Columbus, Ohio USA
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The Journey to the Stage
By Jory Farr
May/June 2013 Issue
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From left, Rick Gore with Peter Yockel, founders of Short North Stage. Photo © Gus Brunsman III
Passing Strange, the latest musical put on by Short North Stage at the Garden Theater, is the chronicle of an epic journey, the tale of a black musician (Stew) looking back, sometimes confused, on his younger, more foolish self. As his life unspools, we see young Stew growing up in South Central Los Angeles, the son of a Baptist single mother, and later settling in Europe, waking slowly to his purpose.
The rock musical is part coming-of-age story and part cultural manifesto. In the course of things, a youthful Stew eventually ends up in Berlin, sacred home of decadent art. Other artists have arrived before him, but the place still yields radical chic. “Narrative is a capitalist plot!” says one of Stew’s new friends. And there are clever lyrics to go with young Stew’s life, and some inventive music, too. As a youth, Stew tries to express his innate nature in gospel, punk, blues, electronica and jazz. But rock undergirds most of the musical vision.
It’s worth noting that Stew – he has no last name – envisioned the show when thinking about how his kind of music would play after reading about the Old Globe Theater and its raucous history of producing Shakespeare for the rowdy masses.
While Passing Strange has a flaw – the all-encompassing story of Stew overshadows the dramatic potential other characters might have given the piece – it also has its strengths. For one thing, the music is continually surprising and both subtly evocative and deeply funky. And there’s comedy. A faux-minstrel song in which Stew makes fun of the way as a youth he once exploited racial stereotypes to gain some credibility with the German leftists is a standout. And when young Stew smokes weed with the reverend’s flamboyant but closeted gay son in a car as they listen to Puccini, the outrageousness of the scene is visceral.
This is the second musical I’ve seen at the Garden Theater. The first was Ordinary Days, about New Yorkers struggling to find a connection. Though I can’t say I was wowed by Passing Strange, I wanted to find out more about executive producer Rick Gore, 67, and his partner, Short North Stage Board President Peter Yockel, 54. The two are key players in musical theater in Columbus and I wanted to know what kind of vision they had for the city now that they had had a taste of success. Too, I wanted to know how they had decided upon Columbus as a staging ground and how they had been faring since the first show, Follies, opened in 2011. Finally, I wanted to know their back story. So I dropped by the theater last week to talk to them.
Gore, who grew up middle class in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was the son of a journalist who edited the Fort Lauderdale News (now the Sun-Sentinel).
“My father was consumed with his work, so I suffered from benign neglect,” says Gore, who has fine, thinning, white hair. “He had to write an editorial every day. And that was a huge strain.”
Early on, Gore and his older brother, Christopher were in awe of theater. In 1959, when Rick was 14 years old, he and his brother founded the Fort Lauderdale Junior Theater, a company that focused on producing musicals with high school kids.
“We did shows like Annie Get Your Gun, The King and I, Kiss Me Kate and Carousel,” says Gore. “Christopher and I were obsessed with musicals. We saw them in New York, probably on average eight a year. And Christopher later wrote musicals, including the screenplay for the movie, Fame, and the pilot for the TV series. My brother was the creative one, but he died of AIDS in 1988.”
Gore originally planned on a career in medicine when he enrolled in Northwestern University in the 1960s. But he quickly realized that the life of a doctor wasn’t for him, so he switched to the journalism program. After graduating, he eventually spent four years at Life Magazine before going to National Geographic in 1974, initially as a writer and then as an editor. He worked there for the next 27 years, taking an early buyout in 2001, because he “could see the big changes coming to journalism.”
Yockel was born in Pittsburgh but grew up in Northeast Ohio. He says he came from a standard middle class family. But his father, who worked as a business executive for Dun & Bradstreet, was far from typical.
“For example he had studied journalism while in college and he always had a great appreciation for writing and storytelling. He loved Shakespeare and Poe,” says Yockel. “He always wanted his children to be educated and happy with their work lives, that being more important in his view than runaway financial success.”
During the 1960s and 1970s, the Yockels experienced all of the aspirations and disappointments that other families living in what would become known as the “rust belt” experienced.
“It was an interesting time in the political and social life of the country with so much change happening all around us. My parents were both progressive Democrats and definitely instilled in their children what they considered “social responsibility.” For example, they were very supportive of my decision to join the Peace Corps because they saw it as a way to give back to the community.”
Yockel studied American history and political science at Miami University and later earned a master’s degree in International Affairs from American University in Washington, D.C.
* * *
Even while he worked for National Geographic, Gore was pulled in the direction of theater, inspired by his late brother’s epic musical, Nefertiti, which took audiences into the heart of ancient Egypt. As early as 1988, he worked on bringing a full production of Nefertiti to the stage.
“Nefertiti is a great musical, and my brother was such a spirit guide for me that he remains a vital inspiration to this day,” says Gore.
Gore decided to produce Nefertiti in the spring of 2005 at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse, where Broadway productions came through. It was a nervy move and Gore’s first role as an investor/producer.
“I had inherited money when my father died, including the share that would’ve gone to Christopher. And I wanted to see Nefertiti produced at a big theater. It was a very big investment and unfortunately all the money was lost. Of course, we made errors. We opened in May and the tourists were gone. We had a director from New York who was well regarded. But he had ambitions that cost us a fortune. Still, I learned a lot. I learned how a Broadway musical was put together from the bottom up. I learned how to interact with unions and stagehands and actors. And I learned about the bookkeeping that needed to be done.”
Yockel met Gore in 1990, when he was a director of training volunteers for the Peace Corps.
“I didn’t know much about theater at the time,” Yockel recalls. “But Rick was a great teacher, and I grew to love it.”
“Peter brings strong skills from his years as a trainer and facilitator to his role as board president,” says Gore.
In the 1990s, the two were living in the Washington, D.C. area and Gore was on the board of the acclaimed D.C. theater troupe, The Wooly Mammoth Theater Company.
“Wooly Mammoth was known for its adventurous productions, so I learned even more about theater from them,” says Gore. “I learned how an established non-profit theater functions, what its needs are, what its components consist of and what the role is of an active board.”
In 2005 the Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio, contacted Gore. “The director, Kevin Moore, had seen the original production of Nefertiti in 1977 in Chicago,” says Yockel, “and the theater wanted to produce it.”
“The Human Race Theatre is a highly respected regional company,” says Gore. “So we were excited. They produced the show in April 2006. In fact, they became our model for what we wanted to do with our theater careers. And Kevin Moore, the theater’s director, became a mentor.”
David Spangler, a Fort Lauderdale-based composer and lyricist of musical theater who has known Gore since their youth, says Gore has a “wonderfully developed aesthetic” for theater that you can’t teach.
“It has to come from within. Rick has loved musicals since he was a child and he shared that love with his brother. He grew up in the tradition of theater – as much as you could get living in the provinces of Florida,” says Spangler, who also founded the Lovewell Institute, a Florida-based school for the creative arts.
“Rick brings a passion and and eye and ear for musicals that started in his youth. And his work with Wooly Mammoth and getting Nefertiti produced all made him smart about operating a musical theater company.”
Moore, the producing artistic director of the Human Race Theatre Company, considers Gore to be really smart. “He understands what theater means to the community and what it means to artists. He can left-brain and right-brain the process. He’s calm amidst the storms. And that stability helps.”
When Gore and Yockel met Wayne Lawson, the former director of the Ohio Arts Council, in Florida, where the two were then living, Lawson extolled the virtues of Columbus.
“Wayne told us that Columbus had a great arts culture,” says Gore. “So we checked it out and loved the Short North. We decided to move to Columbus in 2009 based on the cost of living and the dynamic arts scene.”
A year later, the idea to found a theater germinated.
“We were surprised that the Short North Arts District did not have a performing arts group,” says Yockel. “It had galleries but no performing spaces. At one point, we got driven by the old Garden Theater and were told that it had been a theater once but had fallen into disrepair.”
“We fell in love with Garden Theater from the moment we laid eyes on it,” said Gore. “But we did get a grant from the Greater Columbus Arts Council to do a structural analysis of it to make sure it had the integrity to be developed into a modern theater. And it did.”
For much of 2010, Yockel and Gore had monthly meetings at their house in which 30 or so so people interested in the future theater would attend. There were parties at other people’s houses as well. Plans were refined; donors stepped up.
“We eventually established a non-profit group and selected seven board members,” says Yockel.
I asked Yockel what was the vision of the theater and if it had changed at all.
“I remember I asked people at the time: ‘Are we a performing group or are we a theater renovation group?’” says Yockel. “And to a person, everyone said we were a performing group meant to produce musicals and some plays.”
As for what Columbus audiences have especially liked, Cabaret sold out most of its performances, and Follies and Marvelous Wonderettes did quite well. Ordinary Days played to standing room only audiences, and nothing so far has bombed.
“It’s hard to say what that tells us about Columbus audiences,” says Gore. “They respond well to well-known musicals, but they surprised us by turning out for those they did not know. All of the shows, except Cabaret have had what I call heart, which definitely appeals to local audiences.”
The Short North Stage has a committee that decides upon what musical to do. Many theaters have an artistic director who makes that decision. Was the committee system working? Gore smiled patiently.
“We’re just two people in a larger group. Choosing a season is very complicated. A lot of factors go into it. But the system is working.”
I asked Gore what made them do Passing Strange, certainly an adventurous piece by Columbus standards.
“We did it because it was challenging and adventurous. I was concerned because it wasn’t known very well that we might have trouble marketing it. But the company was enthusiastic about taking on a show like that. And we’ve had standing ovations every night.”
“The size and the scale of the show has upped our game,” says Yockel.
Would Short North Stage ever consider developing an original musical?
“It’s in our game plan,” says Gore. “But there are so many issues with this theater. And we have to focus on artistic excellence.
“As a non-profit we don’t turn a profit. But we do better than most theater companies at using ticket and concession sales to pay for the bills,” says Yockel. “We’ve used equity and non-equity players. Rick and I go up to New York to see shows all the time. This is not a short-term business investment; it’s a long-term community investment. We have many donors who have made this theater possible.”
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