Community Theaters in the Midwest Are Innovating for a New Era

Despite ongoing struggles exacerbated by the pandemic, local theater enthusiasts in Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan are stubbornly maintaining and creating opportunities for their communities to explore and experience the arts in ways both old and new. Cover graphic by Alyssa Jacoby for Midstory. 

Kyle Omlor is just a regular guy who loves all things theater. 

After discovering his passion for theater through his son’s involvement in high school, Omlor, along with two friends, Ron Matanick and Thom Ovacek, knew they had to share their love for performing arts. They set up Stage Door, a podcast discussing more than 30 theater companies in northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan.

“[There is] an insatiable, ravenous appetite for theater in this area,” he said. “Right here is a hotbed of love and talent and energy for performance theater.” 

This region is host to a wide variety of groups performing a diverse range of shows. The majority of theater companies in the area are community theaters, operating on a local scale and often affiliating with high schools, colleges and churches. Each theater has its own mission to contribute to the community by offering opportunities for local members to participate in performance art. 

Despite the abundance of passion in this area, local theaters have a long history of struggle.

While local theater has been around for centuries, many community theaters as we know them today originated from the “Little Theatre” movement of the 1910s, which aimed to create small, experimental drama centers to liberate theatrical production techniques from the constraints of large commercial theaters. Mainstream commercial theaters were often restrictive in their production topics, so amateur theaters stepped in to allow performers to produce drama scenes illuminating topics of social, political and moral importance. According to author Dorothy Chansky, this era was foundational to theater’s modern reputation for social change and emotional fulfillment.

One theater that opened prior to the Little Theatre movement but has had a long-standing influence on community theaters is the Croswell Opera House, which opened in 1866 as one of the country’s premier community theaters. Located in Adrian, Michigan, this theater hosts traveling performances from Broadway and also produces shows from members of the community. Throughout its 150-year history, the Croswell has organized concerts, festivals, movies and town hall-style lectures from famous speakers including Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. It is one of the oldest operating theaters in the United States and is on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The Croswell Opera House in Adrian, Michigan. Image courtesy of

In 1967, the owners of the Croswell were going to terminate its lease due to competition with cinema and a lack of sufficient revenue until a group of theater enthusiasts purchased the building, safeguarding its legacy for live theater.

Funding remains an ongoing cause of concern for local theaters, and organizations and communities are looking to diversify funding sources to keep doors open.

Some theaters raise funds through community events, such as the Sylvania Arts Youth Theatre’s annual fundraising event, the Maple & Main Art and Music Festival. The festival showcases artists’ talents with booths, live music, food trucks and roaming musicians, and is a critical source of funding for the Sylvania Community Arts Commission, which hosts the Youth Theatre.

Other funds for local theaters come from season memberships, local sponsors, fundraisers, booster programs and patrons, or from grants through organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts.

The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a catalyst of struggle for theater groups, who turned to relief funds and goodwill donations from community members to stay afloat. Post-pandemic, the Toledo Arts Commission was awarded $500,000 for the recovery and reopening of local theaters. The Black Swamp Players, Children’s Theatre Workshop, Issue Box Theatre, Valentine Theatre and the Toledo Repertoire Theatre were also awarded an NEA subgrant through the Arts Commission.

During the pandemic, Bowling Green’s Black Swamp Players attempted to purchase a theater of its own, but unsurprisingly faced financial limitations. After fundraising efforts and a capital campaign, the theater turned to investments from longtime supporters to purchase the space, and then received grants from the state of Ohio to renovate the space. 

But that doesn’t mean the Black Swamp Players are set for the future.

“We’re also leaning on our community more and saying, ‘We had the money to buy the building, now we need money to support our operations,’” Dr. Heath Diehl, current board president of the Black Swamp Players, said.

Local theater performances, Omlor added, are no small feat.

“If you look at what’s involved in producing a live theatrical show: you have an orchestra full of people that play the right notes; you have set design people that all have to design the set the right way; you have lighting people that have to light each person right when they start talking. Microphone and audio people have to balance all that out, too, and then the stage crew moving things back and forth. And we haven’t started talking about the actual performance yet,” Omlor said. 

Local theater leaders and creatives see investment into local theaters as investment in the local community at large.

“One of the things that we really wanted our community to know once we had this space was [that] Black Swamp Players is a place for everybody in our community — if they want to be part of it — but that meant making the space accessible to as many people as we could,” Diehl said.

Likewise, Issue Box Theatre based in Toledo strives to bring performances directly to the community members who need them most. Issue Box values the importance of social justice and aims to serve their community by facilitating open discussions on pressing social issues. Members consider themselves as “actorvists” at the transformative intersection of theater, social justice and education.

“We don’t approach this the way that other theaters tend to approach things,” Rosie Best, founder and artistic director of Issue Box Theatre, said. 

According to Best, the theater prioritizes performing in locations that provide more opportunities for people to watch the performance.

For example, Issue Box Theatre’s 2023 run of “Willard Suitcases,” a musical that focuses on mental health and brings to life the lives of patients from a psychiatric center, held a performance in St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in downtown Toledo, next to a homeless shelter; half of the seats were left open, free of charge, for anyone from the shelter. 

“We wanted people who might have mental health issues to not have any barrier in the way of them getting into the show,” Best said. “We also had a grant from the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, which we use part of it to help with our storytelling project.”

Theaters in the region are also reaching out into the community to educate and provide opportunities for artistic expression to the next generation.

Image courtesy of The Blade, September 21, 1995, via Google Books. 

Since 1937, the Toledo Repertoire Theatre has offered “Rep Ed” classes to participants between the ages of 7 and 17 years old, covering acting, singing, dancing, directing, playwriting, set design and building, stage managing, technical lighting, technical sound, costuming and make-up.

This spirit of education bleeds into the wider network of community theaters. As members of the Ohio Community Theatre Association, the Toledo Rep and its community theater counterparts benefit from resource services and speaker bureau meetings, as well as workshops to help cultivate better performance skills. 

Aspiring thespians need exposure to and interaction with the arts, allowing them the opportunity to grow in the theater world, Omlor said. 

Amid a host of challenges in the post-pandemic world, local community theaters have served as incubators for artistic and creative talent of diverse skill sets. Local community theater leaders stress, however, that these opportunities only exist because of community support — and more is sorely needed.

As the saying goes, the show must go on.

“I don’t know what kind of world this would be if we didn’t have arts,” Omlor said.


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