The Akron Woman’s City Club announced Wednesday that Coach House Theatre will remain open with new management as the theater heads into its 90th anniversary season.
JT Buck, a longtime Akron composer, lyricist, actor and music director who is currently completing his master’s thesis in arts administration at the University of Akron, has been named Coach House’s new artistic director. He arrives after artistic directors Nancy Cates and Terry Burgler stepped down recently, along with the Coach House board, over a dispute concerning control of theater income.
Buck, 38, has been hired for a one-year trial period that will include a full five-show season, special anniversary events and a yearlong series of community conversations about the future of the theater. According to outgoing Akron Woman’s City Club President Betty Spencer, the next step would be a five-year contract.
“I had a thought that it was so sad that Coach House was closing before its 90th birthday,” Buck said of hearing the news that previous management was stepping down. “I think of Coach House as Akron’s vintage theater … It’s been around a long time, but it’s still very relevant.
“Honoring those nine decades of live, local theater-making is my top priority right out of the gate. The board, club management and I are working swiftly and harmoniously to create a plan that keeps the lights on and doors open for the coming year.”
Buck said the board of the club, which reportedly has had cash flow problems, has guaranteed him that it has the funding to cover a full theater season.
Spencer and longtime club member Bette Godard said Wednesday that theater operating funds for next season have come from an anonymous donor. Buck also will apply for grants, sell subscriptions and do fundraising for the theater.
The outgoing president, who will be replaced by Tivoli Smith of Akron on June 21, said the club’s board was impressed with both Buck’s ideas for the 90th season and his background: “We just thought he’d be good for us, and we hope we’ll be good for him.”
Buck, whose hiring was unanimously approved by the board May 23, has proposed a five-show season. The complete slate will be released later, when all rights have been secured, but here are the first two:
• A soft start for the 90th season is planned for September, featuring an evening of Agatha Christie radio dramas coupled with dinner in the Akron Woman’s City Club ballroom. A different radio drama will be presented each of three weekends — a nod to Coach House’s popular annual productions of Christie mysteries.
“That’s the first thing that came to mind: You have to do Agatha Christie for the 90th birthday,” Buck said. “It’s also an opportunity for people to see that ballroom and have a meal with that fine chef,” Kris Kreiger.
• A holiday show, Christmas in Akron, will be performed in the theater. It’s a new musical written by Akron native and Los Angeles screenwriter Rob Loos — a screwball comedy set in Akron’s famous O’Neil’s department store in the 1970s. Loos, who Buck said has written a “charmer,” has a family with deep Akron roots, including past members of the Akron Woman’s City Club.
The full season will be revealed and subscriptions will go on sale during a “Christmas in July” launch party July 1, at a location to be announced.
Coach House Theatre was created as a unit of the nonprofit Akron Woman’s City Club, established in 1923. One of the previous artistic directors’ chief complaints was that theater income, held in the club’s general account, was released late to pay Coach House bills.
Buck and the women’s club board are discussing changes to how the club operates the theater. One of Buck’s proposals includes putting in place a mechanism for cash to be on hand to cover urgent theater expenses quickly.
“Future conversations will focus on revising the theater’s governance and finance strategies with an emphasis on efficiency and transparency,” Buck said in a news release.
The Akron Woman’s City Club has faced recent financial challenges, including a kitchen fire in December 2015. It also is on a payment plan to settle $119,660.49 in delinquent Summit County taxes.
Rather than forming a new Coach House board, Buck has proposed creating a production team to run the theater and a 90th birthday celebration team, both to be composed of women’s club members and community members.
His efforts to include the community in a yearlong series of discussions about the theater’s future will start in late June, when he will invite Coach House volunteers to meet.
“Volunteers come first. These are the folks who are actually going to be the lifeblood of the productions,” Buck said.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.