Somerset will never be mistaken for New York and the bright lights of Broadway.
But for almost 34 years now, as an educator, Steve Cleberg has brought a taste of the theatrical arts to this community.
This weekend, at Stoner Little Theater on the campus of Somerset Community College, the curtain closes on that era.
Since arriving from South Dakota in 1986, Cleberg has been the director of the SCC Theater and Film Department, and every year has put on at least one show featuring local talent. Although he teaches at the college and has inspired generations -- including students who went on to give birth to children who would also go on to become Cleberg students -- Cleberg essentially created a community theater. He gave older folks who were long separated from their matriculation days a chance to quench their yen for acting, alongside bright and hopeful young folks eager to make their way in the world. It has been a mixture that's benefitted both groups, and has produced magic on the stage.
Cleberg is retiring from SCC, however. Though he won't depart officially until after the spring semester, this fall play will effectively be his swan song as far as the large-scale productions Cleberg has specialized in over the years. Stoner Little Theater is indeed little -- an intimate, humble space -- but when it comes time to stage a show there, it transforms into a 1930s radio station, a European castle, or a prohibition-era tavern. It's like magic.
This last fall play is a fitting one. One major part of Cleberg's legacy at SCC has been the creation and evolution of the "Radio Suspense Theatre" series, an original project by Cleberg that allows the audience to see the inner workings of an old-time radio mystery show -- including the lives of the performers backstage and the actual imagination-centered performances behind the mic. Not only has Cleberg staged each installment of this series here in Somerset, he's had the plays published and other theater companies and school drama departments in communities across the country have performed these plays -- with roles that were originated by actors from right here in our hometown.
"Radio Suspense Theatre: The Final Episode" tells the story of the end of an era. Radio has given way to television. Mystery dramas are out of style. The old guard is giving way to something new and old friends and colleagues are saying their goodbyes.
How meta. Everyone who's been blessed by what SCC theater has done over the last three decades-plus will be doing the same as they celebrate Cleberg's time at SCC. Whether he's staging his own work or classics like Shakespeare and "Godspell," Cleberg has made theatre part of the artistic fabric of this community, and he deserves to take a bow for everyone he's touched along the way, whether they were on the stage or facing it in a seat.
Bravo, Steve Cleberg. Bravo.
THE COMMONWEALTH JOURNAL EDITORIAL BOARD consists of Michael McCleery, Publisher; Jeff Neal, Editor; Steve Cornelius, Sports Editor; Bill Mardis Editor Emeritus; Mary Ann Flynn, Advertising; Shirley Randall, Production; and Chris Harris, Staff Writer.