Photo provided by Avenue Arts
You come down to roller-rink carpet but you might leave crying.
That’s how Managing Director Jared Sparks sums up both the space and the shows at Avenue Arts Marketplace and Theatre.
Below the galleries and artist studios at 324 Cleveland Avenue NW in downtown Canton is a black box theater. This year, that theater has a nine-show season. In 2020, the season will grow to 12 mainstage productions.
Named for Kathleen Howland, the mission of the theater at Avenue Arts is to challenge audiences and spark conversation.
“Theater serves as a mirror to society, and I think the shows that we do and the volunteers that we have that participate in our shows tell the story of our community,” Artistic Director David Lee said.
There’s been theater for years at Avenue Arts Marketplace & Theatre—formerly known as Second April Galerie and Studios—but the number of performances ramped up last year, with Sparks, who works for ArtsinStark, taking on the role of managing director of the space and Lee coming on as artistic director.
With the help of Tricia Ostertag at ArtsinStark, they launched their first full season in 2018, staging dramas such as “August: Osage County” and “The Laramie Project.”
Sparks directed “The Laramie Project,” which compiles interviews conducted in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming, following the death of 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was brutally beaten for being gay. That production was Spark’s favorite of the year.
“Laramie was the first time I sat in the audience since we took over and watched a show and sat there and said, ‘We’re doing something amazing,’ ” Sparks remembered. “Like, that was the first time I really realized that we have something really special here.”
Brightly colored show posters line the walls of the production room of the theater, signed by members of the cast and crew.
In the last two years, about 130 people have volunteered offstage or onstage at Avenue Arts, ranging in age from 5 to 70 and coming from as far away as Pennsylvania to be involved. During the theater’s most recent play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “, all but one cast member was from Cleveland.
Attracting out-of-town actors helps promote one of the theater’s values: supporting Stark County and bringing people downtown to experience the Canton Music Block and the Arts District.
Outside of the main season, several other projects go up onstage. Twice a year, there’s a youth workshop that culminates with the production of a junior musical. A staged reading company called “Underground” is performing new works throughout the year. And this fall, a 24-hour theater event will push production teams to cast actors, write plays, rehearse shows and perform them all in one 24-hour period.
‘Cry It Out’
On the stage this month at Avenue Arts is “Cry It Out,” a play by Molly Smith Metzler about new moms and the struggles they face, particularly as it relates to deciding what to do about work.
The show centers on a friendship between Jessie, a corporate lawyer, and Lina, who is also on maternity leave but knows she can’t afford to quit her job. The two women have nothing in common besides first-time motherhood but quickly bond over their experiences with their babies. Then a new father, who says his wife is having a tough time adjusting to motherhood, pushes Jessie and Lina to befriend his wife.
“Cry It Out” has been performed across the country and received rave reviews for its relatability, warmth and honesty.
“It kind of speaks on typical white male privilege,” Sparks said. “Everyone has a certain amount of privilege, and what you do with it matters.”
Lee, who is directing the play, plans to include two fences in the set to illustrate the socioeconomic differences between the two women and to provide a powerful visual when the women come out from behind the fences together.
“I’m just really excited to do it here because I think that storyline could speak to the Canton community,” Lee said. “We see moms every day that have to go to work and moms that can stay home with their kids and the privilege that comes with both of those, so it’s just really important to me to give a voice.”
Next season, Avenue Arts Marketplace & Theatre will have 12 mainstage shows, plus two children’s workshops, a 24-hour theater event and performances from the staged reading company.
The 2020 season:
• February 14 to 22: “Afterglow”
• March 13 to 21: “The Whale”
• April 10 to 18: August Wilson’s “Fences”
• May 8 to 16: “Animal”
• May 29 to 31: “Mary Poppins Jr.” (children’s workshop)
• June 12 to 20: “The Elephant Man”
• July 10 to 18: “The Outsiders”
• August 14 to 22: “110 Stories”
• August 28 to 29: 24-hour theater event
• September 11 to 26: “Spring Awakening”
• October 9 to 17: “The Tell-Tale Heart”
• October 30 to November 1: “Frozen Jr.” (children’s workshop)
• November 13 to 21: “Rabbit Hole”
• December 3 to 19: “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Tuna Christmas” (in repertory)
Some of next season’s shows are lighthearted, but others will grapple with weighty topics: obesity, mental illness, abortion, death.
“I think it’s important to make people uncomfortable, to allow people to understand someone else’s world and put their feet in someone else’s shoes for a minute,” Sparks said.