It's the day before a new production opens at Shadowbox Live...

It's the day before a new production opens at Shadowbox Live, and the theater is like a beehive, with too many people to count buzzing in and out of the room, scurrying frantically from task to task.

Some are on stage rehearsing sketches from the Columbus theatre company's Holiday Hoopla show. Others are poring over the costume rack-searching for an indiscreet Mrs. Claus-style party dress, perhaps, or wigs of various colors and lengths. A few are in the audience seats staring at laptops to study scripts, answer emails or possibly just zone out in a brief moment of respite. Still more are in offices upstairs making phone calls to businesses and community organizations, or in the vast kitchen chopping vegetables, or in the box office crunching numbers. At a certain point, almost like a volleyball team, they all rotate to something new.

Out of the madness emerges Nikki Fagin, a petite wisp of a woman with long brown hair, a longer skirt and an even lengthier energy supply. She's Shadowbox's public relations director, head of the theater bistro's service staff, plus an actor and singer-oh, and a mom.

Fagin greets her 10-year-old daughter, Kiana, who hands off Mom's MacBook Pro before disappearing somewhere with Lila Hahn, another one of the "Shadow children." These kids hang around Shadowbox frequently enough to consider it a second home-or, perhaps, a first.

"I joined Shadowbox when (Kiana) was 3," Fagin says. "Lila was actually born while her parents were part of the company. So Shadowbox is all they've ever known."

In a sense, Shadowbox is all the adults here know, too. Most of them spend day and night at the company's sprawling Brewery District facility, the site of Shadowbox's triumphant return to Downtown.

It's been a long, strange trip. The company was founded in 1988 by Stev Guyer and Rebecca Gentile with a performance of The Dawn of Infinite Dreams, Guyer's rock opera about Merlin the Magician. By 1990, an all-volunteer troupe was performing regularly in the Buggyworks building, now the site of posh Arena District condos. In 1994, they moved to a Spring Street warehouse, where the audience surged and the company took on paid staff. Shadowbox planned to open a second location at Easton in 1999, but when a fire destroyed the warehouse, the Easton space became the company's full-time home.

Easton was tight quarters for Shadowbox-Fagin shared half of an office with four other people-and the company's employees missed being close to the Downtown arts community that birthed it. Thus, the attempts to get back to an urban environment began almost immediately. A sister facility called 2Co's Cabaret opened in the Short North a few months after the Easton move, but it shuttered in 2006. A satellite Shadowbox theatre opened in 2001 in Cincinnati but closed after a decade.

After other Downtown opportunities fell through, Guyer jumped at the chance to sign a lease for the Worly Building on South Front Street, former home of radio station CD101 and various bars. By August 2011, the 300-guest-capacity Brewery District theater and its adjacent kitchen and bistro became Shadowbox's new digs.

Company members completed much of the renovation themselves. "We would work all day, and then when all the inspectors would leave, we would assemble the set and rehearse throughout the night," Fagin says. "We would leave when the sun was coming up."

That level of commitment is not just typical for Shadowbox-it's essential.

"When we bring people on, we tell them on day one, 'If you're going to succeed here, this is your life,'" Guyer explains from across a bistro table during a rare moment of rest. The company was founded on a strict "no divas" policy, so all employees help with every kind of work-blue collar, white collar and sparkly collar. It builds a sense of ownership and keeps the performers humble. As the staff is fond of pointing out, all of them occasionally clean the toilets.

"We are all invested in this place," Fagin says. "And we are going to do what it takes to make it work."

Moments after breezing through a tour of the new building on this Wednesday afternoon, Fagin is back on stage portraying a tightly wound office manager in the midst of a comical meltdown regarding objections to her "cordially required" Christmas party. The character is a nervous wreck, but the confident, driven woman underneath doesn't miss a line.

Fagin auditioned for the Cincinnati outpost in 2006 at the urging of her then-boyfriend, was hired on the spot, and quickly fell in love with the manic pace and constant chance to perform. (Shadowbox performs 52 weeks a year; by comparison, a Broadway actor is typically off stage for months between projects.)

Acting and singing year-round is a thrill for Fagin, but really, performing at all is. She sang opera in her youth, but figured her career was over when Kiana was born. Instead, her stage life was just getting started.

Fagin switched to the Columbus location in 2008 because she was dating the drummer here at the time. The romance fizzled, but her role in Shadowbox continued to flourish; she's one of the many zealots whose tireless effort and moxie keep the theater humming along.

Actors, singers, cooks, hostesses, table servers, mothers: Whether wielding a mop or a microphone, these women are entertainers in every sense of the word. Head choreographer Katy Psenicka guides Shadowbox's steps off-stage too; her role as operations manager involves assembling jam-packed daily schedules for all 55 employees, a process she compares to a game of Tetris. Box Office Manager Noelle Grandison also coordinates the hundreds of volunteers that keep Shadowbox's ever-spinning wheels from falling off. In addition to acting, singing and marketing, Julie Klein directs Shadowbox's series of daytime plays.

"The thing about Shadow that you won't be able to miss is just how extremely powerful the women are here," Guyer says. "And I don't mean powerful in terms of the company's given them powerful positions. We'd be idiotic not to. I mean, you're finding a group of particularly bright, particularly strong, particularly willful, particularly talented women. ... It's a wonderful, wonderful thing."

Fagin exemplifies that power today. She woke up coughing at 4:30 a.m., but she's willing herself from task to task with a full head of steam, clearly the master of her domain.

The lightning bolt who you wouldn't miss even without the platinum blonde pixie cut is huddled around an electric keyboard in the women's dressing room. She taps out melodies to guide three other ladies, Fagin included, through their version of Los Lonely Boys' "I've Longed for Christmas." She is relentless, and they don't have time to dispute her critiques. This has to be ready for tonight's final dress rehearsal, and everybody is too busy to waste seconds arguing.

Stacie Boord has been with Shadowbox since the beginning. She was an opera major at Ohio State who decided to audition for Guyer's rock opera to showcase her versatility. She quickly discovered seat-of-your-pants rock 'n' roll theater was much more her style than centuries-old arias in a foreign language. She was irrepressibly drawn to the freshness, the accessibility and the joy of creation. "I saw the potential of what it was we were trying to do," Boord remembers. "And it just kind of spoke to me."

A quarter century later, she oversees all the singing at Shadowbox as vocal master. But 25 years of razzle-dazzle and nose-to-the-grindstone haven't run her ragged. And she is proving it right now, cramped around a keyboard, passionately demanding perfection from her peers.

Eventually, the group pulls off the harmonies to Boord's satisfaction. And with that, the whirlwind resumes. She has scenes to practice and calls to make. As Shadowbox's community relations director, she helps the company give back, whether by donating tickets to non-profits or spearheading a theater education program for high school students.

Her schedule makes it hard to maintain a life outside the company, especially because she commutes from Cincinnati. Yet somehow the mother of a 7-year-old girl and two stepchildren does it. It helps that her husband, a lawyer whose work takes him from Texas to Japan, understands the pressures of a busy schedule. It also helps that Shadowbox's volunteer corps is happy to babysit. "Some of these patrons are like second parents," Guyer says. "They're perfectly happy to take care of the Shadow kids as often as they have to."

The kids are often on the loose in the theater, too, with benefits that Boord appreciates. "I'm excited that my daughter has this opportunity to be immersed in an environment like this," Boord says. "I already see how she is affected in such a positive way for it. Her imagination is just off the charts."

The boisterous, bouncy woman with crimson hair behind the keyboard helps the band launch into Mannheim Steamroller's version of "Deck the Halls" for an early evening sound check. The pianist's driver's license reads Jennifer Hahn, but Shadowbox's dedicated fans know her as Red.

"Red is my safe place," Hahn says. "Jennifer Hahn is who you see at the grocery store with no makeup."

Besides co-leading the band with her husband, Matthew, Hahn assists Boord with vocal arrangements and helps out everywhere from the kitchen to the box office. Her daughter, Lila, is the one often galavanting with Fagin's daughter, Kiana. Together, the trio of Hahns comprise one happy Shadowbox family.

It's not a scenario Hahn imagined when she moved from North Carolina to take a job at Shadowbox in 1999. She figured it would be a stepping stone in an industry known for its revolving door. But like others, she fell in love with this company's unique work ethic and the people behind it-not to mention the patrons who regularly flock to shows.

"We're not just the actors. We're out here. We know these people," Hahn says. "We have patrons that have been coming for 20 years. ... I'm coming out and bringing them one of their drinks, handing them a pizza. That kind of connection makes it even more special for them, and it also keeps it real for us."

On this night, though, the performers are out to please Guyer, who's taking meticulous notes on the dress rehearsal. The run-through seems smooth enough to the untrained eye, but from the director's perspective, it was unacceptably rough, and not just because Boord cut her hand on some shattered Christmas lights while rolling around on stage.

Guyer's critiques may be more lacerating than the broken glass. He mercilessly calls on his people to step up-Fagin, Boord and Hahn included. Nothing goes unnoticed, from wrong notes to misread lines to clumsy staging. The harmonies they worked on this afternoon are described as, among other colorful language, a "trainwreck."

"That's not what we want from a dress rehearsal, guys," Guyer says. "Have your head in the right space. You can't be running around trying to do 8,000 things."

The irony of Guyer's statement might be lost on him, but it seems to have the desired effect. The performers exit at around 10 p.m. with wounded egos, yet nonetheless sussing out how to make opening night perfect.

A more pressing concern for Hahn and her husband is getting home to a slumbering Lila, who left with a babysitter hours ago. Their nuclear family wouldn't function without help from the larger Shadowbox tribe. "This is home now. This is family," Hahn says. "We drive each other crazy like family, but we take care of each other like family."

Shadowbox is buzzing in a different way by the following night. This time, the theater is full of patrons like Jack Flood and his sister Sue, who have been attending the company's shows for the better part of a decade. The presence of an audience pumps Shadowbox's staff full of an energy that was lacking in dress rehearsal. They live for this.

Flood is happy to lend his eyes and ears. He appreciates the camaraderie cultivated by Shadowbox's hands-on approach. "I got a feeling like I know every one of these people," he explains. "They come out and they shake your hand."

Around him, actors are mingling through the crowd, delivering drinks and making small talk. The last of them disappears backstage just as the lights go down.

Showtime.

Like magic, cooks and servers transform into stars. For two hours, they shuffle through costumes both goofy and glamorous, alternating between the controlled chaos of the comedy sketches and the showstopping bombast of the musical numbers. The crowd is transfixed. Holiday Hoopla goes off without a hitch.

And the Shadowbox staff's incomparable dedication starts to make a little more sense.

"It's like an addiction. It's a crazy schedule. Insane hours. Insane demands. Not a lot of money. But it's so rewarding," Boord says."Unbelievably rewarding."