As someone who grew up performing, the theatre has always been a special place for me. Playing out scenes on a stage was my refuge from everyday life where I felt so different from other children. I participated in youth musical productions every summer and on closing night I would weep and hug my castmates tightly as we said goodbye for the year. Then, when everyone else was in the halls or the parking lot, I would take one last peek into the theatre. My private farewell ritual stuck with me all the way through college. After striking the set and putting the costumes into storage I would sneak onto the bare stage while the cast and crew debriefed over pizza. Quietly, I would lie down in the middle of the empty space and breathe. These stolen moments felt almost holy and I’ve rarely spoken of them because of that.
In developing a performance we begin with a relatively empty space. Movement is shaped by breadth and depth of the stage, vocal resonance by height and structure of set pieces. By the end of the rehearsal process, if we’ve done our job well, the audience is transported into the world of the play, living there for the duration of the action. When the performance is done, the space is restored to its original state of readiness.
At the Balch Street Theatre we define our unique West Hill venue as a “brave space.” We embrace this term to mean, in part, that:
- It is safe to be who you are, regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, ability, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
- Diverse opinions, dissent, and argument are not only accepted, but invited.
- Active listening and courageous exchange are fundamental values.
- Collective action, activism, and community engagement, both within and outside the walls of the theater, are cultivated, encouraged, and supported.
Today, the entire Balch Street Community Center has been converted into optional quarantine housing for Akron police, firefighters, paramedics and dispatchers who feel safer sheltering-in-place away from their loved ones. Somehow it feels right to me that one of the safest places, outside of home, should be a theatre. This brave, empty space is forever filled with potential energy. It can be a sacred space, a place of discovery, a house of healing, a venue for celebration. But above all, it is home to theatrical performance–a practice which I believe calls actor and audience alike to claim their essential humanness.
As we work from home and convert our in-person interactions to digital ones, we are all in the midst of redefining our spaces. Instead of rooms and buildings, we now have to hold space for one another on the non-physical planes in order to connect. These spaces, as undefined and loose as they are, are just as vital, just as sacred as the physical ones we hold so dear. I don’t know when I’ll be able to return to work in the office or fill the theatre with song. But lately I find myself recalling those youth theatre summers and the lifelong lessons I learned there, the words of organization’s formidable producer ringing true with comfort, “Remember, the theatre is not a Place. It is a People.”
For more information about the conversion of the Balch Street Community Center, see here.
(Written by NWPL ensemble member, Kyra Kelley)