Towngate Celebrates 50 years of Community Theater!

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder once said, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

Wilder’s sentiment has been at the heart of Towngate Theatre’s mission for half a century.

“Our participants – both onstage and in the audience –represent diversity of age, culture and life experience,” said Oglebay Institute director of performing arts Tim Thompson. “Theater allows us to learn together, laugh and cry together. Theater addresses our basic need to connect with other human beings. Our common humanity is illuminated and the distance between us shortens.”

Part of the nonprofit Oglebay Institute and located in Wheeling’s historic Centre Market District, Towngate Theatre kicks off its 50thseason of community theater in September.  To celebrate this milestone, its staff, volunteers and patrons are looking back at its beginning, hosting a season preview party and honoring its founder Hal O’Leary, who passed away in late June.

Honoring Hal O’Leary

Hal O’Leary spent a lifetime in the theater as actor, director, designer, teacher and mentor. He served as Towngate artistic director for 43 years. The 50thseason is dedicated to O’Leary and his legacy.

Sponsored by Unified Bank, the main stage season kicks off in September with “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Other main stage shows include “Miracle on 34thStreet,” “The Shaughraun” and “Our Town.”

Hal O'Leary and Kathleen Howland in "Long Days Journey Into Night"
Hal O’Leary played James Tyrone and Kathleen Howland played Mary Tyrone in Towngate’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Days Journey Into Night” staged during the 1971-72 season.

Season Preview  Party is August 31

Audiences can get a sneak peek of this year’s season during a special preview party Friday, August 31, presented by the Friends of Towngate, a volunteer group dedicated to raising awareness and funds to support Towngate and its mission.

Proceeds from the event go directly to Towngate Theatre. “We invite everyone to join us to celebrate and to help support the many ways that Towngate enriches the community,” Thompson said.

Titled “Let Us Entertain You,” the party begins at 6:30pm with hors d’oeuvres, wine and beer in The Gallery at Towngate. Then, guests head upstairs for captivating readings from each of the main stage plays featured in this year’s lineup. And if that’s not enough, guests will enjoy musical entertainment by Roger Hoard.  After the show, guests return to The Gallery and enjoy a selection of desserts. The evening concludes with a champagne toast to kick off another successful season of performing arts.

Friends of Towngate board member Dana Applegate said the preview party is not only a chance to get a snapshot of the coming season but also to “mingle with others who have a passion for and love of live theater.”

O’Leary’s Legacy

The tradition of community theater at Oglebay Institute dates back to its founding in 1930. Prior to the purchase of Towngate, theatrical productions took place at a variety of venues throughout Wheeling including the Carriage Barn and Mansion Museum in Oglebay, St. Michael’s and the former Pennsylvania Railroad Station, which was located along the waterfront in downtown.

In 1969, the Institute leased the Zion Lutheran Church and staged four productions during its first season –“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Tennessee Williams, “The Absence of a Cello” by Ira Wallach, Moss Hart’s “Light up the Sky” and “Uncle Vanya” by Anton Chekhov.

In 1970, the Institute purchased the building. Under the direction of O’Leary and with funds raised from members of the theater community, major renovations transformed the historic church into Towngate Theatre. Since that time more than 300 plays have been staged at Towngate.

Hal O'Leary
Hal O’Leary starred as “Sir” in Ronald Harwood’s “The Dresser, ” which Towngate produced during the 1996-96 season. He is pictured here with Terry Gurley who played “Norman.”

With 166 seats –none is farther than ten rows for the stage–Towngate provides an intimate theater experience for actors and audiences.

“The atmosphere at Towngate is very cozy and welcoming.  Audiences members are up close to the action,” Thompson said. “Onstage the actors become like a family. In some cases, they are actually family.  You’ll see parents and children and husbands and wives perform on the stage together.  Several area families have multiple generations that have performed at Towngate over the years.”

Keeping the “Community” in Community Theater

He added that Towngate “keeps the community in community theater” by being accessible to everyone.  “We have open auditions for all of our plays. Our actors range from newcomers to veteran performers who bring a wide range of talents and work together, learn together and produce amazing theater.”

The cast of “You Can’t Take It With You,” staged at Towngate during the 2002-03 season.

Towngate offers a variety of performing arts events in addition to community theater performances. You can listen to or participate in poetry and spoken word performances. Bring the kiddos to a children’s theater production. Attend a ballet. Towngate also showcases improvisational comedy. Local and regional musicians perform on the Towngate stage. Towngate is a single screen cinema too. You can watch classic and independent films through the Wheeling Film Society and Towngate’s art house cinema program. The Gallery at Towngate features changing art exhibits throughout the year. Kids can enroll in Saturday acting classes or summer theater camps. Through Towngate’s educational outreach program, area elementary and middle schools bring theater and improv programs into the classrooms.

O’Leary played the role of Norman Thayer in “On Golden Pond” twice on the Towngate stage. In 1982, he acted alongside Kathleen Howland in the role of Ethel Thayer and Michael McClure as Billy Ray. In Towngate’s 2002 production of “On Golden Pond,” Deana Hawkins was Ethel and Leland Wheeler, pictured here with O’Leary, was Billy Ray.

Thank you donors, sponsors and volunteers!

Another way Towngate remains accessible is by keeping admission costs low.  “Theater shouldn’t be a luxury for the rich.  We strive to keep our ticket costs affordable for everyone,” Thompson said.

According to Thompson, ticket sales only cover about half the cost of producing a play. Fundraising efforts, like the Friends of Towngate season preview party, help bridge the gap.

Tickets to the August 31 event are $30. Purchase online or by calling 304-242-7700.

The Friends of Towngate also coordinates volunteers to serve in various roles at the theater such as ushers and concession workers when needed.

Applegate said the group is always happy to welcome new people who want to support Towngate. Anyone who attends events at Towngate and has a passion for theater is encouraged to get involved by contacting the theater at 304-233-0820.

Corporate and individual support also helps sustain and expand programming at Towngate, said Oglebay Institute director of development Micah Underwood.

“Corporate sponsorships offer local businesses a unique way to invest in our shared community. From costumes to props to simply keeping the lights on, our sponsors have a tangible impact on the experience of every person who walks through Towngate’s doors. This year, we are tremendously grateful for Unified Bank’s generous gift to support the 50th season. We look forward to celebrating this milestone with them and the community that has made these past five decades possible,” she said.

“Individual donations, like corporate sponsorships, help to create unique and powerful experiences for theater makers and audiences alike. We’ve been particularly moved this year by gifts in memory of Hal O’Leary. These gifts ensure the carrying on of his remarkable legacy.”

Make a Gift

You can make a gift to Towngate in memory of O’Leary  at www.oionline.com/halmemorial or by calling 304-242-4200. Donations can be submitted by mail to: Oglebay Institute, Hal O’Leary Memorial Fund, 1330 National Road, Wheeling, WV 26003.