Cleveland’s Near West Theatre celebrates 40 years of transforming lives

CLEVELAND-- It’s electric blue exterior is just as vibrant as the voices and talent that can be found from within.

Located in the heart of Gordon Square, the Near West Theatre is a Cleveland institution; filled with rich history heart and passion. It literally takes kids off the streets, giving them an outlet to reveal their true self.

Carlos Cruz, 33, is one of those people and said the theater saved his life. He joined Near West at the age of 14.

"When I went into Near West, I was very depressed, very sad. I really didn't know which way to go or what being gay was. And so, walking into Near West and seeing so many different people, not just people like me, but people from all walks of life," Cruz said.

"I don't see myself living a very full life if it weren't for Near West. I don't see myself surviving some of the things I've survived if it wasn't for Near West," Cruz said.

The theater is the brain child of Stephanie Morrison Hrbek.

Originally located on the third floor of St. Patrick’s Church in Ohio City, Hrbeck directed its very first production, "Godspell," in 1978.

She gets emotional when talking about the lives its touched.

“And that whole rich mix and diversity of background, and economic, socio-economic and racial, and cultural and sexual identity, the whole mix, and you put all that into once space and you find through theater that you can connect in a way that is simply profound," Hrbeck said.

After 35-plus years in Ohio City, the theater would eventually move to its current location on Detroit Avenue.

The $6 million-facility recently hosted its 40th class reunion. Many of its alumni went on to work in productions on Broadway and in other parts of the world.

Now under new management, its next phase?

"I don't look to change what she's done. I hope to evolve and grow," Managing director Mike Obertacz said.

The Near West theater's next production, "Beauty and the Beast," opens on Nov. 17.