Shadowbox Live co-founder Stev Guyer and his dedicated troupe confront a devastating diagnosis.
Something just wasn't right. Stev Guyer, co-founder, CEO and president of Shadowbox Live, had for years worked brutal hours and regularly pushed himself and the members of his company to the edge of their abilities in the name of excellence. But in the fall of 2016, Stacie Boord, the company's community relations director, observed something different; a change in Guyer's behavior. He was overly tired, complained of headaches and was impatient and unpredictable.
“I thought he was exhausted,” says Boord.
During Holiday Hoopla, the company's annual Christmas show, Guyer, 63, was off his game. He sometimes missed cues. Cast members began to ask one another, “Is he OK?”
For Guyer, there was “no gentle transition into it,” he says. One night he went into the dressing room per usual, and when it was time to stand up and get into costume, he just couldn't do it.
Boord took him to a doctor who recommended rest followed by reevaluation. So she drove him home, took away all of his devices and, with the help of Guyer's adult son Gabriel, put him to bed with explicit instructions that he sleep the entire weekend. Then she went back to the company with equally explicit instructions that if anyone reached out to him in any way about work, they would be fired on the spot.
When, at the end of the weekend, Guyer wasn't better, Boord and Gabriel took him to the hospital. CT scans revealed a large tumor. A biopsy confirmed it as stage 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, in addition to the detection of thyroid cancer. For Boord and company, a quick flash of relief at finally receiving an explanation was quickly replaced by shock, sadness, and an anxious fear of the unknown.
A company of dreamers
The extraordinary history of Shadowbox Live has been well documented: In the late '80s, Guyer (along with his then-partner, Rebecca Gentile) cultivated a team of local singers, musicians and actors to help stage a rock opera he'd written. Together, this collection of artists evolved into a rock 'n' roll-meets-sketch-comedy troupe that became an instant hit with audiences. They quickly grew from a shoestring operation into the largest resident ensemble theater in the country. Equally impressive is the company's improbable longevity; improbable because upstarts infused with so much intensity and so little experience are usually destined to flame out fast.
From its earliest days, Shadowbox was all about vision, hustle and loyalty—to one another and the desire to support themselves as full-time artists. Some of the company's original members moved on, but two dozen current members have been with the company a decade, and quite a few—including Boord, Tom Cardinal, Julie Klein, Katy Psenicka, Jimmy Mak, Stephanie Shull and Matt Hahn—have been there more than 20 years. “We've always been a company of dreamers,” says Psenicka, “with really big dreams.”
Most initially came through the door as artists looking for an outlet or for a reprieve from dull day jobs. But as the organization's ambitions grew, so did the need for an all-hands-on-deck approach. And at its nucleus, always, was Guyer. “All of the bucks at Shadowbox stopped with Stev,” says Cardinal.
Doctors did what they could for Guyer as 2016 turned to 2017. They removed as much of the tumor as possible without risking paralysis, followed by a round of chemo and radiation. During that time, Guyer was well enough to return to work in a limited but regular capacity, even replacing a young actor who called in sick for “Broken Whispers.” “I made sure I gave that kid crap,” says Guyer with a smirk. But the levity and hopefulness dissipated when the treatment was determined ineffective. Guyer underwent a round of Avastin, an intravenous therapy that blocks the blood supply to the tumor. He initially responded better to that treatment, but it was taking a toll on him. According to Boord, Guyer and his doctors now believe that the risks are no longer worth further treatment.
In the wake of the devastating prognosis, it was time for Boord to consider Shadowbox's future. “We had been talking about succession forever,” says Boord. It was Stev who usually raised the issue, but always in a what-if-I-get-hit-by-a-bus kind of way. “He had no intention of retiring or giving up control,” says Boord. Klein confirms that Guyer would bring up the topic and, “We would kind of skirt the issue. No one really wanted to talk about it.”
The company moved forward with its first show without Guyer's input in January 2017. Despite having opened hundreds of shows over more than two decades, the creative team found itself second-guessing its own instincts during the tech rehearsal of “Body Heat.”
Usually tasked with tough talk during the grueling tech process, Boord stepped in to offer encouragement and perspective: “Your only goal is to put joy on that stage,” she told them.
Keeping the news of Guyer's condition under wraps was tricky. “I worked incredibly hard to keep that close to the vest because we didn't know what was going to happen,” Boord says. “I wanted us to have the chance to do what we were doing without all eyes on us saying, ‘What are they going to do without him?' That allowed us to do ‘Body Heat' and ‘Evolutionaries' [a David Bowie/Prince tribute show] before a lot of people found out what was going on.” Both shows were artistic and financial successes, with the latter becoming the longest continuously running show in Shadowbox's history. Klein says that one of the biggest compliments she received during that time was that the transition felt seamless to the patrons.
Once the artistic side was stabilized, it was time to address the business side. “The worst mistake we could make is to try to be Stev, because we're not,” says Klein. “Which is why we had to divide his duties between us and find our own way.” Boord became executive director; Psenicka, chief operating officer; Cardinal, chief financial officer; and Klein, executive producer. The creative team had its annual retreat in January 2017 with Guyer in attendance. Boord expected that he would lead it as he always had. “Instead, he looked at me and said, ‘Go.'”
Discovering that she had Guyer's and the team's full support gave Boord license to take a critical look at what they do and begin to make changes. Those tweaks have included closing the Bistro during lunch hours, easing an aggressive approach to sales, keeping the staff better informed on company decisions and discontinuing the Friday 10:30 p.m. “nightcap” show.
Looking ahead, Boord says she hopes to relieve the pressure on the staff by encouraging a better work/life balance. “It's not something that Stev was very good at, although he did try.”
Tom Katzenmeyer, the president and CEO of the Greater Columbus Arts Council, considers himself a good friend to Guyer and is saddened by the news of his illness. But he knows the city's most successful theater company remains in good hands. “I don't worry about the transition one bit,” he says. “Stev has always been an advocate for original, high-quality work. ... [His team members] are first and foremost performers, but also great fundraisers and community citizens. Together they've had an amazing impact on the city, its students, and many artist's careers.”
A proud legacy
These days, Guyer has downsized from a historic home in Olde Towne East to a Clintonville bungalow, where he lives with the assistance of a continuously rotating stable of caregivers made up of family and friends. His signature flowing locks are gone, lost to treatment, but his hair has grown out to a respectable, if more conservative, length. While his physical movements and speech are sometimes painfully slow and unsteady, he retains the charm and wry humor recognizable to anyone who has spent time with him.
When his illness began to take hold, one of the most common observations was that Guyer had “lost his filter”—which is saying something, given his reputation for not having much of one to begin with. Guyer acknowledges this is tough on those around him, but trusts they understand. “I have probably expressed myself more aggressively to Stacie in the past three months than in the last 30 years,” he says. “But I knew she could take it; that's why she's the executive director.”
Guyer is not inclined toward nostalgia, a tendency that is consistent with the company's history of always looking to what's next. He considers the relatively recent “Gallery of Echoes” his proudest artistic and collaborative achievement. He says “the creation of original work” along with “continuing to provide a platform for the many talented artists at Shadowbox Live” are the two aspects of his original vision for Shadowbox that he'd like to see maintained.
Boord says the spirit of Shadowbox is embodied in one word: “Courage,” she says. “Courage to push the boundaries.” Cardinal says it's about “putting forth maximum effort, even if you fail.” And beneath it all, driving that courage and maximum effort, is pride and loyalty to what they and Guyer have created. “There's no other place that does what we do,” says Psenicka.