NEAR WEST THEATRE, an OHIO CITY-based community theatre and arts program, was founded in 1977 in the club building of ST. PATRICK'S PARISH. Founders Father Bob Scullin, of St. Patrick's, and George Hrbek, of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, initially envisioned a youth-only community theatre project to help deter crime and drug use in the DETROIT-SHOREWAY neighborhood. In August 1978, the then-named Near West Side Shared Ministry Youth Theatre staged its first performance, Godspell, under the direction of Stephanie Morrison and featuring 13 teenagers from the SAINT MALACHI CHURCH Urban Community School, as well as several local housing projects. Morrison (later Morrison-Hrbek) continued with the program as executive director, and Robert Navis, Jr., joined the staff (1980) as permanent musical director. Begun as a summer event, the number of the theatre's productions increased into the 1980s, while casts were broadened to include both adults and pre-teen performers.
Despite organizational changes—the program was renamed the Near West Side Theatre Company in 1983, then simply Near West Theatre after affiliating with the West Side Ecumenical Ministry in 1988—the productions staged by the program came to center on a consistent theme of reinterpreting established Broadway shows, often with nontraditional casting and presentation choices meant to raise issues of local relevance, specifically area youth. Theatre members also created a number of dramatized oral histories that were performed throughout Northeast Ohio, including "The Peoples of Cleveland: Building Community" (1983), written by Morrison and Hrbek in collaboration with staff from CUYAHOGA COMMUNITY COLLEGE and the CLEVELAND PUBLIC LIBRARY. Another interview-based original performance, "Breaking Through" (1992), took its subject material from residents at the West Side Community Mental Health Center (now Bridgeway).
In 1999, the Near West Theatre, by then an established year-round program for children, teens and adults, established independent nonprofit status, including a Board of Trustees, Standing and Ad Hoc Committees. A strategic plan adopted at that time focused on five key areas: "Diversity, Promotions, Building, Programming, and Fiscal Self Sufficiency." Simultaneously, the new program board announced its intention to relocate the theatre from St. Patrick's to an independent building. In 2005 the program's offices were moved to 6514 Detroit Avenue, part of the recently begun Gordon Square Arts District redevelopment project, while a new theatre facility planned for the Gordon Square neighborhood had not yet been completed.
Significant awards given to the Near West Side Theatre, as of 2007, included the Governor's Youth Recognition Award (1985); Ohio Psychiatric Association's Enlightenment Award (1991); a Telly Award (1995); National Council of Churches' Ecumenical Recognition Award (1995); and The Governor's Award for the Arts: Community Development and Participation (2003). At this time Stephanie Morrison-Hrbek remained executive director and Bob Navis, Jr., the artistic director.