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City arts scene makes comeback
Angela Kershner / The Citizen Dave Tobin (as Dylan Thomas), left, and Carey Eidel (as Jim Prothero) perform as Ron Ritchell (as Grandpa) and Polly Hogan (Mrs. Prothero) stay in the background during the Auburn Public Theater's production of “A Child's Christmas in Wales.”

AUBURN - Cobwebs dressed the ceiling, carpet glue covered spots on the floor and billiard tables were scattered in between. As the Auburn Public Theater opened its doors on Dec. 7 of last year, it appeared that many obstacles lie ahead of the arts center.

One year from its opening, Auburn Public Theater has become abundantly public and far more than just a theater. Having hosted live music, comedy and fine arts in addition to theater, the space at 108 Genesee St. has hurdled toward becoming one of Auburn's premier arts centers. As the theater celebrates its one-year-anniversary this month, its primary creative forces reflect on the progress of their vision.

“Looking back, it has exceeded whatever we thought was possible,” said artistic producing director Angela Daddabbo.

Daddabbo sees the theater as an agent of an artistic renaissance that has been waiting to happen in Auburn and a necessary conduit for the city's rich cultural heritage.

“We're not reinventing the wheel, it's more of an archeological dig to discover what's so great about this place,” Daddabbo said.

Excavating alongside Angela have been three collaborators: her husband, Carey Eidel, and friends and neighbors Brian Anderson and Janie MicGlire. Each shares Daddabbo's shimmering appraisal of the Auburn Public Theater's success on its first anniversary.

“It has gone way beyond our expectations, where we are after one year is where we thought we'd be after five years,” said Anderson, who has managed the theater's construction and management of physical space.

By opening itself up to bookings from local bands, exhibitions by local artists and productions by local theater groups like the Auburn Players and Loose Ends Little Theatre Company, the Auburn Public Theater has become a haven for artists in the area.

“Angela and they have created a vacuum for talent in the area that just sucks people out of the woodwork,” said David Connelly, who penned the short play “Thomas Mott Osborne: Unmasked” to be performed at the theater at Daddabbo's behest.

King Ferry-based artist Heather Mackenzie-Chaplet performed her one-woman show, “Perplex,” at the Auburn Public Theater in October. “Perplex” weaves a jazzy improvised score and a silent film backdrop together with extravagant costumes she designs, creates and performs in as the show's eponymous character. Prior to October, the show had only been performed in Paris. But a conversation with Daddabbo gave Mackenzie-Chaplet the opportunity to introduce Perplex to an American audience.

“They were so open and supportive, they could respond to requirements for our show that other spaces wouldn't be able to meet,” Mackenzie-Chaplet said.

Eidel would avoid branding the theater with the “Field of Dreams” cliche, but a short run-through the list of dreams come true for local artists firmly affixes the term to the Auburn Public Theater. Local artist Peter Mack was able to let his muralist ambitions run wild on the theater's interior walls, Journalist Beth Beer Cuddy was given a venue for her one-woman show, “Beware of the Others,” and the upwards of 100 local bands that have rented the space for concerts have enjoyed a regular musical haunt with their friends.

“As an artist, it is so rare to have that space where you can realize your dreams artistically,” said Eidel, the theater's Managing Director.

Eidel himself has been able to resume an acting career that remained dormant while he managed his and Daddabbo's pizza shop. He returned to the stage for a summer production of “The King and I” at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. That show also introduced his and Daddabbo's 6-year-old daughter, Gianna Eidel, to the world of theater in the role of one of the king's daughters.

Carey also joined the cast of “A Child's Christmas in Wales,” which recently completed a six-show run at the Auburn Public Theater that was greeted with rave reviews from audiences both in and out of Auburn. Such production quality has been par the course for the theater in its first year.

“All the programming we've been able to provide has been of a professional quality level and I think that's a great success,” Eidel said.

Daddabbo had entertained notions of owning a theater for years before she found the space on Genesee Street beckoning her from across the pizza shop that bears her name. A design consultant had suggested filling the then-empty space with some type of facade in order to improve the shop's patronage.

With the idea hatched, Daddabbo harnessed the construction know-how of her neighbor Brian Anderson. A two-hour conversation in Anderson's front yard, as he raked his leaves, clinched his participation in the Auburn Public Theater project.

“I told her I'll never rake my leaves again,” Anderson joked.

No small degree of the theater's success stems from Daddabbo's relationship with Rachel Lampert, artistic producing director of the Kitchen Theatre in Ithaca. As Daddabbo and company prepared to put their plans for the theater in motion, they regularly consulted with Lampert on matters she had mastered heading her theater since 1997.

“They asked me what I wanted at my theater but don't have, and I said my own real estate - and I think they really took that remark seriously,” Lampert said.

By purchasing the Genesee Street space, Daddabbo and Eidel not only provided themselves with a fixed venue for their theatrical ambitions, but they also gave Auburn its only public arts forum.

Inside the 7,000-square-foot space they would ultimately plot out a 99-seat black box theater with an ever-changing design, depending on the arrangement demanded by the production. Filling out the theater's first floor is a 2,200-square-foot lobby fronted by a 16-by-8-foot stage for performers and a gallery space for local artists to showcase their work.

But converting the run-down space - formerly Paul's Pocket Billiards - into the Auburn Public Theater was beyond the means of just Daddabbo, Eidel, Anderson and MicGlire. A massive campaign was mobilized to collect volunteers to assist the theater's four founders in their construction effort. Through extensive word-of-mouth enrollment, they were able to tally more than 1,000 hours of volunteer labor.

“I would hate to use the word magical to describe it, because that would cut out the blood, sweat and tears of everyone who put work into the effort,” Daddabbo said.

The spirit of generosity that fueled the theater's formative days continues to burn brightly. Daddabbo recently discovered by the theater's doors two hand-painted signs for “A Child's Christmas in Wales” with a note signed by “a friend of the theater.”

Funding the theater's opening and subsequent first year has been another tremendous task facing Anderson and the rest of the theater's co-founders. The theater's not-for-profit status has qualified it for corporate donations from Wegman's, NUCOR Steel and Thompkins Trust, and many private donors have contributed generous amounts of money to the theater. But even with ticket funds factored in, the expense of making over and maintaining the Auburn Public Theater has prompted Eidel, Daddabbo, Anderson and MicGlire to dig into their own pockets.

“My motto is 'Theater by the slice.' If people buy a slice of pizza across the street, I can afford to kick in some more money to the theater,” Eidel said.

Here business synergy works to Eidel and Daddabbo's advantage, as the influx of arts patrons on nights of activity at the theater has kept the stoves busy at Daddabbo's Pizza and other downtown eateries.

“I know when I go down there for an event I'll usually grab a bite to eat nearby,” said Dan Schuster, executive assistant for the Downtown Auburn Business Improvement District (BID).

Carol Hendrickson, manager at Parker's Grille and Tap House, has welcomed rushes of eaters to her restaurant both before and after Auburn Public Theater shows.

“The more people out the better, it's a good thing for downtown,” Hendrickson said.

For Eidel and Daddabbo, many more pizzas still stand in the way of the theater's complete renovation. Anywhere from half a million to a million dollars will need to go toward refurbishing the remainder of the building. The elevator leading down to the 16,000-square-foot basement must be restored to operating shape if the area is to be made handicap-accessible.

Currently under construction at the Auburn Public Theater is a 73-seat movie theater that will showcase the cinematic spectrum, from second run mainstream film and independent films to foreign and even locally made movies.

“We want to focus on the programming first. Once we get people excited about the theater, the money will follow,” Eidel said.

Spreading excitement - let alone word - about the theater has presented Eidel and company with their most pivotal challenge in the theater's first year of operation.

“We still get responses like, 'There's a theater in Auburn?', and we wonder what we are doing wrong,” Daddabbo said.

The most popular draws at the theater have been its roster of comedians, some of whom have lined up as many as 300 laughing audience members. Many of the local music shows appeal to a younger demographic that doesn't seek out other forms of art hosted by the theater. Combining these different groups of Auburn arts patrons and their diverse tastes has been a high priority for the theater.

“The challenge is getting people who've been here once to come back. Every time we run a show we ask how many people are there for the first time, and it's usually a third to a quarter of the audience that raises its hands,” Eidel said.

Despite the word about the Auburn Public Theater that remains to be spread, each of its productions has enjoyed an attendance rate that surpassed the founders' expectations. Approximately 5,000 people have passed through the theater's doors since its opening.

“It goes to show that you can never underestimate the public and say they won't like this or that,” Mackenzie said.

Part of the theater's success has stemmed from its commitment to producing shows with local roots. The theater's first production, which also acknowledged its debt to the Kitchen Theater, was a work by Lampert called “Winter Tales” from her theater's “Family Fare” series. Another “Family Fare” production, “Rebecca Returns,” will kick off the next year for the Auburn Public Theater with its first show on Jan. 7.

“I think we've contributed to reinvigorating the spirit of Auburn as a special place,” Eidel said.

To infuse the theater with even more local flavor, Daddabbo has commissioned Connelly to craft three plays about historical figures from the Auburn area: William Seward, Harriet Tubman and Thomas Mott Osborne. Osbourne was the subject of Connelly's first work, a 25-minute solo performance that has been realized five times on the Auburn Public Theater's stage.

During many an intermission, Connelly has seen the theater resemble the salons hosted by Greenwich Village intellectual Mabel Dodge in the early 20th century - hotbeds of discussion where ideas gestate and tastes are fashioned.

“You go to any event there and you'll see between 25 and 40 people sipping wine or water and having conversations that would surprise you with how substantive they get,” Connelly said.

Connelly expects this breeding ground of ideas to evolve alongside the Auburn Public Theater. He would even venture to say that Daddabbo and company are steering the course for the city itself.

“She's talking about bringing back downtown Auburn and I'd say she's got as good a chance as anyone I've seen,” Connelly said.

Staff writer David Wilcox can be contacted at 253-5311 ext. 245 or