The year 1968 was auspicious in Cleveland theater history for two big reasons: I was born, and Dobama Theatre opened its doors on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights. In the intervening 37 years, we have each changed a lot, Dobama and I, together and apart, for better and for worse.
Our playgrounds could not have been more different back then. Somewhere between the eras of Marilyn Sheppard and Amy Mihaljevic, I could toddle around unmonitored in the front yard of my Wolf Road home in Bay Village with little fear of being snatched . . . or maybe my parents' "Ice Storm" generation really was kind of slow.
Coventry, meanwhile, was cementing its reputation, one that persists to this day, as a hangout for an "edgy" crowd. It was an inexpensive place to live and was an attractive spot for a lot of intellectuals, teachers and otherwise unsavory, forward-thinking pinkos to live, drink and presumably take a lot of drugs.
Founding artistic director Donald Bianchi signed the lease on the basement space at 1846 Coventry — then a bowling alley — in 1964. The landlord offered them (if you can believe this) free rent until their first show opened. The owner was obviously a communist. Even so, no one imagined then that it would take four years to get the space into shape.
When Dobama opened its first play on Coventry, Lorrainne Hansberry's "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window," an examination of race relations between blacks and Jews, there was a real-live biker bar across the street. Oooh, scary — big, hairy bikers!
This is funny because my father-in-law is a big, hairy biker, who owns a real-live biker bar in Athens, Ohio. But I digress.
Following a rather cushy upbringing and putting in the requisite five years at Ohio University, I came to Cleveland Heights in the early 1990s. It was the end of an era . . . and apparently the beginning of a new one. It still had a hippie-dippy vibe. Hang-abouts were still smoking cigarettes and playing Pente at all hours in the Arabica on the corner. My friends and I performed at open-mic nights in what they used to call The Yard out in front of that coffeehouse, a big open plaza where kids played hackey-sack and there was even more smoking.
It was also a depressed time. A friend who came to visit got his car broken into in the middle of the afternoon and has never been back. I was consistently hit up by a guy named Benny. Nice guy. He got most of my change, back when I still gave people change.
My introduction to Dobama was when I went to see "Nebraska" by Keith Reddin, a play about the effects of stress upon the men and women who work in nuclear weapons silos. Then as now, Dobama Theatre has been dedicated to plays with strong, left-leaning social messages.
The early '90s was also when Joyce Casey began her tenure as artistic director. Since then she has worked to maintain the theater's reputation for progressive-thinking plays, to reward her artists with pay (the performers, directors and artisans from the Age of Aquarius did it all for love, the amateurs) and to attract young, new audiences.
That's where I came in. In 1995 I was asked to create a late-night theater project — shows that would go up after the curtain came down on the mainstage shows — specifically to get teenagers and young adults into the seats. I also worked as the public relations director, to justify a paycheck.
Before I left Dobama in 1998, I developed a strong attachment to that theater. At that time, it was practically the only theater in town presenting the best modern plays to Cleveland audiences. "Angels In America," "Wit," the works of Suzan-Lori Parks and Paula Vogel — if you had seen the Cleveland premiere of a Pulitzer Prize- or Tony Award-winning play, or last year's great Off-Broadway or West End hit, the odds were very good you saw it at Dobama.
Their dedication to local playwrights is unequaled in Cleveland, presenting one world premiere a season. Eric Coble, Sarah Morton, Faye Sholiton, and, yes, even I have had new works presented for the first time either as part of the mainstage or Night Kitchen productions.
There have been detractors. Even I thought Joyce was high when she chose to produce Mart Crowley's "For Reasons That Remain Unclear" in 1997. A two-person, one-set drama featuring Mitchell Fields as a pedophile priest and Scott Plate as one of his now-grown victims who confronts him — in Rome! I thought it would be hooted off the stage. And I had to sell it.
Crowley, best known for the groundbreaking and gay-stereotype-setting "The Boys in the Band," had had one ill-received production of "For Reasons" in Washington a few years earlier. The Dobama production seemed sure to be its second.
It was a big, big hit for Dobama. The show's run was extended an additional weekend, which afforded the playwright, with his L.A. entourage (Crowley does a lot of writing for television), the opportunity to come to Cleveland and see his latest work be vindicated. I will never forget when Joyce announced the playwright's presence in the audience following curtain call. We could all hear Scott in the dressing room; he yelped like a little girl. It was yet another touching, transcendent moment in the history of this little theater.
Meanwhile, time was not kind to the glazed, white terra cotta building Dobama has called home. One morning I was working in the office, alone, when I heard someone turn on the shower in the men's room lobby — which has no shower. I stood in mute horror as the entire lobby flooded in a matter of minutes. Quite often I have watched in pain as productions would include actual rain, onstage. Conditions for producing professional theater became incrementally intolerable.
When the Winking Lizard restaurant moved in upstairs in 1998, the sounds of chairs scraping across the floor and newly installed toilets flushing directly over the audience's heads became a commonplace occurrence. Intimate, quiet productions have become almost impossible to consider for production, and Dobama has lost subscribers because of this, as well as all of the other inconveniences.
Meanwhile, the Coventry neighborhood has been evolving around this liberal bastion of free expression and authority-questioning drama. While the stalwart, funky and fun emporiums of the past (Tommy's Restaurant, High Tide-Rock Bottom, Mac's Back Paperbacks and Record Revolution among others) have held back corporate encroachment by consolidating into one co-operatively owned block in the middle of the street, new landlords at the extremes have done their best to maximize profit and lower the common denominator.
In the neighborhood where I used to get my eyeglass prescription filled, take tai chi lessons, get my groceries and ply my trade as a theater artist, I can now buy pizza, hoagies, sushi, burritos and ice cream. For every independent boutique that can't cut it, we get another place to stuff your face.
Worse still, it's like Coventry is eating itself. The chain coffee shop put the old Arabica out of business in 2001. The chain burrito place went up after the success of the locally owned Que Tal up the street, and Strickland's and Goodie's ice cream shops opened almost simultaneously to much consternation. The new sub shop will no doubt do damage to the long-established Grum's, and now there's a third pizza place.
The business model seems to be: You have clientele? I want it. No imagination, no plan for the future; it's just business.
Now, I have no illusion about the bohemian era for which Coventry is so celebrated. It's like Derf put it in one of his cartoons: "Coventry — it's just like Greenwich Village!!! (Only smaller and duller.)"
But it was once a neighborhood where I would go and stay, and not just to work. On a beautiful day, you could even walk up to The Yard and see who was there. No one does that anymore, either — the powers that be put giant, hideous planters there several years ago as part of some forgotten beautification plan. Now there isn't any room for people to play guitar or skateboard or attract any kind of crowd.
Dobama has been looking for a new home for some time, someplace warm and dry, where it can afford the rent, which has been rising exponentially up and down the street. The theater has been promised a new space in the old YMCA building across the street from the Cleveland Heights Main Library on Lee Road. And a proud new sign hangs on the building that reads "Future Home of Dobama Theatre."
Unfortunately, that place won't be ready until 2006. And J. Scott Scheel, Dobama's landlord since March 2003, gave management a "notice to vacate premises" in November 2004. It was only through a last-minute intervention by the city of Cleveland Heights that the theater could keep operating on Coventry through the conclusion of the 2004-2005 season.
For the next year — and hopefully only for the next year — Dobama will go "on tour," producing plays under the Dobama name at other venues around the city.
With Dobama gone, the moneymaking can really begin in that basement space. That is, once its spongelike ceiling is taken care of and an elevator is installed to take care of the problem that no one with a wheelchair or a heart condition can get down those steps. Scheel told me he is looking forward to putting "a comedy club, other live theater, a jazz club, a pool hall . . . or a restaurant" down there. He quickly added that a restaurant "is not our preference."
The last three retail stores to leave his iced wedding cake of a building have been replaced with places to eat. This is me holding my breath.
I feel Coventry is at a painful and difficult juncture. Perhaps the large crowds currently drawn to the sports bar and the other sports bar and the other sports bar don't really care that Dobama is leaving — or don't even know it's there, which is more likely. What troubles me is that I used to go to Coventry not just to work, but to see what was happening, to run into people, and to, you know, have a life.
If Coventry is going to win back any of its reputation as a cool place to be, it needs someplace like Dobama, if not the place itself. A place where folks from diverse backgrounds — bikers and bankers, punks and preps, white, black, straight, gay, Jew, gentile — come together for a communal experience. Not merely to consume, but to participate in some time-honored ritual. Entertaining, edifying, affordable and something uniquely Cleveland.
After 40 years, Coventry needs a new bowling alley.