Photography by Andy Dudik
In 1914, Baker Electric Motor Company closed its doors after nearly 10 years in Cleveland’s West Side. The new, flourishing Sapirstein Card Company would make its home in the former manufacturer’s facility and soon become known to all as American Greetings. Jacob J. Sapirstein, a passionate Polish immigrant who initially was employed to sell postcards outside of Hollenden Hotel, started his company with a whim and a $50 bank loan in 1906. Eventually, American Greetings over grew their spaces in Cleveland, finally settling into a 13.5-acre headquarters in Crocker Park.
Similar to Sapirstein’s impassioned story of dreams and new beginnings is that of Patrick Ciamacco, owner and founder of Blank Canvas Theatre, located in 78th Street Studios, the former home to Baker Electric Motor Company and American Greetings. An old recording studio on the second space itself was completely renovated, turning the space into a bare room with a three-quarter thrust-style stage that extends into the audience. “A blank canvas in and of itself,” Ciamacco mentions. Compared to a traditional proscenium style theater such as the Palace and State Theatres, this type of seating is completely immersive, allowing for the audience to see every choice the actors are making without having to squint from the furthest end of theater.
Ciamacco opened Blank Canvas theater in November of 2011. His mission? To inspire a new love for those new to theater in the Cleveland community, while providing a new, quality venue for those who already love the arts. Although Ciamacco owns and operates the theater, he also directs roughly 80 percent of the season’s productions, designs and constructs the set, and even appear on stage from time to time, such as in Blank Canvas’ productions of Sweeney Todd and Wild Party. His long hours of dedication are the reasons why Blank Canvas stands out so well in the community.
Blank Canvas’ first season began Jan. 1, 2012. That year, it brought in nominations and winnings from the Cleveland Critics Circle for three of the productions of that season: Next Fall, Of Mice and Men, and Hellcab. Scene Magazine recognized Blank Canvas as “The best new theatre of 2012,” and The Plain Dealer ranked Ciamacco’s production of The Texas Chainsaw Musical! among the top 10 productions in Cleveland that same year.
Since it began in 2012, Blank Canvas’ seasons consist of professionally-produced musicals and plays that run for three-to-five weeks at a time. Within these larger productions are performances by the Laughter League, a sketch-comedy group also founded by Ciamacco that has performed at various venues throughout the Cleveland area, most frequently at the Brooks Theatre of the Cleveland Play House, which has since moved to the Allen, Helen, and Outcalt Theatres at Playhouse Square.
Blank Canvas has also found ways to incorporate new works into their seasons with the Factory Series, which allows local writing talent to debut or put on their material, most recently featuring Greg Mandyrk’s Bloody Little Pieces. These additional opportunities for writers also provide subsequent chances for actors as well. Between seemingly incessant rehearsals and performances, Ciamacco and Blank Canvas has a very full and busy year.
Now nearing the end of its seventh season with its production of Avenue Q, Blank Canvas still proves to be just as incredibly groundbreaking and culturally relevant as its inaugural year. How does it manage to remain this important and why do people choose to come back?
“In addition to providing quality professional shows and events, Blank Canvas takes the time to create an atmosphere of love and support that enables more humanity to exist within the process and the artists,” says Cool Cleveland Contributor and occasional Blank Canvas Performer Kevin Kelly. “Ciamacco has created a house of artistic communication.”
Audiences ardently discuss Blank Canvas as a diamond in the rough, a venue capable of defying the odds, with talented staff and actors who work with extreme determination to put on quality performances.
Soon, Ciamacco will announce Blank Canvas’ eighth season. Based on prior years, it’s difficult to ascertain just what the venue will do next, as Ciamacco always seems to be out-doing and recreating himself. New and returning audiences can undoubtedly expect quality work from Blank Canvas. However, there are still goals that Ciamacco wants to achieve.
“In the future, I hope that Blank Canvas Theatre strives to a point where we can hire even more artists and pay them full time salaries allowing them to create their art without worrying about paying their bills,” he says. “I am truly grateful to every single person who contributes to Blank Canvas Theatre.”
While Ciamacco eventually wants to create salaried positions, it should be noted that the actors receive 20 percent of the profit of the productions in which they participate. Ciamacco is dedicated to inspiring a new love for those new to theater in the Cleveland community, while providing another quality venue for those who already love the arts.
Blank Canvas’ productions are diverse, designed to attract many different types of theater-goers–whether you prefer American classics, new works, offbeat musicals, drama, or comedy. Even people who have never seen a live show, can find something to enjoy. It’s Ciamacco’s goal to interest people in different types of performances, encouraging them to break out of their entertainment boxes and see something they might not normally see. As long as Blank Canvas remains open, locals will have another notable outlet where they can quench their thirst for experimental and thought-provoking theater.
Interested in attending or auditioning a show? Check out blankcanvastheatre.com and the Blank Canvas Theatre Facebook page for more information.