Looking back on the eve of its 50th anniversary, Dobama has experienced two major eras during its run as Cleveland's oldest alternative theater. The first was governed by Don Bianchi and his co-founder and wife Marilyn, who died in 1977. Don continued to manage the theater in gradually diminishing fashion into the mid-'80s.
During the latter period, a shaky triumvirate consisting of Bianchi, actor-director-designer Ron Newell and executive producer Joyce Casey oversaw things. That evolved into a dual Newell-Casey stewardship, before it was finally decided that Casey would become the solo boss. It's a post she's maintained ever since, and one she'll relinquish with some pride and one minimal regret on December 31st when the Casey era ends with her retirement.
"I'm not going to completely vanish," she promises. "I'll be available for advice and consulting, but not for any administration." Those chores will be divided between two positions, with Dianne Boduszek assuming the responsibilities of managing director, while well-known director-actor Joel Hammer becomes artistic director. "I'm so pleased that the board chose to split up the job," says Casey. "There were times I felt that trying to do everything myself was simply too overwhelming for one person."
That feeling certainly wasn't the result of a lack of work ethic. The small, seemingly gentle blonde has a long-standing reputation as the leading candidate for most dedicated, devoted and tireless laborer among the area's theater chiefs. She enlisted at Dobama more than three decades ago as a volunteer and still harbors no regrets for the thousands of hours she's logged there since, many of them dealing with the problems caused by operating a theater in a leaky ex-bowling alley on Coventry that was Dobama's basement home until three years ago.
"How fortunate I've been to meld my passions with a job," she admits. And speaking of her stoically patient husband Pat: "Of course, it's fortunate that the guy I love has understood and supported my happiness above competitive salaries and home-cooked meals."
The Bianchi and Casey eras ran nearly identical lengths and the two leaders shared many traits. Both thrived on dedication, drive and passion for the theater, and both could be tough and unyielding in the pursuit of their beliefs. But it's more pertinent that the indelibly sweet and generous nature of each character far outweighed any contentious overzealousness.
The theaters they strove to create, however, had largely differing agendas. Bianchi primarily based his choices of repertory on aesthetic criteria: You find a good play and give it the best production possible, no matter what its subject matter. Casey instead has always exclusively favored texts with pronounced political or social content, often sacrificing artistic quality in her honest ardor to engage in relevant contemporary issues.
Which approach makes for the most exciting play-going experience is, I imagine, a matter of taste. But what is undeniable is Casey's laudable success in keeping the historic theater alive. Through horribly difficult financial crises, with other small theaters dropping by the wayside, having the venerable Coventry home snatched away, forced to perform truncated seasons in pickup venues - by dint of her dogged persistence, Herculean sweat equity and sheer willpower, the lady has breathed CPR life into her adopted child. Thanks to Casey, it survived for its rebirth next spring when Dobama opens its new location in the old Cleveland Heights Y.
"That's my one real regret," she says softly, "that I couldn't lead us into a new home." But she instantly brightens to list what she considers her main accomplishments: "Never missing a beat with the Marilyn Bianchi Kids Playwriting Festival, helping to professionalize small theaters and getting artists paid, establishing Night Kitchen [a midnight workshop for young performers], starting co-productions with Karamu years ago and having the idea revived this season with Caroline or Change, not to mention the raft of wonderful shows we did."
She then reflects soberly, "However, the whole glorious experience would not have been possible without the generosity, love and respect of my two mentors, Donald Bianchi and Ron Newell." And suddenly, two eras are fused into one.