In Coatesville, Culture And Society Are On The Move The Old Mast Building Is Getting A New Owner This Year: The Local Theater And Arts Group.

Posted: January 01, 1998

COATESVILLE — There are days when the romance of working in the Coatesville Cultural Society's cozy theater can get a little too intimate for director Bob Jones.

Those are the days when the theater's upstairs neighbor holds band practice.

``The guy just blasts his music during our show,'' Jones said. ``You can hear it right in the theater.''

Come the end of 1998, Jones shouldn't have to worry about such things. The cultural society, whose office and theater are on the first floor of a former jewelry store, has purchased the Mast Building down East Lincoln Highway and is scheduled to move into it before the year ends.

The building, a three-story, red-brick structure that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is in Coatesville's downtown. Renovations are to begin this month. When they are finished, Coatesville will have a new storefront in an area beginning to turn itself around, and the cultural society will have a facility that offers more visibility and much-needed space.

``Right now, our [art] gallery space is our office space, is our program space. It's everything,'' said Jones, the society's operations and theatrical director. ``We have 10 or 11 people using one very small dressing room for shows.''

The cultural society was founded in 1993 by Jones; Danny Fruchter, who also helped establish the People's Light & Theater Company in Malvern, and Anne Praino.

The society's mission is to promote interracial and interpersonal connections in Coatesville through the cultural arts, including theater, art and dance. In addition to the three plays it produces each year, its weekly programs include chess games and a writer's forum.

The cultural society has grown considerably since it opened, the founders say. Jones said its mailing list, sent to people who visit the society and sign up to be on the list, has grown from about 50 names to more than 1,200. As the society begins a new phase, its directors are carefully watching to make certain that it does not forget why it was started.

``The growth itself is not our aim,'' Jones said. ``It's the quality of our growth. We could have a packed house in the new building and not be reaching our mission. Our mission is to bring together the races, and I think it's very important to remember that.''

He said the society is easing racial tension in Coatesville by bringing people of different backgrounds together and helping them understand one another.

``Naturally, I don't have any solutions,'' he said, ``but loving your fellow man and dialogue has got to be a good place to start.''

The society's productions, such as the currently running Wingate Hall, an adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body, are aimed at attracting audiences of both black and white people.

In Coatesville, there has been tension between white residents, who make up about 60 percent of the population, and African Americans, who make up about 40 percent.

``The arts are a very good way for people to get to know each other because they can open up and there is nothing material at stake,'' Fruchter said.

The cultural society and its board of trustees have worked for more than a year to raise the money for the $735,000 renovation project and purchase the building for $90,000.

So far, $700,000 has been collected, including $375,000 from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, $180,000 from a federal grant administered by the Chester County Office of Housing and Community Development, and more than $50,000 from an anonymous donor with ties to the community.

Fruchter called the anonymous donation ``inspiring'' because ``this is a person who was emotionally inspired by the work of the society.''

The new version of the Mast Building, which once housed the W.W. Mast & Son department store that opened in 1878, will have a flexible theater space with seating for 200, a rehearsal hall, two low-income housing apartments for artists, offices, and a first-floor cafe.

The new theater will have better sound and lighting systems than the existing theater. Theatergoers can expect better seating, too. Now, some audience members sit on the steps.

While it may be cramped, the theater allows an intimacy that must continue between the audience and actors, Jones said.

``We won't leave the intimacy behind,'' he promised. ``We'll take it to the new place and create it there.''

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