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Rust Belt Theater prepares for Switch

Rust Belt Theater Company will open in a new home with an old favorite.

The theater founded by Robert Dennick Joki and located for the last 12 years at the Calvin Center in Youngstown, will stage “Dating Sucks the Musical” for a two-weekend run at its new (temporary) home at Club Switch.

The cost of paying for the Calvin Center space while the COVID-19 pandemic kept Rust Belt from being able to do live performances nearly crippled the only theater in the area devoted to presenting original productions exclusively, which forced the move.

“I was really focused on getting the job done (of moving out),” Joki said. “Once I got the job done, I did get a little emotional. I hadn’t seen it empty in 12 years. There were a lot of shows there, a lot of happy memories.

“But it’s also exciting to start this new chapter. The biggest goal is to try to tighten everything we can and make it as sustainable as possible. Especially after seeing what can happen with things like the pandemic, if something happened again, we’re set up better to survive it.”

They’ve created a black box performance space at the theater that will accommodate about 50 audience members, although the seating could be expanded to handle up to 100 people.

“Once we figured out where to put the audience and where to put the performance space, I got excited,” Joki said. “It’s exactly the kind of space I like. It’s intimate.”

They were able to transfer the tiered seating they installed at the Calvin Center without disassembling it completely, which was a time saver, and Rust Belt owned the stage lighting it had at the old location and transferred it to Club Switch.

Since rehearsals started, Joki said he is pleased with the acoustics there as well.

“Acoustically, I was pleasantly surprised,” he said. “I was worried I would have to figure out a way to amplify the actors, but the way we have it set up, we won’t have to mic the actors. We don’t have as much of an echo because the ceiling is a bit lower. I was really surprised, when we got people in there singing, how nice the sound was.”

“Dating Suck the Musical,” featuring songs by Joki and Josh Taylor, has been a February staple for years on Rust Belt’s schedule, but Joki also thought it would be a good show to use to open the new space. The show traditionally draws well, it’s a musical revue (which is easier to put together and rehearse than a full-scale musical) and most of the cast has appeared in it at least once before.

The cast includes Nicole Zayas, Kage Coven, Lisa Torrence, Celena Coven, Josh Yohman, Sarah Whitlatch, Caitlyn Murphy, Jeremy Grimes, Rian Davis, Lynn Ohle and Taylor Love.

While the musical numbers usually appear every year, each production does incorporate new elements.

“As part of the audition process, I always ask people to tell me a horrible dating story,” Joki said. “It can be awkward or funny, and very frequently bits of that make it into the show. And we’re bringing back some audience participation. They’ll be given cards and the opportunity to talk about their worst date ever, and the cards get incorporated into act two.”

After “Dating Sucks,” the plan is to stage “My Big Fat Gay Wedding” (a musical about a plus-sized, middle-aged couple planning their nuptials) in March, “The Rockin’ Horribles” (a “Rocky Horror” spoof) in April and “Miss Tuesday Night” (an audience participation show set during a drag queen pageant) in May.

“‘Miss Tuesday Night’ is the show we were rehearsing before the shutdown that didn’t make it to the stage,” Joki said. “After that, we’ll reassess if we stay in that location. That’s when our contract is up.”

If you go …

WHAT: Rust Belt Theater Company – “Dating Sucks the Musical”

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday through Feb. 26

WHERE: Club Switch, 221 Belmont Ave., Youngstown.

HOW MUCH: $15. Tickets are available through Eventbrite or can be reserved by calling or texting 330-507-2358.

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