The Black Box | The Murmur Heard ‘Round Akron: The Push to Revive Coach House Theatre

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by Josy Jones

It starts as a low murmur, darting eyes flickering with disbelief. Before you realize it, the murmur has been fed with rumor, disapproval, and then a slew of sly, unprovoked commentary. The murmur has risen to a full-blown hum, and the unrest has woven its way through the streets of Akron: “Did you hear that Coach House is closing?”

Correction. Coach House was closing. They made the announcement in May following the departure of Artistic Director, Nancy Cates. With Cates’ absence and the ubiquitous financial struggles of the theater’s owner, the Akron Women’s City Club (AWCC), closing seemed like the best option.

The AWCC is currently experiencing substantial property tax delinquency and has experienced past difficulties balancing the financial needs of the club with the money Coach House earned for its own seasonal budget. A few times, this put Coach House in difficult position, when AWCC spent Coach House’s hard-earned funds with the intention to pay them back later. Repayment was often uncomfortably close to prohibiting show openings. Sometimes members of the Coach House team were so desperate that they used their own money to handle AWCC responsibilities.

Despite continuous struggle, devoted Coach House artists have worked together to break record numbers in attendance. They increased season performance dates and brought Actor’s Equity Association (AEA) members to the stage. Unfortunately, devotion alone does not mend financial tension.

Nevertheless, financial woes and the past unstable relationship between AWCC and Coach House did not overshadow the reality that the theater deserved to see out its 90th year.

“A 90-year legacy is much bigger than any one person or season,” says JT Buck, Coach House’s newly appointed artistic director. “Coach House survived the Great Depression, television and Netflix after all.”  

Buck now carries the weight of keeping the theater afloat, and he intends to see the theater through its 90th season and beyond. He has a lot of work ahead of him aside from the aforementioned financial friction. The Coach House board resigned with the end of the season, the next season is being announced much later than usual, and the AWCC has a new president, Tivoli Smith.

Buck has accepted these challenges and has a strategy. He acknowledges the current relationship between the AWCC and Coach House. Buck has asked the AWCC Board of Trustees to spend time reviewing and refining outdated policies, “resetting the table for a more open relationship” between AWCC and Coach House to create more transparency. This also calls for increased oversight to ensure the proper handling of money for a better, long-term standard.

Buck’s next challenge will be to engage the community and plan the new season. Community engagement will begin July 1, with a Christmas in July where they will announce Coach House’s newest season. In September, there will be an old-fashioned (including the sound effects) radio-style performance with three short scripts that have never been done in Akron.  Then the first full-scale production: a historical musical called “Christmas in Akron.” It’s about Akron’s O’Neil’s department store in the 1970s and was written by Rob Loos, an Akron expat. Buck has also mentioned a possible education initiative in Coach House’s future.

Buck acknowledges the community’s disappointment in Coach House’s current state. However, he encourages dialogue, and asks those who want to get involved to buy season tickets, come to volunteer meetings, contact them on social media or by email and phone. He’s keeping the board and community accountable for the future transparency and prosperity of the vintage theater.

Happy birthday, Coach House. Good luck.

 

Josy Jones. Theatre nerd. Rubber duck collector. Mother of none.

(Photo courtesy of Coach House Theatre)

 

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