Oakland partners with DeYor for 2017-18 season

After spending the last year focusing on children’s theater, the Oakland Center for the Arts is ready to launch its first full-scale season.

Children’s shows will continue at Trinity Fellowship Church in Boardman, but Ford Family Recital Hall and Flad Pavilion at downtown Youngstown’s DeYor Performing Arts Center will be the primary venues for the adult season.

Artistic Director Brendan Byers said he was talking with Patricia Syak, president of the Youngstown Symphony Society, and mentioned they were looking for a space to use.

“She said, ‘Why don’t you come down here and use the small space in the Ford Family Recital Hall?'” Byers said.

Ford seats about 600, more than twice the size of the Oakland’s last permanent home at 220 W. Boardman Street, but Syak suggested just using the lower level and not the balcony.

“The more I thought about it, there were a lot of wins to it,” he said. “They have a great mailing list, a great following down there. It’s a win for them to have more events downtown and to expand their programming. What the Oakland does, other theaters don’t do generally. We wanted to keep it as Youngstown off-Broadway house. Being there gives us some instant credibility again.”

The Oakland was founded by Alexandra Vansuch in 1986 and established a reputation for both alternative, serious theater (like the award-winning AIDS drama “The Normal Heart”) and crowd-pleasing fare (like the interactive comedy “Tony & Tina’s Wedding”).

After Vansuch moved to Pittsburgh, others continued the theater’s mission with varying degrees of success. The Oakland did its last show in 2014 and vacated its theater in the Morley Arts Building in downtown Youngstown in March 2015 following financial problems.

Byers, who was operations manger of the Oakland in the 1990s, Harold Davis, a past president of the Oakland board, and Kristina Terlecki acquired the rights to the name last year.

“We were thinking the best way to get the Oakland up and running and make it sustainable was kids programming,” Byers said. “One, because kids are our future and two, financially it can be a good thing if you do it right. So far it’s worked for us … We’ve put together eight productions and we’ve been successful on all of them, we’ve made money on all of them.”

They regularly have 50 or more children audition for those shows, he said, and a production of the musical “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” opens this weekend at Trinity Fellowship Church.

The Oakland will collaborate with the Millennial Theatre Company for a Halloween production of “Carrie the Musical,” based on Stephen King’s novel about a telekinetic teen who gets revenge on those who humiliate her at a high school dance.

Byers said he met MTC founder Joe Asente years ago on the musical “Annie” when Easy Street Productions staged it. When Asente talked to him about MTC’s plans, he saw some similarities between the two group’s missions.

“My feeling is we’re stronger together than being in competition,” Byers said. “And he said, ‘That’s my feeling too.'”

Also planned is the local premiere of an interactive show in the vein on “Tony & Tina’s” called “The Awesome ’80s Prom.” Liberty native Jenna Pace was part of the original cast and is credited as one of the writers, and Byers said she has offered to work with the local cast any way she can.

The first performance on April 20, 2018, will be a fundraiser for the Youngstown Symphony Society, and Byers said he hopes the show will have a life beyond its limited run. Much like the Oakland did with “Tony and Tina’s Wedding,” “The Awesome ’80s Prom” could be staged at multiple venue and offered as a package that different groups could present as a fundraiser.

Byers will bring back two popular shows from the Oakland’s heyday, John Guare’s drama “Six Degrees of Separation” and the Stephen Sondheim musical “Assassins.” He believes both are as timely today as when they first were staged. “Six Degrees” recently enjoyed a Broadway revival.

“I think ‘Assassins’ arguably, at least to the theater people I know, is Sondheim’s best musical,” he said. “From the day we closed that show, every time I’d run into someone who was in that show, they’d say, ‘Boy, I’d sure love to do that again.”