YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Robert Dennick Joki was unable to secure a single grant to help his Rust Belt Theater survive the pandemic-induced shutdown of entertainment venues.
But it wasn’t for lack of trying.
“We applied for everything,” says Joki, founder and executive director of the small but edgy theater company. “I must have filled out 50 applications. I applied for every artist grant and anything I was eligible for but I didn’t get a single grant or any aid.”
Rust Belt Theater was closed for 18 months, beginning when the pandemic hit in March of 2020.
Like every other theater operator, Joki cut his expenses to the bone and found ways to replace the dried-up ticket revenue. Rust Belt immediately shifted to online productions to raise some money.
Rust Belt was finally was able to reopen its theater in July.
But it proved to be not enough. With ticket sales still slumping because of COVID fears and ever-increasing rental expenses, Joki decided this month to end his lease at Calvin Center.
The theater has been a tenant at the building since 2010 when Joki founded it.
Joki says he’ll soon begin looking for a new home for his theater. Until he finds one, he plans to present shows in rented venues.
Rust Belt is the only local theater company to lose its home during the pandemic. As one of the smallest theaters in the area, it is more vulnerable to downswings in the economy.
Another thing that sets Rust Belt apart is that, unlike most community theaters in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys, it is a for-profit company.
Joki is in the process of changing that.
“I made the decision to become a nonprofit organization early this year,” he says. “It will be finalized in January.”
Rust Belt, he says, never generated a profit anyway. “It always just paid for itself,” Joki says. “It makes sense to get the 501(c)3 status.”
The only other local theater company that is a for-profit company is Easy Street Productions of Youngstown.
Like Rust Belt, Easy Street also did not receive any grants or aid during the pandemic.
But there are big differences between the two theaters. Easy Street is semi-professional, and stages large-scale musicals in massive Powers Auditorium and Ford Family Recital Hall at considerable expense. It pays a premium to rent costumes and its venues, and it shells out hefty fees for the rights to perform popular musicals.
Rust Belt, on the other hand, only stages works that Joki has written, and therefore does not have to pay for performance rights.
Todd Hancock, co-director of Easy Street, says he did not apply for any of the grant programs.
He and his business partner, Maureen Collins, kept Easy Street afloat “by reinventing our [theater] workshops online and moving [holiday revue show ‘Miracle on Easy Street’] to television.
“We also had the help of donations from a few anonymous ‘angel’ sponsors,” he says. “But it has been tough staying open.”
The Youngstown Playhouse received $108,000 from the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, while The Hopewell Theatre of Youngstown received $15,000.
Both of those theaters own their own building.
“The [Shuttered Venues] grant provided us the opportunity to be standing here right now,” Cox said at a press conference Dec. 6 attended by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. The theater would have been facing a hardship without the money, Cox said.
Joki says his decision to move out of Calvin Center – which is a 140-year-old former school building at 755 Mahoning Ave., near downtown – is aimed at staying solvent.
“I don’t want us to be in a position where I’m in a lot of debt in the new year when I become a nonprofit,” he says. “We are current on our bills and it’s smart to just sop there, instead of entering the hard winter months [which bring large utility bills].
Operation costs have increased significantly over the past year for the theater, and Joki sees the move as a temporary retrenchment aimed at staying on firm financial footing while staying true to his original vision.
“I’ve always wanted this company to sustain itself,” he says.
Before launching his own theater, Joki was involved for years at the old Oakland Center for the Arts. That theater lost its rented downtown space years ago and now exists only as a children’s theater.
“The Oakland was always under threat of closing, and I never had any interest in going that way,” Joki says. “I wanted something smaller that only does the type of theater it can afford to produce, and takes chances on new material that can be risqué, or promotes social change.”
Joki’s plays are known for their wit and satire; his musical numbers are replete with clever lyrics that often take good-natured jabs at local personalities and institutions. It’s worked for more than a decade, and the theater carved its own niche.
Joki has always shunned the crowd-pleasing musicals that can bring big paydays.
“I didn’t want to have to do ‘Grease’ just to pull us through,” he says. “Someone once said that you have to do ‘Annie’ and ‘Grease’ if you want to also do the stuff that you really want to do. But I never wanted to have to do that. And I never wanted to have to rely on begging people for money to stay open. You don’t feel as much like an artist when you do that.”
Joki says he hopes the restructuring of his theater will make it more like it was when it started and money wasn’t always an issue.
So where will Rust Belt present shows in the next year? Joki is not sure but says offers are pouring in.
“My phone started ringing as soon as we made the announcement [about leaving Calvin Center],” he says.
Ultimately, Joki would like to own his own building.
“Ideally, it would be an old church, where we could teach and perform, and maybe have a small gallery space,” he says. In the meantime, Joki is finding temporary space at a downtown nightclub.
“For the next six months, I’m starting a residency at Club Switch,” he says. “They have a space that we are going to turn into a small black box theater. It fits our style. It should be up and running by the time [Rust Belt’s perennial Valentines Day musical] ‘Dating Sucks’ rolls around. And after that, I will re-evaluate.”
Pictured at top: Rust Belt Theater will move out of Calvin Center in Youngstown, its long-time home, at the end of the year.