He toured half the country in a rock band, sold insurance, started a landscape-design company, did modeling for commercials and tried plenty of other jobs before finding his niche with Shadowbox Live. "My dreams have morphed," said Stev Guyer, the 58-year-old founder and president of the troupe - which presents music, comedy and theater in the Brewery District.
He toured half the country in a rock band, sold insurance, started a landscape-design company, did modeling for commercials and tried plenty of other jobs before finding his niche with Shadowbox Live.
“My dreams have morphed,” said Stev Guyer, the 58-year-old founder and president of the troupe — which presents music, comedy and theater in the Brewery District.
“I wanted to be in a rock band that played stadiums, and I did it. Once I’d achieved enough of that and many other ... things, I was ready to move on.”
After founding Shadowbox and shepherding it for more than two decades, Guyer has become a respected member of the central Ohio arts and business communities — even if some people are still confused by the spelling of his first name. (Back in his rock ’n’ roll days, inspired by the spelling of Jimi Hendrix’s name, he dropped the last “e” in Steve.)
However his name is spelled, Guyer “is Shadowbox,” said Yaromir Steiner, CEO of Steiner & Associates, landlord of Easton Town Center, the troupe’s home from 1999 to 2011.
“Without him, they wouldn’t exist.”
Offering a brand as distinctive as New York’s Saturday Night Live or Chicago’s Second City, Shadowbox has built a growing audience, beginning in the 1990s in the Arena District’s Buggyworks Building and in a Downtown warehouse, then in Easton Town Center and, since 2011, in the Brewery District.
Shadowbox General Manager Katy Psenicka calls her boss “tenacious.”
“When he sets his mind to a task, there’s no hesitation and no turning back,” she said.
BalletMet Columbus Executive Director Cheri Mitchell, whose company worked with Shadowbox on the 2011 dance-theater collaboration 7 Deadly Sins, describes him as a charismatic Renaissance man.
“I saw that amazing balance. ... He’s very passionate about theater, music, dance and creating art, but he’s a really sharp businessperson, too,” Mitchell said.
That opinion was echoed by Bill Schottenstein, president of the Arshot investment corporation that has developed Brewery District properties, including 503 S. Front St., Shadowbox’s home.
“He’s a good model for other arts people,” Schottenstein said. “Stev understands how to meld art and business and how to generate an audience.”
Guyer has been generating audiences since he was a kid.
Born in Georgia, he moved to Hamilton, Ohio, with his family in the 1950s. Because his “very religious” family attended its Baptist church five times a week, Guyer got a lot of practice singing church music.
“I knew I was going to be a musician or performer,” he said. “Singing is an extraordinary release that I could feel even as a 6-year-old. You have the opportunity to express your soul.”
After years of liturgical and classical music, Guyer first heard rock music when he was 13 and a friend gave him a transistor radio.
“I was on fire hearing Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Doors, the Turtles and all this amazing rock music,” he said.
He taught himself to play the drums and, later, the guitar.
After his family moved in 1968 to Rock Hill, S.C., Guyer worked on lighting for his high-school theater productions and began to act.
That same year, he and four others formed the rock band Hereafter, later changing the name to A.L. Richard.
He enrolled in 1972 at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte but dropped out after six months to perform full-time with his band. The young musicians toured the South and the East Coast, playing clubs and stadiums.
Guyer became the de facto head of the band, managing finances, schedules and song lists.
“I learned what it means to be a leader and how to work with disparate personalities,” he said.
The band prospered until the mid-1970s, when the rise of disco and nightclub disc jockeys cut into the group’s bookings. Guyer took a job as home-improvement manager at a Kmart, then, at 22, began selling life insurance. He continued to sell insurance for a year after moving to Columbus in 1978 — the year he and his second wife, Judy, had a son, Gabe.
Then he went into landscape design, starting his own design company, and began to model in commercials.
He took his agent’s advice to try acting and landed a role in 1987 in the musical Working at Little Theatre off Broadway in Grove City. A part in Actors Repertory Theatre’s comedy Golden Fleece followed, earning Guyer his first rave review.
“Acting helped me re-connect with the passionate part of my life,” he said.
Guyer began playing in Dbl, a Columbus rock band covering 1980s hits. And he wrote his first rock opera: Dawn of Infinite Dreams, about the young magician Merlin. The show premiered to mixed reviews in 1989, then was revived to greater success in 1990 at the Davis Discovery Center. Performing it was Guyer’s embryonic troupe, Shadow Productions.
That paved the way for more rock operas, including his Lone Season and Evolution, which Shadowbox took to New York in 1996 for a limited run.
At the beginning, Shadowbox was simply a means to the end of performing rock operas. But, gradually, the tail began to wag the dog, and the troupe’s increasingly popular sketch-comedy-and-music shows took priority.
Guyer remained the undisputed leader.
Julie Klein, Shadowbox marketing director and assistant producer, joined the troupe in 1992.
“That first year, Stev was a little intimidating,” she said.
“I felt like he knew exactly what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go but was still struggling about how to get there.”
When troupe members and observers called Guyer “charismatic,” it wasn’t necessarily a compliment. They described cultlike aspects to the work atmosphere and the intense dedication that Guyer demanded.
“I loved it so much, but it didn’t leave time for other things,” said Jill Ceneskie, who joined Shadowbox in 2001 after graduating from Otterbein University in Westerville. She left after three years and, since 2008, has led Raconteur Ensemble Theatre as artistic director.
“Just coming out of college, I was intimidated to some extent,” Ceneskie said, “and, at times, that controlling piece (of his personality) could be limiting. I think Stev has realized that and has put his trust more in his team.”
Indeed, Guyer said his biggest hurdle in Shadowbox’s early years was “me.”
“My life had not prepared me to lead a theater,” he said. “People get emotional.”
Today, Klein describes Guyer as “more global” in his perspective.
While maintaining a hectic pace with the recent opening of Between the Sheets and tonight’s opening of an encore run of the musical Chicago, Shadowbox is gearing up to announce a new company-created musical in the spring and a collaboration next year with another leading arts organization — all spearheaded by Guyer.
“Working with Shadowbox,” he said, “I realized I could be happy staying in Columbus. I saw that maybe there’s as much legitimacy anywhere you are, so long as you’re striving to be your very best.”