Sunday, September 24, 2000

Theater struggles to find niche

Aronoff Center's Fifth Third space looks for solutions

        If you've been to the Fifth Third Theater in the Aronoff Center in the past couple of weeks, you know, at long last, risers are installed. After more than five years of neck straining, audiences sitting beyond the first row have an unobstructed view of the action.

        Thank Stage First, which has been trying to donate its risers for years. The Aronoff finally accepted.

        Steve Loftin, acting Aronoff chief, adds that the arts center has had such a good year financially (final numbers will be released by the end of the month) that the theater will be adding some risers of its own.

        While this solves one production problem at the Fifth Third, larger ones remain.

        Ever since the Aronoff's 1994 opening, the theory of “if you build it they will come” has worked for the Fifth Third. Founders of more than half a dozen professional wannabe companies recognized a high-profile new downtown arts center as the best place to get the attention of the theater-going public.

        But producing in the Aronoff's black box comes at a considerable cost.

        The most vital expenditure a theater company can make is putting something wonderful onstage. That means paying those people — actors, directors, designers — the same as you would any professional.

        Instead, companies pour the largest portion of their miniscule-to-moderate budgets into rent and related costs (including unionized technical staff).

        Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival's Jasson Minadakis was the first to see that keeping the Fifth Third in his budget didn't add up to developing a quality theater company. He moved out, started upgrading his acting ensemble and creative team, and the troupe has flourished.

        Other would-be professional companies have stayed, and new would-be professional theaters have joined them.

        All of them have the same problem: The quality of the work isn't what it should be. The big question: How long will their loyal and forgiving audiences support them, when they rightfully should expect more?

        Mr. Loftin points out that theater companies housed at the Fifth Third get a break off the rack rate, and there's a rental subsidy on top of it.

        All true. It's also true that the Aronoff's first two CEOs never showed much affinity for smaller local arts. Working with small companies and artists interested in using the two smaller theaters should have started when plans to build the center were announced.

        In Columbus, Doug Kridler and CAPA (Columbus Association of the Performing Arts) started out by being good partners. CAPA worked with management and boards of potential resident companies while the Southern Theatre was being renovated to avoid problems when it opened.

        In Pittsburgh, the smallest theater managed by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is rented on a sliding scale based on the theater's budget.

        At the Aronoff, which has gone without formal leadership since April, helping young performing companies never has been a priority, despite the fact those companies are the only likely non-commercial tenants of the small, bare bones Fifth Third.

        Wouldn't it have been wonderful if, over the last few years, the Fifth Third could have developed as a magnet for new directors and for quality performing artists?

        If the work done there could have encouraged local actors to stay in Cincinnati and enticed out-of-town artists to move here? If it attracted audiences eager to be part of whatever is coming next?

        “We are looking into this,” Mr. Loftin says. The biggest challenge “is finding equity in terms of how to apply (a plan) to users.

        “How does one determine,” he ruminates, “how a group is on its feet? Budget isn't the only answer.

        “We're familiar with some other folks around the country and we're seeing how they do it. We're looking for guidelines.”

        This is an urgent issue. The future of the emerging theater scene relies considerably on Aronoff management addressing it. Better late than never, but better sooner than later.

        Richmond bows out: Wish a fond farewell to Mimi Richmond, Madcap Puppets' dynamo managing director. She's leaving the company after 11 years to spend more time with her family, although she'll be around to consult on educational outreach and occasionally direct.

        Madcap is looking for a replacement, although Ms. Richmond will be a hard act to follow. Under her watch, the budget tripled, touring expanded to 17 states, the Hats Off series started at Cincinnati Art Museum, the audience quadrupled.

        Information: 921-5965.

        Stern speaks out: It always happens. Somebody will be making the case for arts support and the argument pipes up, “Historically, America has never supported the arts.”

        Baloney, says Playhouse in the Park producing artistic director Ed Stern. He will touch on de Toqueville, World War II and Sarajevo on his way to the state of contemporary arts (and in only 40 minutes!) as he opens the Fitton Center's 2000-2001 Celebrating Self series.

        Mr. Stern will discuss Today's American Culture: Where's the Art? at 12:10 p.m. Wednesday. Live music and lunch start at 11:45 a.m.

        Tickets are $10 or $50 for the series, which includes Hamilton historian Jim Blount talking about children's author and illustrator (and Hamilton native) Robert McCloskey, guitarist Robert Blue stone discussing business and arts as a winning combination and WKRC-TV anchor Rob Braun.

        Information: 863-8873. The Fitton is located at 101 S. Monument Ave., Hamilton.

        Apking steps aside: Ten women and Jay Apking sat around a dining room table in Hyde Park. Mr. Apking, artistic director of Janus Project, welcomed everyone, then announced he was leaving.

        “I'm getting out of the way,” he said. “I'm a white male in a white male theater-type town. I don't have a problem with that, but . . .”

        The point of the meeting was Janus' Minerva Project, intended to encourage females in theater.

        Managing director Kristin Dietsche took over and contemplated some big questions (“Who can we collaborate with? What kind of resources do we need?”) but the primary goal was to select three Minerva semifinalists for public readings in October.

        Two hours later, they had settled on a schedule. All readings will be at 7 p.m.

        • Oct. 3, Votes for Women, a suffragette play from 1907 by Elizabeth Robins, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival. Rebecca Bowman will direct.

        • Oct. 9, One Flea Spare, an allegorical drama set during the Plague. This will be the local debut of the work of Kentucky native and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient Naomi Wallace, at Playhouse in the Park.

        • Oct. 23, The Butcher's Daughter, a fable with music about a heroine born with a knife at the end of her arm, by Jennifer Haley and read at Ensemble Theatre,

        Janus is looking for more recruits, and experienced women directors will be greeted with open arms. Information: 235-6597.

        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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