Sunday, January 23, 2000

The play's their thing

Eight small-theater directors juggle dayr jobs with the demands of production

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The curtain goes up on Stage First, New Edgecliff, Know Theatre Tribe, Cincinnati Public, Saw, Ovation, IF Theatre Collaborative, The Janus Project. They are all small theater troupes that have sprung up over Greater Cincinnati in the past couple of years, all sharing the big dream of growing into a professional company.

        But how do they make that happen? Hard work, long hours, pure devotion. The people behind the dreams don't make a living making art. They make a living to make art.

        • IF Theatre Collaborative: Benjamin Mosse, artistic director

        In real life: Mr. Mosse, 23, works full-time as administrative assistant to the business manager in College-Conservatory of Music's Preparatory Department. (CCM Prep serves primarily high school students.) He also teaches a high school acting class. That's how he pays for his own upkeep. To finance IF, he works weekend shifts as a grocery store cashier on his Clifton home turf.

        His schedule is: “Hell,” he says laughing. “Working a standard nine-to-five job then doing extra department work, teaching on weekends, rehearsing evenings, then having another job to help support the theater — it's hell squared. I work seven days a week.”

        In his spare time, Mr. Mosse runs around getting props and sweats over paperwork for the theater's hoped-for not-for-profit status.

        Why he does it: He wants a life in the theater.

        The big plan: Top agenda items are that not-for-profit status and a venue in or near Clifton. Then he'd like to get to work on projects “that interest me, and that I think would interest audiences.”

        That includes working with African-American, Asian, gay and lesbian actors. By autumn, “I'd like to do a show every two or three months. I have a list that leads into next winter.” That list includes a lot of contemporary work, including playwright Richard Nelson and “a little more performance art.”

        Coming up: Late February (dates to be announced), Jean-Paul Sartre's existential classic No Exit. Information: 221-4723.

        • Cincinnati Public Theatre: Don Wong, producing artistic director

        In real life: Mr. Wong, 36, is a full-time box office assistant at Playhouse in the Park. Thank goodness for benefits, he says, and the flexible hours.

        His schedule is: “Hectic.” These days Mr. Wong, who lives in Clifton, is in rehearsal for a Feb. 18 opening of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. His directing chores have him rehearsing “four or five days a week, five or six days a week leading up to the opening.” As one-half of a working couple, he also puts in considerable time (and he wouldn't give up a minute of it) sharing care of toddler Sophie.

        Why he does it: “I started out as an actor and watched people in this community working. I knew I wanted to direct, and I thought I had the right inclinations.”

        After a few years of free-lance directing, he saw Fahrenheit (now Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival) take hold and decided to try his luck at starting a company with Nicholas Korn. (Mr. Korn left after a year to found Stage First Cincinnati.)

        The big plan: To be determined. Cincinnati Public has been performing at the Aronoff, but Mr. Wong says that's unlikely for next year. He's chatting with Xavier University and Cincinnati State as potential bases.

        These days he's thinking “re-trench.” Instead of a season, he's considering announcing productions on a show-by-show basis. “After this year, I'm devoting myself to keeping the name alive and grants-writing and recruiting a board.”

        Coming up: Feb. 18-27, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf; April 14-22, Beautiful Thing, a contemporary gay romance. (Tickets: 241-7469.)

        • The Janus Project: Jay Apking, artistic director

        In real life: Mr. Apking, 32, is a full-time Pilates (exercise program) instructor. This has come in handy for Janus because some of his clients have become his board members. It hasn't been bad for his acting, either. “I meet people all day long, and you don't just work out, you talk about everything.” As an actor, Mr. Apking listens and observes and “puts their experiences into what I do.”

        His schedule is: “Fun.” He's in the Hyde Park studio at 6 a.m. every weekday to catch the before-work crowd, which means by 2 p.m. the day is his. He hits the gym for a couple of hours, then works on theater into the evening.

        Janus Project has, to date, been a children's theater based at the 20th Century theater for the Oakley-Hyde Park neighborhood, which Mr. Apking calls home. “The great thing about children's theater,” Mr. Apking says, “is that it's over by 8:30.

        “The easiest part is when we're rehearsing and performing. The hardest part is writing grants and staying on the phone, calling schools and persuading teachers to see the next two productions.”

        Why he does it: Mr. Apking had been living in Chicago when he came to Cincinnati to take a job with the Shakespeare Festival. After several years of doing classical theater here and there, he decided to re-explore the several years he's spent touring with a professional children's theater.

        By being based in a neighborhood, Mr. Apking believes Janus Project can fill a community need by “getting children interested in seeing and participating in theater — and parents, too, when we start adding adult theater.”

        The big plan: “I'd love to eventually go full-time if Janus becomes successful.” The summer class schedule will start with a theater camp then, after a short break, a performing project that will get kids in on the act. Next season, he'd like to have Janus Project touring to schools.

        Mr. Apking and his colleagues are talking about possible projects for adult shows for fall, “but I'm a little nervous” about creating the right identity for the theater. “We'll have to find a way of easing in.”

        Coming up: Late February-early March (dates to be announced), a new children's show Tall Tales 2 (working title); mid-May, John Henry, a drama with music. Information: 235-6597.

        • Know Theatre Tribe: Jay Kalagayan, executive director

In real life: Mr. Kalagayan, 26, is a full-time nurse manager. His day is filled with physicals, travel immunizations and drug screening collections.

        Weekends when he isn't doing theater he's a nurse at a retirement community. He does some “random agency jobs” as the “only Filipino actor in Cincinnati — if there are some others out there, I want to know it,” and he writes reviews for alma mater Xavier's news wire.

        His schedule is: Fine. “I delegate really well,” Mr. Kalagayan laughs. “I want to believe I can't do everything.”

        Why he does it: While Mr. Kalagayan was earning his nursing degree at Xavier “I spent all my time with (theater program director) Cathy Springfield. I produced and directed and wrote. I learned a lot about theater.”

        He originally tried acting in high school, but a production of Oklahoma! showed him “there's not too much room for Filipino cowboys. It upset me enough, I wrote a play.”

        He's still writing plays, mostly after rehearsals. He goes home to Hyde Park, and “I write into the night, but not as much as I should.”

        The big plan: “I would love to be like Cincinnati Shakespeare, and push Cincinnati in a new direction.” His direction will be multicultural. He's interested in Hispanic, Asian, African-American, Filipino work. Know has experimented with multicultural programming with its free children's programs that have toured area libraries and bookstores for almost two years.

        Currently based at Gabriel's Corner in Over-the-Rhine, “I'd like to pace it slowly and thoroughly. There's a lot of pressure when people announce a season. You can't go back.”

        Coming up: Looking at the first part of 2000, “it's going to be all new work,” Mr. Kalagayan says. “I don't know how that happened. It's not in our mission statement.”

        March, Jay's Shorts, a one-act and four 10-minute skits by Mr. Kalagayan; May, In Rebel Country, a new play by local writer Kevin Barry. Dates to be announced. Also penciled in: “We're planning one summer show and one fall show and a couple of bookstore tours.” Information: 871-1429.

        • New Edgecliff Theatre Company: Michael Shooner, artistic director

        In real life: Mr. Shooner, 48, grades statewide reading and writing assessment essays. There are essays to be read (hundreds of thousands of them from several states) almost year-round. (The holidays tend to be down time.) Mr. Shooner has been a team leader but took a demotion back to reader this month so he could have time to prepare for his role in The Woolgatherer, which has its final performance today at 2 p.m. at the Aronoff's Fifth Third Bank Theater; tickets 241-7469.

        He enjoys the job because, “with the volume of material, the day goes fast and there's an interesting cross-section of people. You have to have a college degree to walk in the door, so there are a lot of teachers, artists and downsized executives between jobs.”

        His schedule is: Full. “Any free time outside the job is devoted to raising money between now and next fall.” He says he and his associates find grants-writing “like swallowing razor blades” but he's three-for-three on his first attempts.

        Why he does it: “I've been thinking about this for 12 years,” he says. “I really wanted to do it.” Mr. Shooner returned to Cincinnati about two years ago after years of touring in professional theater. These days he's settled in East Walnut Hills.

        “I always wanted to get the Edgecliff (College) name back in people's minds. I'm very proud of that heritage. But this isn't a walk down memory lane. We want to do challenging theater, to give people something to think about. That's a worthwhile goal.”

        And, he adds, “the best way to ensure exciting, challenging work for yourself is to make it yourself. I wouldn't have had the opportunity to do Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n Roll or The Woolgatherer if I hadn't created it.”

        The big plan: “The next six months are critical,” says Mr. Shooner, who's been taking it slow and steady until now. The big dream is to establish a collaboration with Xavier University (which will have a new theater for the 2001-2002 season) even as New Edgecliff establishes its own identity separate from Xavier, ideally with a three-play season at Fifth Third Bank Theater.

        “It would be wonderful to establish a resident company (at Xavier) similar to Edgecliff in the '60s,” Mr. Shooner says, “to work one-on-one with students, have them take roles, learn backstage skills.”

        While Xavier's new student center is under construction, Mr. Shooner is huddling with Xavier theater producer Cathy Springfield, exploring the possibilities for site-specific work around town in 2000-2001. “That's very much on my mind.”

        Key is raising enough money to continue to pay actors and creating a salary for himself. “I won't be getting rich,” says Mr. Shooner, of East Walnut Hills. “The biggest advantage to a salary is that I could work on this full-time. I would love to be doing that.”

        Coming up: The 2000-2001 season (dates TBA) will be the world premiere of Southern Discomfort by Newsweek's Randall Cook; Harold Pinter's Betrayal; and I Stand Before You Naked by Joyce Carol Oates.

        • Ovation Theatre Company: Deborah Ludwig, managing director

In real life: Ms. Ludwig, 33, is a sales technician for an insurance company. That translates to assisting sales reps, solving customer-service problems and maintaining the office.

        Her schedule is: Busy. She puts in about 25 hours a week on Ovation business in her Hyde Park home “not counting production weeks.” Along with the day-to-day chores “we're in the process of putting together a business plan to take to corporate sponsors.”

        Why she does it: “For several years I'd wanted to start my own theater,” she says. She hooked up with Lisa Hall in 1995, they found three more partners in 1997 and founded Ovation. “We were united by a desire to start a semi-professional company that would do work never or rarely produced here in a variety of genres.”

        The big plan: It would be wonderful, Ms. Ludwig says, if Ovation “might someday achieve Equity status.” In the meantime, Ovation, which moves back and forth between the Carnegie in Covington and the Fifth Third Bank Theater, hopes to increase from four to five shows in 2000-2001, including a small musical.

        The company already has a relationship with the Children's Museum. Ovation's Light Up the Season ran through the holidays. “And we're trying to implement a high school intern program. We want it to be in place for 2000-2001.”

        Short-term goals also include increasing compensation for actors, finding opportunities for non-traditional casting and develop a marketing strategy that would “develop a look that is uniquely Ovation.”

        Coming up: March 3-11, The Scarlet Letter (Fifth Third); May 12-20, The House of Yes (Carnegie); July 14-22, The Road to Mecca (Fifth Third). Information: 369-1544.

        • Saw Theater: Mark Fox, artistic director

In real life: Mr. Fox, 36, has done factory work and free-lance illustration to support the puppetry performance art he creates with partner Tony Luensman. He spent August through November in a California arts residency program. Earlier this month he started his full-time winter-spring gig, teaching advanced studio class at the Art Academy.

        His schedule is: “Overwhelming.” The priority is re-structuring the board of the nationally acclaimed Saw and finding active new members. “I'm not the best person to go out and sell Saw,” Mr. Fox says, sighing. “We need to find people who know and love our work but exist in the world where contacts are made.”

        When they aren't working day jobs, Mr. Fox and Mr. Luensman are in Mr. Fox's Camp Washington digs “grants writing, doing final reports, inviting people to the studio (for board recruitment), doing venue searches, putting together promotional packages, designing and rehearsing new works, and doing the books.”

        Why he does it: “I believe in the work. I put all my time and resources into it, and it is paying off. But this is a critical year. In order for us to exist as a vital company, we need to be able to focus on it full-time.”

        The big plan: Being able to devote full-time to Saw and the creation of new work, and finding some administrative support.

        Coming up: Performances in Atlanta (at the Center for Puppetry Arts), New York, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Calif. Mr. Fox would like to find local support and a venue to present a full production of their latest work, Account Me Puppet in late spring.

        In the meantime, Saw will perform excerpts from Account Me Puppet Friday through Sunday as part of the weekend-long Intermedia series at the Aronoff's Weston Art Gallery. (Information: 541-0988.)

        • Stage First Cincinnati: Nicholas Korn, executive director

In real life: Mr. Korn, 36, is a free-lance technical and promotional writer. Mid way through Stage First's second season he still temps when he has to, but the plan is to be salaried for 2000-2001. His writing and graphics skills have paid off in ace grant writing and what are widely considered to be the most eye-catching theater posters in town.

        His schedule is: Consuming. “I'm usually up at 4:30 or 5, taking care of things that need to be taken care of,” he says. That would include writing press releases and grant applications, doing poster artwork, maintaining mailing lists and a data base. The Stage First ofice is still in his Covington home. Then he goes off to find props and buy building supplies for sets.

        He is directing all seven shows in Stage First's current season “which takes an immense amount of time.” That's a rehearsal schedule of five nights a week for four weeks followed by two weekends of performances.

        Wife Nancy is a jewelry artist. On weekends when he accompanies her to craft shows, he sits in the booth and writes. That includes his own translation of Electra from earlier this season and his original Alexander the Great. The first part of the Alexander trilogy opens Feb. 3 at the Fifth Third.

        Stage First, he says, “is an all-the-time gig.”

        Why he does it: “Stage First has been in the making for almost 11 years,” Mr. Korn says. “I remember sitting in a diner in Virginia years ago. I was touring in a professional company of A Christmas Carol. I was thinking that all my training and interests were classically based. I knew that when the time came to move out on my own, that's where I wanted to go.”

        The big plan: Next season, he's planning to do five shows instead of seven for three weekends each instead of two at the Fifth Third. He'll know in February whether his plans fit available dates.

        Funding a salaried position next season will mean “that we're beginning to move into the professional realm.” A primary part of a salaried post will mean “being able to devote time to raising funds to pay actors.”

        As more small local companies are making it a priority to recompense performers, “a lot of people we've been working with in the past are moving out of our reach.” Mr. Korn intends to bring them back into the Stage First fold.

        “Any sophomore season is tough. The glow of being new is gone,” he says. “By season five, we'll be doing fine.”

        Coming up: Feb. 3-12, Alexander the Great; March 23-April 1, Long Day's Journey into Night; April 27-May 6, Lysistrata; June 1-10, The Threepenny Opera. Tickets: 241-7469.


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