The widely-admired director and producer will step down after four decades.

Steven Anderson, producing director of CATCO and a mainstay of the Columbus theater community for more than four decades, will retire when the group’s season ends in June. The founder of the Jewish Community Center’s Popcorn Players in the 1970s and of Phoenix Theatre for Children in 1993, Anderson was named to lead CATCO when the group merged with Phoenix in 2010. Anderson will be honored at CATCO’s annual gala Feb. 21. He agreed to answer our questions by email.

Theater has been your passion and your work throughout your career, since college and perhaps longer. What was your first experience with theater, and what about it most captured your imagination?

I grew up on a farm in eastern Oregon. When I was four or five, my Aunt Marilyn was in the chorus of a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” It completely captured my imagination, and my parents gave me the gift of two 45 rpm recordings of the highlights. I began almost immediately casting my younger brother and older sister in my own versions of the classic operetta. They were relegated to minor roles—the gentlemen of Japan, Peep Bo and Pitti-Sing. I tackled all of the leading roles including Nanki Poo, Koko, the Lord High Executioner, and—in a groundbreaking, gender-blurring, casting coup—the matron, Katisha. Predictably they tired of their lack of top billing and dropped out of my first theatrical enterprise, so I was forced to re-envision it as a one-person show. The other farmers would drive by and say to each other, “That Anderson kid is artistic.” It was not a compliment.

You have quite a bit of experience starting theater groups from scratch. What’s it like to get a theatrical organization off the ground? 

The exhilaration of working together with like-minded people for a single purpose is beyond description. If it springs from community need and not from personal vanity, it is one of the most intimate activities you can aspire to. I am childless, but I imagine that watching these organizations take their first faltering steps, gain confidence to walk and then soar with communal ambition, must be a lot like the pride of a parent.

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I read that you have written 75 adaptations of stories or books for children’s theater. What’s the biggest challenge of turning a beloved book into a play for kids? What's fun about it?

At the beginning of my career, most scripts for young audiences were pretty flimsy, vapid affairs. There were a lot of pratfalls, big exaggerated faces, loud overreactions to ridiculous situations and the obligatory “chase scene” through the audience. I started writing and adapting plays for young people because I thought children and families came to the theater for the same reasons I attended: To see the world through someone else’s eyes, to be transported to another time and place, or to recognize some piece of myself on the stage that elicited the response from me, “I have felt just like that and never knew anybody else did.”

Theater is a notoriously dramatic pursuit (pun intended), rife with opportunity for triumph and calamity. Would you mind sharing a story of a particularly memorable moment or moments?

I wrote an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden,” of which I am particularly proud. It is a story that speaks to me about transformation and new beginnings. At the climax of the play, the heroine enters a once-abandoned garden, which she has brought back to life.  It is, in fact, the “secret” garden to which the title refers.  It has been under lock and key.

At that time we regularly performed two school matinees back to back—one at 9:45 a.m. and one at 11 a.m. Needless to say, it was a tight turnaround to replace the props, set the stage and clean up the theater for the next audience. I had just successfully boarded the 9:45 a.m. children on the bus and was setting about preparing for the next group when I noticed a little girl who was lingering in the theater. Her teacher was growing impatient with her and urging her to get back on the bus. Through that interaction, I realized that the little girl was blind. 

“I want to see the garden,” she said simply.

Her teacher began to remonstrate, so I intervened. We are talking about the theater here, so the garden was represented by a large gate beside which hung a large brass key.

“We can take a moment,” I said as I guided her hand to the key. She grasped it and asked for help finding the keyhole, which I provided. She turned the key in the lock and slowly opened the door.

“I can see it,” she exclaimed. “I can see the garden.  It is beautiful.”

That is the sort of outcome we aspire to in the theater.

What makes a great play? Or, alternatively, what makes a great theater production?

This, by the way, is the question that has plagued dramatists and philosophers since the Greeks and probably before. I am most interested in plays that help me either see the world through someone else’s eyes or that reflects some deeply personal feeling that lies deep inside of me.

You said you are most proud of your work doing theater with incarcerated adults and underserved children. What do you think it is that participation in theater adds to their lives?

It is the most rewarding thing I have experienced in my career to observe and encourage people to find their voice. In the case of the people I have worked with who have been touched by the justice system, there has frequently been a kind of redemption—not of my making—that helps those who think of themselves as without a voice to express their truth. The opportunity to state your own truth is a heady antidote to abuse, poor choices, hopelessness and a sense of displacement. It provides healing for physical, spiritual, and emotional injury.

Do you have a next project or pursuit planned? 

Over the past decade, I have done very little writing. Once upon a time that was a central part of my personal endeavors. There are a myriad projects that I have in mind. I would like to do some writing—either essay or theatrical—about death and dying. We do a pretty crappy job of facing what is an inevitable outcome. Sounds grim, but I am pretty certain I can find the humor and humanity in even that.

The plays for young audiences I have written are ready to be edited and shaped for a new generation and that will be another focus of my efforts. Finally, throughout my entire career, I have worked nights. Now, 40-plus years later, I am officially available again for dinner plans. That sounds like heaven to me—food and friendship with no underlying agenda.