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Arts & Culture

Actors' Summit Founders Look Back at 17 Years of Theater in Akron

photo of Neil Thackaberry, MaryJo Alexander

MaryJo Alexander, artistic director for Actors' Summit Theater in Akron, is retiring after 17 years.

“We chose the plays, created the season and picked the actors; directed, designed, gathered props. We also cleaned the lobby.”

The non-profit theater is closing as well. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia caught up with Alexander and her husband, Neil Thackaberry, who ran the theater with his wife until his retirement last year.

Thackaberry still gets chills when he thinks about their production of Woody Guthrie’s “American Song.”  Alexander's favorites include “The Price,” “Oedipus Rex” and productions that included her husband, such as “Clarence Darrow” and “Bully, An Adventure with Teddy Roosevelt.”

The couple also fondly remembers “Merry Wives of Windsor” with Dorothy and Reuben Silver. It was the only time Reuben played Falstaff, even though Neil notes that “anyone looking at Reuben would think this was his stock-in-trade. We were very proud of that production. We’ve had a chance to work with some amazingly talented people throughout Northeast Ohio.”

Actors' Summit was often a family affair, Alexander says. “It was fabulous every time we had the opportunity to have one of our own kids or their spouses involved as an actor or director.”

Thackaberry also looks back fondly at working with mainstays of the Actors' Summit stage such as Frank Jackman, Sally Groth and Dana Hart. “That sense of family develops, and the fact that people have the patience to continue working with you.”

Alexander says that’s the secret to working together for so long, adding, "We drive each other crazy. So let’s just assume that and get past it.”

Looking back
When Actors' Summit was established in 1999, the mission statement was to create professional theater using Ohio artists. At the time, Great Lakes Theater Festival and the Cleveland Playhouse chose from an acting pool that Thackaberry estimates was 10 or 12 percent local; mostly they cast out of Chicago or New York.

Thackaberry recalls a friend who flew from Ohio to New York to audition for the Cleveland Playhouse. On another occasion, Thackaberry found himself one of two local actors in a Cleveland Playhouse production – and they were both playing servants.

The future
This summer, the couple is spending time trying to find a home for Actors' Summit’s collection of scripts, programs and posters. They will also remain active in local theater: Alexander will design a show for Shakespeare at the Castle at the University of Mt. Union. She'll  also provide the makeup for the enshrinement ceremonies at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Thackaberry stills plans to audition on occasion, but he has mostly taken to gardening in retirement. Weeding, he says, has “no moral quandary. You don’t have to debate it, call a committee meeting or consult with anyone; you kill the weed. That’s very satisfying.”