Every time a theater season closes at Open Stage of Harrisburg, founders Don and Anne Alsedek embark on a routine that is seldom interrupted. They put away scripts, sets and costumes and begin to plan the next productions—until this year.
As the theater company’s 31st season ends in June, the husband and wife duo will enter a different stage of life: retirement.
“We have created a place where there is excellence in theater, and excellence in making the theater connect to the lives of the people who come to see it,” said Anne, the theater’s education director.
The mission of Open Stage has remained consistent since its founding in 1983. The theater is committed to diversity, thought-provoking theater and education—all in an intimate setting, Anne said.
“From the beginning, Open Stage has taken chances and produced plays that resonate with the entire community and have given actors roles they may have only dreamed of,” said Kristin Scofield, former OSH board member.
The Alsedeks, with former Managing Director Marianne Fischer, created the theater in response to a 1982 report about Harrisburg’s art scene, which outlined the city’s need for high-quality theater.
“There was not enough thought-provoking theater, and I thought we could fill that particular need,” said Don, the producing artistic director.
They called Open Stage’s first location—a spot quietly tucked behind an office building on Jonestown Road—“The Alley Theater.”
Anne laughed while describing Don standing outside with a flashlight to help theater-goers find the place of their first production, Eugene O’Neill’s “Moon for the Misbegotten.”
“They crawled up a loading dock and came in the back door to a tiny box office area,” she said.
The space lacked permanent seating, so the staff added or removed seats depending on the size of the crowd. This guaranteed a full house.
“I was just amazed at the fact that people came and continued to come,” Anne said. “We were all inside wondering if we’d have an audience, and we did.”
Open Stage Studio/School debuted in 1985, and the theater’s first full season opened in 1986. It has been located in its current location at the Walnut Street Parking Garage, in the heart of downtown Harrisburg, since 1992
“We started out as a little, tiny theater,” Don said. “Now, I like to think we’re part of the fabric of the city.”
Open Stage’s commitment to education and telling diverse stories makes it different from other professional theaters.
Production study guides encourage audience members to converse after the show. Post-performance discussions with the cast and production team offer a glimpse into the theatrical process. Open Stage brings in local experts so audience members can take a deeper dive into a dramaturgical topic.
“We are dedicated to telling African-American stories, and we also have had programs and series that focus on LGBT voices, women’s stories and playwrights, works by emerging artists and local history,” said Stuart Landon, Open Stage’s associate artistic director.
Each season brings at least one show focused on African-American themes. This winter, Open Stage produced “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” a story of a slave coming to terms with what it means to be free.
Each spring, Open Stage offers student matinees of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and reaches more than 2,000 local students every year.
“I think learning is something we take for granted,” Don said. “We benefit by what we learn.”
The theater’s commitment to education led Open Stage to play an instrumental role in founding the Capital Area School for the Arts Charter School in 2001.
“Open Stage has made a difference in the lives of the people who live in and around the city,” said Nicholas Hughes, board member emeritus. “It has made itself a valuable contribution to the cultural scene in Harrisburg.”
While the Alsedek’s retirement means changes for Open Stage, the theater will continue to provide stories beyond the mainstream.
“I think Open Stage owes it to the community that it continue beyond the founders,” Don said.
Board members commend the leadership and vision of the duo.
“More than 30 years is a long time to have started a theater from scratch,” said Hughes. “To be able to pass it on in fine working order to a new generation is a real achievement.”
Current board member (and frequent actor) Sharia Benn praised the pair’s “talent, teaching, encouragement, inspiration and joy.”
“They have given so generously to build a deeply engaging and beautiful theater gem in Harrisburg,” she said.
Landon will step into Don’s shoes and take on the role of artistic director starting with season 32.
“Anne and Don have built something really beautiful,” he said. “I am excited about the future of Open Stage and hope to make them proud.”
After June, Don plans to take a year off from directing. He looks forward to spending time with family. Anne will continue to teach adult acting classes and assist the Studio/School.
The current season will bring the duo’s careers full circle. They started their tenure with a Eugene O’Neill piece, and now will close with “Ah, Wilderness,” O’Neill’s only comedy. A few familiar faces will return to put on this show, including cast members who have been involved throughout the years. Gwen Alsedek, Don’s sister and resident costume designer, retired from Open Stage in 2015, but will return to design the closing show.
“It’s wonderful that we’ll be able to work with some people who have been with us for a long time,” Don said. “It’s nice that we get to go out together.”
For more information about Open Stage of Harrisburg, visit www.openstagehbg.com.
Author: Laura Dugan