Sat 10/14 @ 6-10PM
It’s no surprise the logo for the Near West Theatre features a heart. Anyone who has ever experienced the community-based theater knows that the company, which for decades not only provided audiences with memorable shows but also boasted a social justice mission, was all about love.
And that heart? Well, that belonged to Stephanie Morrison Hrbek, the visionary who helped the theater thrive for nearly four decades. Most recently, she cemented future of Near West Theatre with a move into its own state-of-the-art $7.3 million theater in the Gordon Square Arts District.
Now Morrison Hrbek is stepping down, with Mike Obertacz stepping in as the new managing director. Near West Theatre has scheduled a 40th anniversary Community Celebration honoring its founder taking place Sat 10/14 @ 6-10pm at the Detroit Shoreway venue. It will feature an open mic, a dance party, a cash bar and, from 8-9pm in the theater, a tribute to Stephanie and an introduction to Obertacz. It’s free and open to all in the community.
CoolCleveland talked to Morrison Hrbek about her decision, her beloved theater and also what her future holds.
CoolCleveland: Well, here we are: You’re really stepping down. This must be in many ways a bittersweet time for you?
Stephanie Morrison Hrbek: Of course it’s bittersweet because I grew up here since age 23. I’m 63 now. I’ve raised my two sons here on stage. They both live in the neighborhood now with their daughters who hopefully will soon be involved in the theater. But I knew this part was coming. It’s getting to be too rigorous and immense, and not as joyful
CC: Please take us back to the origins of Near West Theatre.
SMH: I was actually hired to start the theater. We were based at St Patrick’s Club building in the summer of 1978. The impetus was to have a summer program to get 11-year-olds to 16-year-olds involved during the day as volunteers in something different. Something that would engage them because there was a lot of stuff going on in the neighborhood that was negative relative to kids. And adults needed to see that kids could give their time to something, volunteer, get engaged, turn to their creativity, learn, show up every day and put on a production. They needed to see that the kids were contributing members of a community. And that happened when we produced our first show (Godspell) with 13 teenagers.
CC: Near West Theatre will soon be entering its fifth decade. How has it evolved over the decades?
SMH: We believe that the core mission has not changed. The mission statement changed a little bit, but not much because it has to do with the formation of relationships across diversity, differences and engaging now people of all ages. That’s what’s grown — it’s intergenerational. At its heart there’s still a belief in a grounded process that gets people in touch with both themselves and others, and engages in a deep way so that theater is really a vehicle to relationship-building, community-building, community-based reality. Yes, we’ve also grown the artistic product. The first show was $800. Now our budget is more than $1 million. Also, we own our own building, which has a heart on the front. In our mission statement is the word love. It’s like, “Watch out, you’re in my grip and I’m in yours and we’re accountable to each other and we work as a team and this is engagement at the community level.”
CC: When did you first see that mission coming to fruition and making an impact in the community?
SMH: What the theater provides is an audience for the people on the stage. They’ve got witnesses to the power of what’s happening to them. It becomes a mutual exchange with the audience. The audience being like “Whoa, the passion. The energy.” I’m not exaggerating, I saw it the first summer. And we did for 36 years in a hot, third-floor, inaccessible ballroom. We produced a lot of magic up there. The productions got enormously complicated and beautiful. I got a letter from a woman once who wrote how she remembered from the first years that this was more than theater. Now, I didn’t have to get a letter to see and know there was an intangible.
CC: Finally, what’s next for Stephanie Morrison Hrbek?
SMH: First of all, I’m not slamming the door because the person coming in is not from the inside of the organization, so he wants some transition time. And we have a building that we own — that’s a phenomenal miracle — so we have challenges. I’m going to be asked to help mentor certain relationships. That will be piece of it. I’m only 63. I have years ahead of me. I just need to pick what thing — racial equity, educational engagement with young people. It doesn’t have to be theater, but I’m certainly inspired by movement, music, art and what I see in the eyes of my own beautiful granddaughters ages 4 and 1. So I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I don’t intend to be inactive. I don’t have it all written. It’s an unknown just like the theater was an unknown in 1978 when I started it having no idea what I was doing.