Sunday, July 23, 2000

Alliance could aim spotlight on arts

Pig Gig coattails there for the riding

        The Regional Cultural Alliance is fast-tracking — finally.

        The alliance will be the three-state, potentially nine-county arts advocacy organization that has been more than four years in the planning, mostly behind-the-scenes.

        With any luck, the former mole is about to transform into an 800-pound gorilla.

        Why do we need an alliance?

        For starters so Cincinnati can link to a pipeline of state money not available to us.

        And let's talk piggies — or, more to the point, public art. The Big Pig Gig, although it still hasn't gotten all the fiberglass swine on the streets with summer more than half over, has proved its point.

        Suburbanites are coming downtown. The hogs have become little, curly-tailed goodwill ambassadors. Everybody has a favorite. They're not quite the topic that Survivor is, but at least nobody has to be embarrassed to talk about them, which we all do.

        The passel of porkers got Cincinnati a different kind of gig, a healthy segment on a network show (CBS Sunday Morning) and we looked really, really good.

        What all that says is — FOLLOW-UP next summer, especially on our developing riverfront. But a 2001 project needs to be better planned and be for the benefit of a lot more worthy groups. What better overseer than a neutral organization, like an alliance?

        Have you noticed that some of our performing arts companies, most obviously Playhouse in the Park and Cincinnati Opera, are poised for national reputations? Among the amazing things on our immediate arts horizon — a new music director for the symphony, a new Contemporary Arts Center, the Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

        Does anybody know outside a 100-mile radius?

        A hot, interactive Web site is in order. But how to create and maintain it? (Think alliance.) A hot marketing campaign to sell Cincinnati as a viable destination for cultural tourists is in order — and this one's a no-brainer; we're already an airline hub. Those weekend Delta Escapes should be bringing people in, not just sending them out. (Think alliance — some more.)

        Did I mention its potential as an umbrella for volunteer groups with big ideas and projects but no existing entity to help them find their way?

        The alliance doesn't precisely exist but will soon, possibly by the end of the month. It's simultaneously on the hunt for an executive director and a board.

        National and local ads have resulted in 86 applications for the first job, with about 40 percent coming from local people. Applications will continue to be accepted through Friday.

        By Aug. 14, the committee will have whittled down candidates to a manageable number for a first round of interviews. At the same time, enough board members will be recruited to put three in on the search.

        Nomination committee chairman David Herriman promises that the alliance board will have what the long planning phase never did — participation from community heavy-hitters.

        The plan is to have executive director finalists invited in for interviews in mid-September, which is when the first board meeting is scheduled.

        There is one glitch in all this wonderfulness. Not nearly enough money has been raised, so half the executive director's job is defined as “management/leadership,” which translates to “fund-raising.”

        The problem is not unlike having City Council members who have to run for re-election every two years: They spend more time than they should campaigning instead of serving.

        Whoever runs the alliance shouldn't have to be scrambling around finding the money to pay him or herself.

        True, search committee chair Gwen Finegan says, but that's the reality. She adds that fund-raising is “the board's job, no matter what.” But Planners had managed to raise only dribbles of money until the county came through with a $600,000 economic development grant.

        The candidate who wins the job may be chosen on fund-raising strength rather than advocacy and community development. Hopefully there's somebody out there who can do it all.

        Sophomore seasons: As the 1999-2000 theater season ended, I had one overriding concern for the crop of start-up, professional-track companies completing their second seasons. Casting — getting the right actors into the right roles in shows large and small — has been a problem that's continued into summer productions.

        “Yeah, it has,” Stage First's Nicholas Korn says. “But I would put our second season against anybody else's second season.”

        Mr. Korn has a point. One has to look no further back than a few years ago, when Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival debuted as Fahrenheit.

        The theater moved from Dance Hall in Corryville to Gabriel's Corner in Over-the-Rhine to the Carnegie in Covington, mostly under the audience radar screen. The festival's early growing pains went largely unwitnessed.

        The dilemma for the recent newborn companies is that most are spending their infancy at the higher profile Aronoff Center's Fifth Third Bank Theater. Several come with savvier marketing than Shakespeare Festival ever managed in its first years.

        The combination of prime real estate and arresting brochures and posters can add up to inflated audience expectations.

        Mr. Korn pleads patience for all the companies.

        “It's a struggle, and that's part of the growth of these companies,” he points out. As for Stage First, “We've had hits (including Lysistrata and The Chairs) and misses (like Threepenny Opera).

        After Lysistrata, which came late in the season, Mr. Korn sighs, “I'd directed every show last season (due to financial constraints) and I was exhausted. I wished we could stop right there, on that high.”

        When there's a miss, “We go back and ask, "How do we do better next time?' ”

        Mr. Korn faces a particular challenge because Stage First's mission of producing world classics demands large-cast shows. Creating a consistent ensemble has been an ongoing dilemma.

        “It is a challenge when most shows have 10 to 14 actors, but these are shows we want to do, shows that deserve to be done. We want to be known for doing shows like this.”

        Stage First's adventures on this bumpy path have been creating a track record, Mr. Korn says, and he's looking at a smoother path ahead, possibly as soon as the upcoming season.

        Stage First will drop back from seven to five productions for 2000-2001. A challenge grant from Cinergy Foundation will allow Mr. Korn to hire three guest directors. “I'm talking to people about Alexander the Great, Part II, Hamlet and The Master Builder.

        Alexander, the center section of a trilogy by Mr. Korn, will open the season Sept. 14.

        “Knock on wood, things seem to be falling into place.”

        Stage First will hold auditions for Alexander and the Moliere double bill That Scoundrel Scapin/Rehearsal at Versailles from 6 to 9 p.m. Monday at the Fifth Third Bank Theater. Those auditioning should prepare a classical monologue and bring a head shot and resume. For more information contact Mr. Korn at (859) 581-5430.

        Vamping as Velma: If you're heading for New York you can catch Anderson Township's own Vicki Lewis at the Shubert Theatre playing Velma Kelly in Chicago.

        Catch her while you can. Come September, the former News Radio co-star will return to Los Angeles to start filming episodes for the NBC mid-season replacement sitcom These Women. (That's a working title, says Vicki's father, Jim.)

        Outdoor winners: According to United Airlines magazine Hemispheres, Ohio's outdoor dramas are the tops. Blue Jacket in Xenia took first place. Writer Marilyn Stasio rated Trumpet in the Land and Tecumseh! No. 3 and No. 4, respectively.

        All the shows continue through Labor Day weekend. For more information contact: Blue Jacket at (877) 465-2583; Trumpet at (330) 339-1132; and Tecumseh! at (740) 775-0700.

        Jackie Demaline is the Enquirer's theater critic and roving arts reporter. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati OH 45202; fax, 768-8330.


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