Monday, May 18, 2015

Workshop Players Part 1

Workshop Players Theater – May 2015
I've driven by and admired the theater home (above) of Workshop Players for a long time. So, I figured it was long overdue for me to find out something about the history of the acting group, as well as their theater building.

Hickory Tree Grange Hall today
Ernie Henes' Looking Back on Lorain County (1978) has a short article about Workshop Players. It reads, "A 1948 Clearview High School drama teacher, Valerie Jenkins, launched Lorain County's first community theater, The Workshop Players, Inc. Her students that year presented a one-act Christmas play for various groups. They became so interested they decided to continue stage work. They found a temporary home in Amherst's Hickory Tree Grange Hall in 1949 and in 1953 moved to the century old one-room schoolhouse on Middle Ridge Road. They presented plays of excellent quality and in the years following entertained several thousand persons."

Some information about the building can be found on the Workshop Players website. It states, "The current home of Workshop Players is the one-room school house on Middle Ridge Rd. in Amherst Township. The original school house was a wooden frame structure built in 1876. When the current sandstone building was erected in 1898, the wooden school house was dragged down the Ridge to its current location at the corner of Middle Ridge and Hidden Valley. Our stone building was used as a school until 1951. Surprisingly, some of our current patrons actually attended school in this building!! In the fall of 1952 Workshop began remodeling the interior of the building and the first show at this Middle Ridge location was FIVE TRAVELING MEN in February of 1953."

The Amherst News-Times ran a great article on April 4, 1988 to celebrate the Workshop Players' 40th anniversary. It included a comprehensive history of the theater group. Here it is as it appeared in the newspaper (below).

Players celebrate 40 years
Players Workshop Players, Inc. counts its years from the 1948-49 season in which they adopted a constitution. However, the original incentive of this group really started when active dramatics students from Clearview High School approached their director, Valerie Jenkins, about forming a group to present plays. These students were very interested in all phases of theatre and disliked facing their forced inactivity after high school graduation.
It was their great enthusiasm at a meeting in the spring of 1947 that persuaded their dramatics director to consent to presenting a play the following summer. That first meeting was held at the home of Waite Staller's parents on North Ridge Road. 
The result of that meeting was a proscenium production of a comedy, "Western Union, Please" by Hackett and Goodrich in the Clearview High School Auditorium on August 19, 1947. Those involved in that first venture were Frances Gluvna, Jim Mason, Mary Hoch Rebman, Robert Lenhard, Rosemary Montagnese, Robert Amstutz, Waite Staller, Gerry Staller, Hazelle Perkins, Nola Jean Waters, Dorothy Yurovich, Alvira Grell, Steve Hodovan, Sam Marotta and Rosa Perkins. Only one performance was presented.
By November of 1948 a board of eight members was established. Rather substantial plans were make for the future. So much time and effort had gone into the establishment of the group that there was no time for a full-length production before the holidays. A one-act Christmas play, "The Small One," was prepared and performed twelve times at various organizations throughout the area. These performances took place mostly in private homes and church basements. 
One of the problems confronting the group was the construction and storage of scenery. The director's association with Gerald Marans of Karamu in Cleveland prompted the idea of an arena theatre. It occurred to her that this might solve the scenery problem along with being a unique style for local audiences.
A location for such a performance was the next hurdle to conquer. Before long the Hickory Tree Grange was rented for two performances of the play, "Smilin’ Through," by Allen Langdon Martin. On January 31, 1949 prior to the opening night, Dr. Roy Schaeffer of Amherst who had attended school with the director, and his wife Jean were invited to the preview performance. Shortly thereafter Jean Schaeffer joined the group and became an active member, trustee and promoter of the Workshop Players.
Of the early founding members and charter members only Yvonne Alford, Jean Schaeffer and Valerie Jenkins remain members. 
Honorary membership was established for distinguished persons in the theatre who had taken an interest in Workshop. Of these Gerald Marans was the first to be named followed by a succession of playwrights, performers and special friends. 
The first constitution stated that the name of the organization be called the County Workshop Players because players from all over the county were welcome to take part. 
The purpose of the organization as stated in the constitution "is to promote a larger measure of interest and appreciation for dramatic art through production of worthwhile entertainment and to make available to its members an outlet for artistic appreciation and effort. The aim shall be to serve the communities of Lorain county and the surrounding area in the field of drama and its related arts to the best of its ability by making available programs which are high in character as well as in entertainment value."
The usual problems of any new group were also a part of Workshop Players early years.
A problem unique to the early players was one of space. They rehearsed in private homes until the week of the performance and then moved all props and furniture on Sunday to the Grange Hall on Milan Avenue in Amherst.
In the second season three performances of each production were given instead of two. By 1953 there were four performances of each show and they kept increasing every few years until in 1976 there were twelve showings of each production. The number has now been reduced to seven.
In 1951 the second floor of The Party Shop, then known as Kline's Beverage on the corner of South Main Street and Tenney Avenue in Amherst, was offered to the players as a rehearsal and meeting hall. 
In 1952 the late Superintendent F. R. Powers suggested that the one-room school on Middle Ridge would be available. This sandstone structure, built in 1898 which was no longer going to be used by the board of education was found to be satisfactory for the needs of the group. It provided an opportunity to rehearse and perform in the same location and thus would improve the quality of their work.
The new location required much work.
Lighting seemed to be the first obstacle. General fluorescent lights were used in the school room and these are unacceptable for performance lighting. One small transformer and six spotlights had been purchased for the first production, but these were not sufficient for the effects desired. One more transformer was added and two more spotlights, a far cry from the twenty-six to thirty lights and light board now in operation.
The second improvement to be made was acquiring real theatre seats from the abandoned Globe Theatre on Madison Avenue in Cleveland. These replaced the folding chairs borrowed from a local funeral home. Bill Penton assisted by Roy Schaeffer and other men from the theatre built risers to which the new seats were bolted. The basement of the one-room school had one coal bin, two restrooms and a coal-burning furnace.
When overhead heating ducts were installed by Gene Ross, the single register in the middle of the acting area was converted to a trap door. This has provided many convenient and interesting stage effects.
Drinking water was taken to the theatre in jugs by the actors, a practice abandoned when a water line was installed.
The small theatre on Middle Ridge Road in Amherst Township is located between Oberlin Road that goes toward North Ridge and the section of Oberlin Road that goes to Route 113. Seating capacity is 100-107 depending on the demands of the production.
Workshop Players is the oldest arena theatre in the area and now that we are celebrating the fortieth season of continuous performing it can also claim to be the oldest community theatre in Lorain County. As part of this celebration beautiful new seats were installed in September, carpeting was added, and the acting area was widened. The project was financed through the generosity of friends' and members' generous contributions.
To complete a celebration year, the Workshop Players, Inc. is attempting to locate addresses for everyone who acted or did backstage work in these forty seasons. There will be a banquet on May 15 to culminate the year's activities.
It will be an evening for reminiscing and celebration.

Next: Clippings from the early years


-Alan D Hopewell said...

I never got to see a performance at the Workshop Players, but some friends and I got to tour the playhouse back in 1966; fascinating. Glad to see it's still operating!

Anonymous said...

I saw the Wizard of Oz there when I was a kid. No easy feat. It was up close and personal. Rae