by Josy Jones
Appreciation is a depreciating asset. This reality applies to many relationships, including the relationship you have with the city where you live. Meaning, the longer you are in Akron, or any city for that matter, the less you appreciate it. With time, many cities lose their wonder. They become old and you take for granted the things that tourists praise. Sometimes it takes leaving that city and comparing it to the world at large to really see its worth. It’s an unfortunate reality.
Luckily, you are not automatically destined to lose appreciation for your city. You just have to be proactive. It will take work, but you can always find ways to appreciate the culture, community and history that make your city unique and use them to your advantage. Take a lesson from Akron theatre company EraAir.
Sisters Elise and Tessa Gaffney were born and raised in Akron. They grew up in Kenmore. Like many natives, the Gaffney sisters dreamt of leaving Akron.
“For a certain amount of time we both just wanted to get out of here,” Tessa says.
Both Elise and Tessa viewed Akron as a “deadzone.” However, they soon learned to use their artistic instincts and curiosity to reshape their perception of this old city.
Elise had taken up photography, and in 2011, while working on a college project, she stumbled upon Chestnut Ridge Park, located in Kenmore. For those who have not seen it, Chestnut Ridge is a wonderful, vast green space with a playground. Its most stunning feature, however, is its beautiful open-air amphitheatre structure.
“I took a picture of a Newport cigarette pack lying on the steps of the ampitheatre. I was still using black and white film,” Elise says. “My teacher really loved it.”
Elise had discovered this treasure in a neighborhood that she thought she and her sister, Tessa, knew so well. When Elise showed Tessa, the actor in Tessa “envisioned local performers taking the stage.” Their curiosity had been sparked and they set out to explore more about this mysterious structure. The seed that grew into EraAir Theatre Company had been planted.
Their research was fruitful. They found that the structure was created by the Works Progress Administration in 1936 during the Great Depression in order to create space for live performance. The sisters’ grandmother, who grew up in North Hill, told them about another open-air structure in Waters Park and they found that the city once donated old voting booths for productions so actors could use them as changing rooms. Their connections with these parks was in their family’s blood.
They continued their research by reaching out to Akron’s Parks and Rec department to inquire if they could utilize the park for theatre productions. Suzie Graham, a former city employee and now President & CEO of the Downtown Akron Partnership, received their inquiry with enthusiasm.
“She told us she used to run a theatre company that did Shakespeare in the parks,” says Tessa.
They set out to bring appreciation to these spaces. Tessa had always thought she was going to be a gay rights activist, so naturally their first production covered the LGBT rights movement. They created a musical review called “Hope will Never be Silent,” named after a quote by Harvey Milk. They were able to bring it to the Interbelt Nite Club and even do an excerpt for the Gay Games at Waters Park.
As the heroin epidemic struck Akron, they kept the title “Hope will Never be Silent” but adjusted the content to address the new crisis. They went to meetings at the Packard Institute, a rehabilitation center based in Akron and New Port Richey, Florida. They recorded their gatherings and created this new work. They shared it with individuals at the institute and expanded their reach to The Rialto Theatre and Akron Civic Theatre. They even expressed their connection to the epidemic by acknowledging the death of a friend’s brother.
“It’s as close as it can possibly get,” they said.
By keeping the title and changing the content, they anticipate readjusting it to address women’s issues next.
The company sees a lot of different opportunities on their horizon, including potentially taking their latest show to the Packard Institute in Florida. Additionally, they are working on a theatrical production of “The Black Parade,” a My Chemical Romance album. It’s been described as a “punk-rock Christmas Carol.” Staying true to the album’s original concept, they will be addressing the realities of overdose and drug use. They anticipate doing the show at The Rialto Theatre in August for Overdose Awareness Day and will use the funds to raise money to support a mental health or addiction organization.
As they consider growth, reworking their mission statement and possibly expanding their company to reach across the Rust Belt, one thing continues to ring true for the Gaffney sisters: finding the abandoned, under-appreciated spaces helped cultivate a new found love for Akron. They acknowledge that there are parts of Akron that are hard to deal with, from abandoned spaces to addiction. They also acknowledge their power to reshape those narratives to create something meaningful. They choose to takes those ugly realities and turn them “into something more positive, where we can feel connected to people and talk about the issues at hand.” The open-air amphitheatres that shaped their views were built in a time where America was “drowning in the Depression” and they found a way to put people to work by building structures that helped put artists on display. They found beauty in an ugly place and these sisters are following in Akron’s historical footsteps. We could all benefit from reshaping our perspective and reminding ourselves to appreciate our city. The Gaffney sisters proved that appreciation is only depreciating if you let it.
Keep up with EraAir on and find out about more of their great work by following on Facebook at @eraairtheatre
(all photos courtesy of EraAir Theatre Company and Elise Gaffney)
Josy Jones is only writing a bio because her editor told her to. Otherwise, this section would be blank.