Theatre has also always been an important component of JY/JCC cultural arts offerings. Many shows were produced in the JY auditorium on Andrews Street. these shows were able to be produced in the newly built JCC Hart Theater. With superb acoustics and audience views from every seat in the house, the theater created an opportunity for an expanded focus on the arts.
In 1977 a committee of JCC volunteers launched a national search for a professional theater director. The committee selected Philadelphia-based actor/producer Herb Katz and JCC CenterStage was born.
A Jewish Theatre Experience for Everyone
The first show at CenterStage was the musical Dames at Sea. Katz crafted a volunteer theatre program with an annual subscription series consisting of three full productions, supplemented by special events, a Reader Theatre series, and a lunch-time brown-bag music series. CenterStage performances were held in the JCC Hart Theater, while other events were held on the JCC’s lower level in what is now the Art Studio.
In 1979, Katz was an active participant in the launch of the new Association for Jewish Theatre, which brought together Jewish theatres and performers to share resources and strengthen the growth and development of Jewish theatre on a national scale.
CenterStage was a model of volunteer engagement and, thanks to its quality productions, was popular with actors and audiences alike. Katz was also a pioneer in the area of color-blind casting, holding workshops on the subject for the theatre community and actively casting non-whites in traditionally white roles.
In the early 1990s, CenterStage again led the local theatre community when it began to pay small stipends to local actors, a practice that was later adapted by many other theatres.
In 1991 Katz won the Geva Theatre Legacy Award, “given to an individual who has done the most to further theatre in Rochester.” Katz later became the third inductee into CITY Newspaper’s “Theatre Hall of Fame.”
In 1994, CenterStage launched “SummerStage” an annual summer production featuring a cast made up entirely of high school and college-aged students. While theatres camps existed at the time, JCC SummerStage was the first to launch an audition-only program to give youth performers the opportunity to work with adult mentors and perform in a show outside of their school settings. The first production was Fame and the program continues today, attracting the area’s finest young talent and acting as a training ground for dozens of performers that have gone on to perform on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in National/International Tours.
Katz retired in 2005 after twenty-eight seasons with JCC CenterStage, but he can often be found in the audiences attending CenterStage shows. On June 11, 2017, Katz was honored on his 80th Birthday at a special event celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the theatre he founded
In 2005 Ralph Meranto, long-time CenterStage, actor, director, and volunteer, became the new Artistic Director. Meranto had first appeared on stage at the JCC in a 1987 production of Little Shop of Horrors. He carried on the legacy of our founder but also moved the theatre in a new direction by expanding the scope of shows produced.
Meranto transformed CenterStage to a local professional theatre company. CenterStage now presents a 5-show subscription series of plays and musicals and has received tremendous praise throughout the Rochester theatre community.
Meranto also expanded the 2004 “American Songbook” event, created and conceived by Linda and Sandy Foster, into a full production and regular part of the season. Ten years later the series transformed into our popular HitMakers series that celebrates popular music and the people that create it.
The transition to a professional theatre has allowed CenterStage to attract the highest caliber of performers and theatre artists and have access to newer works from Broadway and Off-Broadway.
New Play Development
Meranto’s passion for new work development has also catapulted CenterStage to a player on the national scene. Producing early productions of Jason Odell Williams’ Handle with Care, David Hein/Irene Sankoff’s My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, Deb Margolin’s Imagining Madoff and Deborah Zoe Laufer’s The Last Schwartz led to CenterStage becoming an active member of the National New Play Network. The theatre is recognized for development of world premiere productions including Kasha Davis’ There’s Always Time for a Cocktail (Off-Broadway Premiere Beechman Theater), Wendy Kout’s Naked in Encino, Allison Gregory’s Wild Horses, Hank Kimmel’s Welcome to the Neighborhood, and Oy Vey, It’s the Calamari Sisters.
Church & State
CenterStage’s World Premiere development of Jason Odell Williams’ Church & State led to an acclaimed and award-winning production in Los Angeles and being a co-producer of a 3 month run Off Broadway at New World Stages. The show received an Off Broadway Alliance Nomination for Best New Play and has been published by Dramatist Play Service. Church & State has now been staged at more than 40 theatres throughout the country. A comedy about common sense solutions to America’s gun violence problem, the play has sparked community conversations in schools, colleges, community and professional theatres from Florida to Alaska. (churchandstatetheplay.com)
in 2017, CenterStage commissioned playwright/television/screenwriter Wendy Kout to create a one-act play based on the lives of 10 Rochester-based Holocaust Survivors. The play premiered at the JCC and now tours annually to area schools and community groups to ensure the voices of Rochester’s Survivors are never silenced.
CenterStage continues to grow and expand its production and performance calendar as it shares the theatre space with TYKEs (Theatre Young Kids Enjoy) and other JCC arts and Cultural Programs. From our humble beginnings, CenterStage has come to exemplify the best of local professional theatre.