Dobama Celebrates 60 Years As Cleveland Heights' Off-Broadway Alternative

The cast of Dobama Theatre' production "The Old Man and the Old Moon" [Steve Wagner Photography]
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For decades Dobama Theatre was housed in a Coventry Road basement, inside an old bowling alley. Today it can be found in the basement of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights library on Lee Road, celebrating its 60th season.

On a recent evening Dobama Theatre Artistic Director Nathan Motta led the cast of "The Old Man and the Old Moon" in rehearsal as actors roamed the stage made to look like an old ship.

Nathan Motta leads rehearsal of Dobama's "The Old Man and the OId Moon" [ideastream]

"We want to produce works that are moving the art form forward that are really important to this moment in time, about America in the world that we're living in, and the time that we're living in and that we're doing it at a really high artistic product," Motta said.

This is what the folks who began the Cleveland Heights theater set out to do 60 years ago.

Dobama Theatre co-founder Donald Bianchi [Dobama Theatre]

Dobama gets its title from the names of its founders: D-O for Donald Bianchi, B-A for Barry Silverman and M-A for Mark Silverberg and Biachi's wife, Marilyn. Graduates of Case Western Reserve University, the four friends began Dobama as a nomadic company in 1959. 

But after almost a decade of producing on other people's stages, they'd had enough, as the late Don Bianchi explained in 1999 during a luncheon for the Cleveland Play House.

"At the back of a theater that shall remain nameless was where we said, 'we don't want to do this anymore. Let's start our own theater.' So we decided to found our own theater. We had no money, not much in the way of brains, some talent, and a lot of luck and a lot of chutzpah," Bianchi said at the time.

Dobama sign [Dobama Theatre]

Dobama made the move into the basement of an old bowling alley, staging its first show there in 1968.

Joyce Casey began as a stagehand in the '70s, later taking over as artistic director for Bianchi in 1988.

Joyce Casey [ideastream]

"There was a real company feel to the theater and wonderful people gave of their time. At that time no one was paid, not even Donald who directed every single play. It was a wonderful place to be," Casey said.

While wonderful, the basement space was far from perfect.

Dobama Theatre's Coventry Road location in Cleveland Heights [Dobama Theatre]

"We had a deli above us and before every production we had to do a cockroach run, make sure there were not any in the lobby and the bathrooms. The bar above us sometimes leaked, but people still remember it and still talk about that little space and really loving it," Casey said.

Dobama made its name as an off-Broadway style theater on Cleveland's East Side.

"Dobama's mission was to produce the latest work written by contemporary playwrights. Outstanding plays that had not been seen at other theaters in town. It was that simple," Casey said.

Jeffrey Ullom, associate professor of CWRU theater department [ideastream]

Jeffrey Ullom, who teaches theater history at Case, distinguishes Dobama from other local stages.

"Great Lakes, which certainly does classics and really well-known productions only, and the Cleveland Play House, that does some very populist fare, they do some new works but not the cutting edge. So what I think Dobama is trying to sell with their label is the idea that they are more of a progressive theater than what you get from the 'establishment' theaters," Ullom said.

Local premieres of Pulitzer Prize-winning plays like "Wit," "How I Learned to Drive" and "Angels in America" have established Dobama as a place for lovers of modern plays to go.

Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights-University Heights Library [Dobama Theatre]

In 2005, Dobama left the basement on Coventry road, becoming nomadic again for about three seasons while waiting for its current space to be built in the lower level of the library.

Nathan Motta directs rehearsal of "The Old Man and the Old Moon" [ideastream]

Since 2013, Nathan Motta has led the theater.

"I say that Dobama is what independent film is to live theater. So if you like to go to the Cedar Lee or the Capitol theater or the Cinematheque to see movies on occasion or film. Than we are the live theater equivalent to that," Motta said.

Under Motta's leadership, Dobama more than doubled its operating budget as well as its membership and attendance.

"We continue to grow as more and more people get to know Dobama for the first time or be reintroduced to Dobama if they knew us from the Coventry days or from years ago," Motta said.

The cast of "The Old Man and the Old Moon" rehearse at Dobama Theatre [ideastream]

One of the ways Motta's grown audience is by adding a holiday show for families, like this year's "The Old Man and the Old Moon."

"It's a show that checks all the boxes of Dobama's mission being new, and important, and theatrical and all those things, and yet it's appropriate for families. So that if we're going to serve our entire community that we are doing exactly that and serving families and children for at least one mainstage a year as well," Motta said. "They may not know the title of the play, but they know they're going to get a first-rate production and that makes them continue to come back."

"The Old Man and the Old Moon" is onstage through January 5 at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights.

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