the theater will be ready for a first full season in 2012.
More information can be found online at www.shortnorthstage.org.