The Commerce Street Theater in Downtown Lynchburg Ushers in a New Production

After a year of wading through unclear waters, the Commerce Street Theater’s (CST) inaugural production “Side by Side by Sondheim” debuts  Sept. 17.

“Side by Side by Sondheim” commemorates the work of musical theater’s composer, Stephen Sondheim. 

CST’s opening show was hand-picked by board members because of its elegance and simplicity, which suits the theater well. It is a lower-maintenance production to kick off the season.  

“You have to pick the right kind of shows to get started with,” CST President Bill Bodine said.

The show favors the newly opened theater with a smaller cast of 10 performers, simple costumes and a minimal set. 

Formerly known as the  “Renaissance Theater,” the intimate black box space in downtown Lynchburg transitioned leadership and was renamed the CST in August 2020. 

Going into a COVID-19 period that was particularly unforgiving to theater arts, the Renaissance Theater board looked to go in a different direction and move on from the Commerce Street location. 

“Artistic organizations have a lot of passion and a lot of strong feelings, there was a bit of a falling out with some members of the board and the original founders,” Bodine said. “Those of us who were left behind thought, ‘Well, it’s a shame to waste this space we have.’”

The previous members of the Renaissance Theater who wished to stay at the original black box location formed a new board and established a new company. Although the members of the CST were in a familiar location, they had a fresh start.  The program had to fundraise for production equipment, such as lights, tools and lumber for sets.

The tasks at hand seemed overwhelming, and the uncertainty of the pandemic made it particularly taxing, not knowing when live performances would be a realistic possibility again. What made the newly-formed CST bond together was working for a greater goal. 

The theater opened up after a year of working through the pandemic. Photo by Brent Tyrrell (@brenttyrrell)

In the early 2000s, the black box theater was founded by Tom and Pat Nowell, who also saw the switch from The Renaissance Theater and remain heavily involved with the CST. When the Renaissance Theater left the Commerce Street venue in August 2020, it became apparent that this was likely the conclusion of over 20 years of community theater for the Nowells. The remaining members of the theater were not ready to let that happen.   

“One of the founders is Tom Nowell, and Tom wants to keep doing this for another three years,” Bodine said. “Rather than see it just end for him, we all wanted to make sure that he had an opportunity to go out on his own terms. …It’s been pretty much a labor of love.”

That “labor of love” started in figuring out legal details of the CST and has continued through the rehearsal of this debut production of “Side by Side by Sondheim.” Although it’s a new name, the mission of the theater remains the same.

“We really want to continue to contribute to the revitalization of downtown and continue to bring people down to the city … and just to provide good quality theater for as many people that are interested in a really nice smaller space.”

Showtimes for “Side by Side by Sondheim” are Sept. 17, 18, 24, 25 and 30 at 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 26 at 2:30 p.m.; Oct. 1 and 2 at 7:30 p.m.

To purchase tickets, contact the box office at (434) 528-3336. For more information on the Commerce Street Theater, visit their website at    

Quigg is a news reporter.

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