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Recalling the joy of Center Stage

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It was community, and it was theater, and for over 30 years, Center Stage joyfully brought both elements together in downtown Yellow Springs. The all-volunteer yet highly professional organization put on 100-plus plays from its first act in 1971 to its final bow in 2003, most of them in its Dayton Street theater, a space that once was an automobile agency and now houses antiques dealer Atomic Fox. Many hundreds of villagers took part, as cast, crew and audience — and sometimes all three.

“Oh, golly, it was wonderful,” said Center Stage veteran Ron Siemer last week. His involvement spanned 20 years and diverse roles as actor, singer, photographer, billboard painter and board member. “It was real, honest-to-God theater.”

Siemer is one of five local panelists swapping stories of the gone-but-not-forgotten community theater at “Remembering Center Stage,” a tribute event happening this Friday, Jan. 15, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Antioch University Midwest (with the panel discussion at around 7:15 p.m.). The other panelists, all villagers, are Dinah Anderson, David Battle, Becky Eschliman and Flo Lorenz. Organized by the Yellow Springs Arts Council, the event also features a small collection of Center Stage memorabilia, including scrapbooks, props, costumes and half a dozen bright, spare production posters by Battle, a well-known graphic designer who won international recognition for his Center Stage work. Admission is free.

Beyond shining a light on Center Stage, the evening will also showcase YSAC’s permanent collection, which is housed at AUM. That collection, currently numbering 154 artworks and artifacts, reflects an ongoing effort to develop “as rich and full a record as possible of the incredible arts in Yellow Springs,” including both individual artists and “arts hero” organizations, according to YSAC Gallery Coordinator Nancy Mellon. Center Stage is unquestionably one of these, she said.

In its heyday, the theater put on six to eight shows per year, according to Becky Eschliman, who was perhaps second only to Jean Hooper herself, Center Stage’s dynamo founder and artistic director, in dedication and longevity. The pace was intense, she said: six to eight weeks to put on a show, two weekends of performance, strike the set, then begin again on a new show.

“Classical comedies, modern drama, Shakespeare, musicals, all of Gilbert and Sullivan — we did it all,” Eschliman said.

Decades later, she still relishes her 1976 star turn as Pegeen Mike in “The Playboy of the Western World,” an Irish play.

“It was the first time I was trusted with the main role. Also, I had to speak in an Irish accent,” she said. Asked to regale this reporter with her brogue, she demurred. “It’s been a long time.”

Dinah Anderson, who directed the production, vividly remembers the role. “Becky was so wonderful,” she said. “The whole thing was just the most delightful experience.”

The next year, Anderson co-directed “Pure as the Driven Snow,” a play with a “cast of thousands, I kid you not,” she said, laughing heartily. “There were so many people involved in the show that we seriously wondered whether anyone was left in the village to be the audience.” Fortunately, however, “all the kith and kin showed up,” and the theater was filled, she said.

Anderson also acted in a couple plays. She remembers a 1975 role in “Godspell” in which she “came down the aisle in fishnet tights.” A friend of one of her young daughters found it “jawdropping to see me, the mother,” in fishnets, Anderson recalled.

Ron Siemer has similarly warm and humor-rich memories of his association with Center Stage. He had the most fun singing Gilbert and Sullivan choruses, he said. “There’s great music hidden in those funny comic things.” And he loved his roles opposite villager Jennifer Bateman, now Gilchrist, “a brilliant singer” then in college. The two performed in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Utopia, Limited” and “The Grand Duke.”

“Everyone who was involved was totally involved,” he reflected. “On strike night, everybody struck the set. Every splinter, every nail — even bent nails were hammered out and straightened. We didn’t waste a half-penny.”

Center Stage pulled in dedicated amateurs and area theater professionals; it also served as the training ground for future thespian talent. Villager Ara Beal, now managing artistic director of Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse, directed her first play at Center Stage — as a teenager. The play was “Trash Can Princess,” and she found the script at a local yard sale.

“This was the mid-90s, and Center Stage was flagging a bit, so I was mostly left to my own devices,” Beal recalled. But she’s “forever grateful that no one said, ‘Oh, you can’t do that because you’re a kid.’” Instead, she was let loose. “Center Stage was certainly my springboard,” she said.

From inception to close, founder Jean Hooper was the energy behind the theater that could, and did.

“Jean Hooper was Center Stage,” said Eschliman. “She was the driving force.”

Siemer expressed deep fondness for Hooper, who died in 2007. “She was so intense. I likened her to an antediluvian statue — her face was so set.” Hooper was the theater’s “mom, boss and dictator,” he said. “One of her favorite expressions was ‘Never mind what I told you, do what I’m telling you,’” he laughed.

She was a “force of nature,” agreed Anderson. “Jean had the last word — and often the first one, as well.” Hooper was not always adored, she added, “but most always respected.”

Even the best of runs come to an end, and Center Stage did. Partly it was a gradual loss of volunteers, said Eschliman, and partly it was a matter of succession. No one emerged who matched Hooper’s skill and verve, and the very force that fueled the theater — her total dedication — left little room for another leader, in Siemer’s view.

Siemer said he was sad when Center Stage closed, but Eschliman confessed that her regret, while deep, was more mixed.

“It was just so difficult to put productions on at the end [because of lack of volunteers] that the decision to close came partly as a relief,” she recalled.

In 2011, about eight years after Center Stage’s last performance, local playwright Kay Reimers started up another volunteer company, also called Center Stage.

“I wanted to revive it as a community theater,” she said. The company put on “quite successful” productions for several years, she said, then closed in 2014. Meanwhile, local community theater still goes on. The Yellow Springs Theater Company, now the home of the 10-minute play festival, is one venue; Beal’s YSKP, for youth, is another.

But the village awaits the next big, boisterous, community-wide confab that participants said was the special magic of Center Stage.

“It was truly a community theater. It involved everyone joyfully,” said Siemer. “If only we had that theater now.”


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