Hopewell Theatre Makes the Most of Its Space

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Hopewell Theatre has long prided itself on the size and quality of its costume collection. The clothing was amassed over nearly 30 years of producing plays set in time periods ranging from late-1800s Europe to the present.

The problem is, the old church building that houses the theater was bursting at the seams with costumes. Racks of clothes took up nearly the entire basement of the structure.

The close quarters of the building, built in 1890, meant no space for changing rooms for the actors. Costume changes were done in the narrow and dark area behind the rear stage wall.

Not anymore.

The theater at 702 Mahoning Ave., near downtown, is emerging from its 18-month pandemic-induced hiatus with plenty of behind-the-scenes improvements – and also a few that will be on full display.

Most noticeable is the downstairs.

Regina Rees, president of the Hopewell Board of Directors, led a reporter on a tour of the building, which is undergoing a transformation that will be ready for the Sept. 3 start of the 2021-22 season.

“For a theater this size, we have a lovely costume collection, many that were made for us when this was Victorian Players theater,” Rees says. “We have a lot of vintage clothing, beautiful things, even going back to the 1940s. But it took up the entire basement.”

Having a complete costume stash is a key to any successful theater. “To me, that’s part of a show, “ Rees says. “If you don’t have the right costumes, people aren’t going to buy into it.”

But changing rooms and other amenities are also important, she notes, and they are taking shape.

The Hopewell’s costume collection has been moved to storage space donated by Grace Evangelical Church, about a mile up Mahoning Avenue.

In its place, the once wide-open basement has been subdivided. It now has men’s and women’s dressing rooms for the actors, with a third dressing room for child actors in the works.

The actors can go from backstage to dressing rooms and back via a staircase behind the rear stage wall.

A green room and a makeup table will also be part of the basement upgrade.

A lounge for the public, with comfortable furniture and posters from past productions, has been created in the area in front of the rest rooms.

The floor plan design and carpentry work was spearheaded by board member Carl Brockway, who is an engineer, with Brian and Roz Blystone and the help of volunteers. Lumber, paint and drywall were given to the theater for the project, Rees says.

In fact, all of the work was done for minimal expense; materials, labor, money and expertise were donated.

Hopewell Theatre is a nonprofit, and like almost all community theaters, it operates on a tight budget. Volunteers keep it running.

Rees says a potential setback proved to be the impetus for getting the renovations started. A water main break in March, just before the costumes were moved, caused a flood of several inches in the basement.

“We had to bring in water-damage mitigation people and had fans running to dry it out,” Rees says. Fortunately, no costumes were damaged.

With the costumes gone and the water problem fixed, the construction work began.

“We didn’t have the money but we found it,” Rees says. “And we did it all ourselves. This theater is all volunteer.”

The lounge and changing rooms aren’t the only improvements. The entry, snack bar and auditorium have been painted and given fresh décor by Charles Rumberg, who gave it a clean, relaxed and uncluttered look.

Rees doesn’t want to reveal all of the plans. Suffice it to say that theatergoers this season will see a unique and original architectural feature that has been restored. It had been covered over for decades.

In fact, all renovations done at the theater over the past five years were done with respect to the original features of the old church building. For the past five years, the auditorium seating has boasted excellent sight lines, thanks to risers that elevate the seats.

The choir loft – accessible by a twisting stairwell whose narrowness reflects the size of people in the late 1800s – is now used as a perch for stage lighting and other production techniques.

The Hopewell may be small in size but it’s emerging as a place for veteran talent and has an interesting slate of shows this season.

The season will begin Sept. 3 with the Valley premiere of “20th Century Blues.” The drama, written by Susan Miller, premiered in 2016.

The Hopewell production is being directed by Youngstown State University theater professor Matthew Mazuroski. The cast is led by Valley theater icon Lynn Nelson-Rafferty. It also includes Pat Foltz, Brenda Zyvith, Kim Akins, Stephanie Cambro Holt and Nathan Beagle.

“It’s an important play,” Mazuroski says.

“20th Century Blues” deals with four women friends, all nearing age 65, who have been getting together every year over the last 40 years.  One is a photographer who took a picture of each annual gathering. As she prepares the photos for an exhibition and talk she is about to give, humor and controversy arises among the friends who are subject matter.

“We see glimpses into their lives and issues they are dealing with now,” Mazuroski says. “So often in theater, women of a certain age are portrayed as either a grandmother or having dementia. This play is written by a woman and they are the center of it. It gives an opportunity to see strong, professional women talking about their lives and careers.”

Mazuroski praised his veteran cast.

“We have fine actresses in this town and this play is a great opportunity to utilize their talents,” he says.

Nelson, who is among the finest and most experienced actors in the Valley, will return to the Hopewell on Nov. 20 to talk about her 50-year career on stage.

Admission to “Let’s Talk Theatre – Lynn Nelson-Rafferty in Conversation” will be free but reservations are encouraged. Call 330 746 5455.

The Hopewell is also launching “New Voices” this season, a series of staged readings of original plays by local and national writers. To submit a script or for information, email newvoiceshopewell@gmail.com.

The remainder of the season comprises “I’ll be Back Before Midnight,” a Halloween season thriller directed by Chris Fidram; “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” directed by Carla D. Gipson (February); “the comedy “Deep in the Heart of Tuna,” directed by Pat Foltz (April); and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” directed by Jeanine Rees (May-June).

Pictured: The view from the lighting loft at Hopewell Theatre shows the set for season-opener “20th Century Blues” is ready but the improvements remain under way in the seating area in the foreground. The work will be complete before the play opens Sept. 3.