Sunday, January 28, 2001

Theaters run up winning stats

Cincinnati saw more plays than Bengals games

        What better way to spend Super Bowl Sunday than looking back over last year's stats?

        How about this one?

        The Bengals counted an attendance of just under 470,000 at home games in 2000.

        Our professional theater scene counted just more than 605,000 attendance in 2000.

        Let's pause for a moment and think about that.

        How is it that we only believe we're a Big League city if we can point to a winning sports season?

        Cincinnati had another championship season this year, and again it was in the arts. So where is city and county support? Why isn't the convention bureau spinning that into national PR?

        What will it take to persuade decision-makers — political and corporate — that people who live in the region want a vibrant arts scene? That people will come here to enjoy our vibrant arts scene?

        We're casting our votes at the box office. And in those long lines for recently closed European Masterpieces at Cincinnati Art Museum. And in countless family photos with the artful porkers of the Big Pig Gig.

        What will it take to persuade those decision-makers that these winning arts companies (not-for-profit, except for the Fifth Third Bank Broadway Series) have earned their respect and support? That with some small, smart investment, there could be a stadium-full of returns?

        Sports writers like to talk about statistics. So do arts writers. I particularly like to talk about stats like these:

        • Playhouse in the Park has broken its subscription record, set last year. Even with a couple of tough sells this season, like a tryout for unknown musical Everything's Ducky and the current, controversial Closer, subscriptions topped 21,500.

        It was a jolly holiday for the Eden Park theater. Attendance for the 10th anniversary of A Christmas Carol was 24,561, the highest sales since 1991, when it was part of the subscription package and drew 32,675.

        Shelterhouse holiday entertainment I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change played to 98% capacity with 62 of 66 performances sold out.

        • At Ensemble, holiday musical Sleeping Beauty played to 96% capacity (4,358 at 24 performances) and for the first time, the theater reached 1,500 subscribers, improving on last year's numbers by 10%.

        • Cincinnati Shakespeare consistently has turnaway crowds. (The current Macbeth, continuing through Feb. 2, opened to four straight sell-outs).

        • In 2000, Hot Summer Nights at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music played to more than 96% capacity. CCM has sold about 2,500 subscriptions to its current season.

        • Add Broadway Series' 19,000 subscribers, and the numbers are clear.

        Theater sells tickets at a record pace. Just the handful of theaters mentioned add up to 50,000 people who regularly attend theater in Cincinnati.

        Subtract 10% for overlap. (According to surveys, the Playhouse and Broadway Series don't share many subscribers).

        Let's put this in perspective.

        As I wrote in a column at the end of 1999, more people subscribe to theater than voted for Charlie Luken (42,022).

        It's more people (about 42,000) than had season tickets to the Bengals.

        Here's an interesting factoid: The highest number of tickets the Bengals report “distributing” in the 2000 season was 64,006 against Cleveland. That's fewer people (65,000) than saw the Rockettes.

        About excellence: The theater year 2000 was about more than attendance, although that 605,000 total attendance number (for the Broadway Series, members of the League of Cincinnati Theatres and other theater events in the Aronoff Center) is a clear winner.

        The year was just as much about nationally acknowledged artistic excellence.

        • Work premiered at two local theaters — The Dead-Eye Boy at Playhouse and Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine at Ensemble — are among 16 new works nominated for a national new play prize. (The outcome will be announced next month.)

        • The Playhouse's production of Nixon's Nixon continues to be a hit on the international theater festival circuit, wowing audiences and critics in Toronto in 2000 and next month headed for Hong Kong.

        • World-famous playwrights Athol Fugard and Wole Soyinka visited Cincinnati in 2000, appearances, Playhouse's Ed Stern says, that marked Cincinnati “as a truly world-class theater town. It builds excitement for all theater.”

        Shouldn't we be proud? Shouldn't we be crowing?

        Shouldn't we be supporting our not-for-profit theaters? They're proving that they deliver, but for most of the small companies bringing downtown to life at night, it's a struggle for survival every time the curtain goes up.

        As things stand, there's negligible city support, no county support, little corporate support, and the Fine Arts Fund is and always will be tied to the city's largest institutions.

        There's opportunity to be seized here, to invest in our arts and reap local, regional and national recognition.

        All it will take is opening our minds to an unheard-of idea: There's more than one way to define a champion.

        Bringing "Dead Man' to life: Speaking of national cachet, Cincinnati Opera wants to be the first opera company west of the San Andreas fault to produce Dead Man Walking, which premiered in San Francisco in October to exultant reviews and already has nine international opera companies standing in line requesting producing rights.

        The intimacy of the drama, about Sister Helen Prejean's moral odyssey as spiritual adviser to Death Row inmates in Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary, is told against an epic backdrop that includes a full orchestra and a 70-voice children's choir.

        For all the operas that have been premiered through the '90s — Ghosts of Versailles, The Great Gatsby, A View from the Bridge, A Streetcar Named Desire — Dead Man Walking is the first to be widely hailed as both original and significant.

        A production is going to require major support. Last weekend Cincinnati Opera brought in secret weapon Jake Heggie, Dead Man's young (under 40), gifted and personable composer to tour Music Hall, bond with artistic director Nic Muni and chat with potential donors at the Maisonette.

        Mr. Heggie talked about the day that Sister Helen heard the music for the first time. “I was sitting on a piano bench with Frederica von Stade (who was playing the mother of a convicted killer) on one side and Sister Helen on the other. I played songs for both their characters. Sister Helen turned to me and she had tears in her eyes. She said to me, "How did you know?' It was an amazing moment.”

        Hopefully Cincinnati opera fans will be able to share part of that moment in the 2002 season.

        Curtain call: When Hamlet opens Thursday at Stage First, the Prince of Denmark will be a farewell role for Jay Apking. The talented Cincinnati Shakespeare alum will be leaving town this summer, probably for his native North Carolina, signaling the end of the Janus Project, the theater he debuted in Oakley last season.

        “It has nothing to do with the Cincinnati arts scene,” Mr. Apking says, although he has felt a wrench when other good actors, like Nicole Kern, Billy Sweeney, Andy Gaukel have moved on.

        “The thing is, I'm an actor. And so many things go into being what an actor is, and a lot of that is in your free time. And I don't have any free time.”

        Between his job (“and I can't not have a job”) and his unsalaried gig running a theater company “I'm losing quite a bit of who I am.”

        This spring's women's project will go on. “I'd love it if the (Cincinnati) League (of Professional Theatres) would take it on in the future.”

        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; e-mail,


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