Center Stage Community Playhouse in crisis

Center Stage Community Playhouse is a Westchester Square institution and the oldest neighborhood theater in the borough. Since 1969, Center Stage has treated Bronxites to lively off-Broadway productions like Cabaret, Our Town, Damn Yankees, Chicago, Into the Woods, Doubt, and Hair. But the theater – a volunteer operation – is in trouble. Ticket sales plummeted in 2008. Last month, Center Stage dispatched an SOS.

“The response has been overwhelming,” board member Donna Balone said.

Center Stage launched its fund drive on May 15, hoping to collect $7,000 by July 1. Already, patrons and partners have donated nearly $5,000. The Throggs Neck Homeowners Association contributed $500. It appears that Center Stage will be saved.

Center Stage is no secret, acknowledged by Lincoln Center and Lehman College. Councilman James Vacca, Senator Jeff Klein and Assemblyman Michael Benedetto support the theater year after year. But Center Stage isn’t well known, either. Balone and Liszewski want to build on the fund drive and boost attendance in 2009.

“We need to focus on attendance,” Liszewski said. “Many of the people who made the theater 40 years ago are gone.”

Balone lives in Pelham Bay.

“For whatever reason, people in the neighborhood forget that we’re here,” she said.

So far, the fund drive has helped. Close to 30 people attended the theater’s general meeting on Wednesday, May 27. Center Stage elected a new board of nine, its largest in ten years.

“It was a great meeting,” Liszewski said. “I wish we didn’t have to scream murder to get attention, though.”

Center Stage hopes to team up with Morris Park merchants. The theater will participate in Westchester Square summer events. Merchant leader John Bonizio is determined to make the square a cultural destination; he needs Center Stage to lead.

“Center Stage is excellent,” Bonizio said. “It needs funding so it can do even more.”

Center Stage puts on three performances a year – two plays and a musical. In 2008, the theater did “It’s Only A Play,” “Rabbit Hole” and “A New Brain.” Tickets are affordable – $18 for a play and $20 for a musical. Center Stage offers student discounts. The theater hasn’t settled on a lineup for 2009, but Center Stage could perform Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and/or “Proof,” a drama based on the 2005 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

“Our love for the neighborhood and the quality of our work set Center Stage apart,” Balone said. “Come give us a try!”

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