Winter in Ohio is cold, wet and often miserable. This is unfortunate for the theater community, since theaters tend to be large, open buildings that require a small fortune to keep warm and patrons often prefer to huddle in their homes in front of space heaters instead of braving the weather to see a show. As such, many theaters close down in the winter months because heating the building costs much more than the small amount of revenue the trickle of an audience provides. Since many theaters operate on a shoestring budget, this downtime can be dangerous. That’s why The Oakland Center for the Arts commissioned local actor, director and writer, Robert Dennick Joki, to write an original holiday production to help offset the costs. What he came up with was “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas,” an irreverent and sometimes profane spoof that has sold out performances since its inception. “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas” borrows from both “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – if the name didn’t make that obvious – and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The plot is straightforward: Starlet O’Hara is a drag queen that fires all of the other performers at her club on Christmas Eve. In a absinthe (and other) induced haze, she’s visited by a series of ghosts that convince her to change her ways. The ghosts are made up of drag show staples (last year saw Cher, Lady Gaga and Marilyn Monroe) and her formerly conjoined twin. One of the reasons the show continuously sells out is Mr. Joki’s drive to keep it fresh and contemporary. “I rewrite the show every year,” he confided. “I don’t want people to get bored with it, and I don’t want to get bored with it myself.” This is especially apparent in the rundown of dead celebrities set to Jingle Bells that is part of each show. Similar to the Oscar tribute, the number includes as many of the celebrities that passed away over the previous year as feasible. He also works closely with local musicians, like guitarist Josh Taylor and Zou keyboardist Bernadette Lim, to maintain an up-to-date musical style to which his audience can relate. Although Mr. Joki may be most well-known for this Youngstown holiday mainstay, he’s very active in the local theater community. He’s worked with a number of local theaters and is the owner of the Rust Belt Theater Company, a group that is quickly making a name for itself thanks to the insight and ambition of its owner, as well as its unique productions that focus on the type of shows most theater patrons aren’t used to. “I prefer more original stuff,” he explained. “Oklahoma is good for some, and it’s a great show, but that’s not what we want to do here.” Mr. Joki started the Rust Belt Theater Company one and a half years ago, which seems odd in the current economy. It wasn’t as hard as anticipated, however. “It was easier than expected,” he explained. “I was already pretty established and people followed me.” Unlike most theater companies, the Rust Belt Theater Company is not a non-profit organization, and that’s just the way Robert Joki likes it. “As an artist, you like to be in control of your art,” he continued. “We’re not a non-profit, we’re an LLC,” which means that there is no board of directors to deal with and confirm ever decision. This gives him complete control of what shows the company will produce and how they will go about doing it. It also has a down side. Because they aren’t a non-profit, much of the grant money and other resources that other local production houses see aren’t available. This means that much of the work is done on a shoestring budget, and creativity becomes invaluable. “I’m able to do what I do because I grew up poor in Youngstown,” said Mr. Joki. “If I were rich, I wouldn’t have learned the skills I did. We don’t have a $20,000 dimmer board; we have a bunch of dimmers I cobbled together from Star Supplies [a bargain outlet on Mahoning Avenue].” The crew at the Rust Belt builds their sets and props from recycled materials, and will often turn set dressings from one show into decorations from another. Working in Youngstown has other difficulties, as well. “We have trouble with rights because Youngstown is considered a “mid-size” city. It’s much easier in Salem and other places,” said Mr. Joki. Because of the mid-size moniker, companies that want to produce a show have to make sure that other regional companies and national tours aren’t producing it already. For example, if a troupe in Buffalo, New York, is performing “Annie Get Your Gun,” it isn’t available to the Rust Belt until after they’ve dropped their final curtain on their final performance. This is why The Rust Belt Theater Company will be spending more time looking for locally written shows next year. Local artists not only control their own production rights, but sourcing from local writers means they will be able to produce shows that are completely different from what people are used to. They might not be performing “Anything Goes,” but you can be certain that anything goes in their performance. To get an idea of how creative they can be, one only needs to look at their yearly production of the Halloween mainstay “The Rocky Horror Show.” Although they performed it traditionally their first year, they’ve changed it up. This year they produced a steampunk version of the show, with set dressings and costumes that blew everyone away. This year, brave the cold weather, get out of the house and go see “The Drag Queen That Stole Christmas,” a Rust Belt Theater Production at the Oakland Center for the Arts. Performances are at 8:00 pm December 2, 3, and 9; and 8:00 pm and midnight on December 10. Proceeds will go towards keeping the theater open through those cold winter months, so you’ll be able to see even more shows later.