When it comes to what Lima has to offer, of course, many would turn to the economy first, a topic recently covered in our hometown paper. However, there’s more that makes a town an attraction than just the job market. Quality local entertainment also plays a prominent role as well.
And, that’s where the local arts come into play. While Encore Theatre productions have long been an artistic staple in Lima, starting when a dozen people met in 1932 to form a club for those interested in theater and named it Amil (the spelling of Lima backwards) Tellers, as in, those who tell stories.
However, there’s been a far more recent group that has steadily risen to provide our region quality entertainment since its inception in January 2016. Octopus Productions is the brainchild of Chad Stearns, owner of a full-service design and video agency called Modo Media as well as a former Broadway Tours Orchestral conductor; Shannon Wannemacher, a veteran of multiple singing and acting performances throughout the region; and Christine O’Neill, a producer and director of several Encore Theatre performances.
As for the group’s first performance, you might say the fledgling group filled the role of lifesaver perfectly. After “Cabaret” debuted at The Ohio Theatre in June 2016, there was a Broadway Series cancellation for the ’17 season at Veterans Memorial Civic Center.
Having seen the Octopus Productions’ performance at the Ohio Theatre, Abe Ambroza, CEO of the Civic Center, thought highly enough of the cast and orchestra to bring the show to the Crouse Performance Hall in his facility, thereby giving the new theater group some real skin in the theatrical game.
Octopus has also done over the past three years holiday themed shows, such as the 2016 Halloween performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” in both the Wine Cellar and on the roof top of Jameson Manor, as well as a dinner-theater event, “Love Letters,” performed this past Valentine’s Day in the Upper Lounge at Old City Prime.
The theater group has provided so many area performers opportunities to pursue their passion, be that in song and dance, such as that late-summer event in 2018 outside the Civic Center on the Happy Daz Patio that featured the musical stylings of Wapakoneta’s Haley Schattschneider in an evening of the music of Gershwin, Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart; in the plays presented; or in unique art, such as the show in October 2018, “An Evening with Rick Workman,” when the former judge of Lima Municipal Court and veteran of many theater productions throughout the state, gave readings of a series of his short stories based on his life growing up in Lima and his time on the bench.
Among so many that Octopus has given a platform to perform are Debbie Briggs, John Hodges, Kedryn Roether, Sara Chongson and Joe Warniment.
Certainly one with a very vested interest in Octopus is Jim O’Neill, co-founder Shannon’s father and co-founder Christine’s husband. Additionally, O’Neill has himself trod the boards several times when not working his day job as one of Lima’s leading orthopedic surgeons. O’Neill, who serves on the Octopus Productions board, also has played piano for some of the group’s performances, continuing a love of music that began when his mom first sat him down on a piano bench when he was 5.
As a nonprofit organization, Octopus has received much support since its inception, with one most recent example being the group called Elida Theater Dads, men who were instrumental in set construction for the most recent Octopus show, the play “Sweet Charity,” performed this past June at Lima Senior Auditorium.
Among the growing number of ardent supporters is Joerdie Fisher, who’s seen nine of the group’s shows.
“Each performance stood out because what Octopus has presented is so unique, both in terms of performance and venue. I’ve actually seen several shows twice!”
Recalls Bart Mills, for years, heavily involved with Council for the Arts of Greater Lima and a thespian in his own right, “I’ve seen most of Octopus’ productions. One, in particular, stood out for me, and that was ‘Cabaret,’ which really established the group’s potential and raised the bar for what we should expect from local theater.
“You only get this level of quality from people who are genuinely passionate about their work. The fact that so many performers have returned again and again to work under Chad, Christine and Shannon tells me that, while I’ve no doubt, they are demanding, they also have a way of communicating with performers without beating them down. And, even with brilliant directors, that certainly isn’t always the case.”
Art devotees Carl and Valerie Berger can be added to the growing list of supporters. Says Carl, “This group has provided some amazing local talent, often for the first time. And, it’s talent that, I feel, is as good, if not better, than many traveling professional performances that Val and I have seen.”
Executive Director of Lima Symphony Orchestra Elizabeth Brown-Ellis feels it’s the attention to detail that makes Octopus Productions so special.
“While technically Octopus is a para-professional theater organization, the group has amassed amazing local talent. The group dedicates so much time and attention to every aspect of the shows, from performers on stage to the musicians in the pit to the meticulous detail of costuming and staging elements.”
In addition, Brown-Ellis feels that few nonprofit organizations embody the true meaning of what they should be all about than Octopus.
“In addition to bringing such outstanding and thought-provoking performances, Octopus is such a tremendous supporter of the arts here in Lima. Chad, Shannon and Christine donated the proceeds from ‘Cabaret’ to the Lima Symphony, and that $10,000 gave our musicians their first raises in ten years.”
So it is for Lima’s newest theater group on the block. While Stearns, Wannemacher and O’Neill are currently batting around ideas for Octopus’ next show, a growing number of local artistic mavens are standing by. And, while they can only speculate what the trio will deliver, based on past performances, the guesswork has been taken out of what word will best describe the show, and that word is quality.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at email@example.com.