By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Rae Cohen was a key mover and shaker when Newport Theatre Arts Center was founded in 1979. She was appointed board president when NTAC opened its doors and was the company’s guiding light for nearly four decades.
So the current board and staff deemed it only fitting that the venue rename its stage the Rae A. Cohen Theater to honor Cohen for having gone above and beyond the call of duty – and the love of theater – time and time again, from NTAC’s inception to when she stepped down as its leader 37 years later.
The open house-style event held at the Cliff Drive venue June 26 was billed as NTAC’s annual Patron Appreciation Night, ostensibly held to thank those audience members whose continuous support keeps the company’s doors open and to announce the lineup of plays for the 2022-2023 season.
But NTAC’s board members, support staff and others engineered Sunday’s event to publicly announce the renaming and dedication of the stage – but as a surprise to the unsuspecting Cohen. The guest of honor was in attendance, surrounded by family and friends, each of whom had tightly guarded the news and the fact that the new name would be unveiled that afternoon.
Roughly 100 patrons and NTAC staffers mingled during the catered party before reconvening in the theater’s lobby. Michelle Bendetti introduced herself, saying that referring to herself as current board president “sounds so strange since the lovely Rae Cohen was president for 37 years and one of the founding members,” then thanking “all of you – patrons, board members, performers, back of house – for your support, especially for the last two years.”
Bendetti pointed to the banner affixed on the paneling over the entrance to the theater. The sign, peppered with numerous errors, read “Newpot Theatre Arts Center. Thanks your for your partonage.” The typographical errors were deliberate, providing an excuse for pulling the banner down.
Feigning embarrassment, Bendetti apologized, then asked for a hand in pulling the strip of cloth off the wall, which brought the big reveal: the words RAE A. COHEN THEATER in block letters above the doorway.
As the prolonged applause died down, Bendetti said “Now you know the second, but more important, reason you’re here today. Rae is an original board member. She was president for 37 years. And now and forever, we have the Rae A. Cohen Theater.”
Board members-at-large Andrew Kelley and Bob Fetest were asked to say a few words.
“Today we’re honoring a ‘GOAT’,” Kelley said. “Not an actual ‘goat,’ but a Greatest Of All Time. Rae has been part of this place since its inception. That’s 43 years. With any mention of NTAC, people will say ‘Oh, yeah, that’s Rae Cohen’s theater.’ Now it really is… We thank you, Rae, for your leadership, your devotion, and your friendship. On behalf of your family, your friends, past and current board members, and patrons, we say congratulations, Rae. We love you.”
Speaking off the cuff, actor-director Fetes said he was “fortunate enough to have come to the theater in 2007” to audition for an upcoming production. “From the back of the theater, I heard this gravelly voice say ‘Weren’t you in “Enchanted April” at Long Beach Playhouse?’ I knew right there that Rae was a special person.”
Fetes noted that naming the performance space in Cohen’s honor was long overdue and “should have happened many years ago. And so, raise a glass to Rae, and to all the patrons of the last 40 years.”
As all eyes turned to her, the still surprised Cohen gestured to husband Stan, saying that “he has said I’ve been married to this theater for 40 years. On many an evening, during dinnertime, I’d not be at home, but here. Stan would call me about dinner and I’d say ‘You’ll have to fend for yourself. Make your own dinner’.”
Not that either of them minded. Rae has always enjoyed being immersed in the world of theater, and Stan beams with pride over her as brightly now as in decades past.
Choking up, Cohen concluded by saying her involvement with NTAC “has been the most enjoyable journey. It has enriched my life. I can’t count all the friends I’ve made. It’s been joyous.”
Brian Page first met Cohen in 2005, when he sound-designed his first NTAC show. He said what compelled him to worked on nearly 50 NTAC shows since was that Cohen had “an integral desire to do quality theater.”
Page said Cohen cultivates and maintains close relationships with patrons, showing genuine interest in and caring of them not just as theater lovers but as people. Several of those interviewed for this article relate that Cohen knows every patron by name, knows each well, and considers each a valued friend.
Page noted that Cohen’s warmth and support aren’t just limited to patrons: “She’s the same with actors and production staff. She makes them feel wonderful, that this was and is a special place to work. She is a blessing to this theater, and to all of us.”
SIDEBAR: In Praise of Rae Cohen’s Lifelong Devotion to NTAC
At the June 26 renaming and rededication of NTAC’s stage, no one was at a loss for words in describing what Rae Cohen has meant to the theater company. Here are some notable comments:
“This theater wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Rae. NTAC is one of the few community theaters that has always been in the black, all due to Rae’s work. Because of Rae, we were able to survive the pandemic, stay in the black and keep from closing our doors – so I can’t say enough about her.” – box office manager Kathi Cervantes
“I’ve worked at Newport Theatre Arts Center for about 10 years now and have found Rae to be one of the kindest producers out there. She’s discriminating about the plays selected but never judgmental. She is honest with her directors but never unkind. She’s always supportive of the shows, and the theater is her baby. It shows in her love and admiration for the actors, directors, board members and all involved.” – Sharyn Case, director
“She truly is the heart and spirit of this theater and has been for almost 40 years. It’s really her vision that has kept this place going. So many small theaters have come and gone during that time, and with Rae here, there was no question that NTAC would be here. I’m so happy they’re honoring her here today.” – Harriet Whitmyer, actor
“From the time I did my first show here, ‘House of Blue Leaves,’ she was so kind an generous with me, always so welcoming – not just with me but to everyone. She deserves this honor more than anyone else. We actors and all of community theater owe her a lot.” – Roxanne Matilde, actor
“Rae is just a joy to work around – always very helpful and encouraging. She wanted to, and did, cultivate not just good but great theater. She has such a pure love of our patrons. She has provided them with enjoyment and also cared about their safety. No five theaters in Orange County have as many patrons as NTAC.” – sound designer Brian Page
“She brought this theater back from the brink. She came on board as a volunteer and turned it all around.” – board member and director Bob Fetes
“The first time Mitch (Nunn, her husband) and I worked here was in ‘The White Arrow’ in 1984, so Rae has always said that we’re two of her first theater friends who kept returning to NTAC.” – Jane Nunn, actor
NTAC’s upcoming season: “Doubt” (Sept. 16-Oct. 9); “Drop Dead” (Nov. 18-Dec. 13); “Murder Among Friends” (Jan. 27-Feb. 19); “Dinner With Friends” (March 31-April 23); and “Guys and Dolls” (June 2-25). Visit www.NTAConline.com.