Sunday, February 04, 2001

Turning theater from hobby to career

Second tier faces tough competition, funding struggle

        Last Sunday's column was all good news, reporting attendance at local professional theater topping 600,000 in 2000. There's more good news this week, as area artistic directors talk about the forecast for the theater scene in 2001. But the best word to describe the atmosphere for theater here is unstable.

        In Eden Park, the sun shines brightly on Playhouse in the Park, but many tenants of the Aronoff's Fifth Third Bank Theater see clouds.

        Half of the companies that opened in the Aronoff's smaller theaters in the past four years have folded. While each failure may have been predictable, more serious is the steady exodus of good actors and administrators who can't eke out a living here. Only Playhouse, Ensemble Theatre and Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival are artistically healthy.

        The second tier of companies are struggling — even suffocating — in a quagmire best described by Stage First's Nicholas Korn: “scarce funding, high costs, fierce competition.”

        Compounding the problem is that many of the young companies were born in the limelight of the Aronoff Center. This was not the case with Cincinnati Shakespeare, which stayed out of downtown during its formative years. Not surprisingly, the small company that most consistently delivers is IF Theatre Collective, hiding out in Clifton.

        Add to that a Catch-22: to attract audiences, companies need professional performers and directors to improve, but they don't have the money to hire them. Meanwhile, box office is prey to theatergoers' day-to-day concerns that include a slowing economy and rising energy costs.

The "V' word

        Despite these hard facts, it is a time of elation for people who create theater here. Most of them believe the Cincinnati scene is poised for a big future.

        “We've gone from the "S' word to the "V' word,” Playhouse producing artistic director Ed Stern says happily. “From survival to vision.

        “When you're surviving, you put your vision on hold and just try to put plays on. You just try to get through the week.

        “But when you begin to believe that if there's a little trouble — or a lot — at the box office but you believe the public won't let you die, that's when you can ask, "What do I really want to be doing? What elements of the art form do I want to be exploring?' ”

        A confident Playhouse introduced a summer season in 2000 (that will return this year) and the winter Monday alteractive series.

        The growth of theater in the past few years, Mr. Stern says, has been “staggering.” Even better, “everyone is boiling with energy and positivism.”

Career, not a hobby

        “We are better, stronger, healthier, more diverse, more challenging, more mature and more sound and united as a theater community than we were in 1991, a mere 10 years ago,” crows Richard Hess, chairman of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music's drama department and artistic director of Hot Summer Nights.

        Even so, the list of needs for the coming year is as long as the list of accomplishments.

        “In 2001, acting has to become a career and not a hobby (in Cincinnati),” Ensemble Theatre's D. Lynn Meyers says. ETC, a professional theater, pays union wages and benefits.

        New Edgecliff's Michael Shooner says he'd love to pay artists “something more than gas money” and be able to pay himself so he could devote full-time to establishing the theater company.

        He has a list of must-dos for the 2-year-old League of Cincinnati Theatres, which, he adds, needs a higher profile. (Its 16 primary members are Playhouse, ETC, Cincinnati Shakespeare, Hot Summer Nights, Madcap, Kincaid Regional Theatre, Cincinnati Playwrights Initiative, Fitton Center, IF, Janus, Know Theatre Tribe, New Edgecliff, Ovation, Stage First, Theatre IV and Saw.)

        “Members need to promote each other in more than a passive way. We need a development officer who would work toward establishing a more stable financial footing, which might lead to a professional marketing/publicity person with a budget.

        Mr. Shooner would also like to see work on a directory of regional theater artists.

Working together

        “It is time for the league members to begin to unify in how to help solidify the smaller companies,” Cincinnati Shakespeare's Jasson Minadakis says.

        “As a community we need to find ways to create links in the work — this spring's Lanford Wilson festival is a great beginning — so we can make marketing and artistic leaps.”

        “Guest directors,” says IF's Benjamin Mosse, who sees a need for fresh, exciting directorial vision even as he's “astounded” by the “tremendous growth” of the scene even in the last year, “including a lot of edgier, grittier work.”

        What the scene needs most, Mr. Mosse says, sighing, is money, which could “pay actors, fostering a larger theatrical community; pay to develop new scripts and stories, invest in guest artists, explore different mediums.”

        What the scene needs almost as much, he says, is “greater audience support. We need to make theater more exciting to more people.”

Changes at CCM

        Jap Apking will leave Cincinnati this summer, marking the end of fledgling Janus Project in Oakley. He notes, “I still feel this town needs to make a commitment to develop new audiences. We need to wean kids off TV.”

        “All of us in the league,” Ovation's Deborah Ludwig says, “should be brainstorming creative ways to get Cincinnati audiences aware of and excited about the theater renaissance.”

        Mr. Minadakis is excited about new elements at University of Cincinnati, including a theater residency debuting in fall 2001 and the arrival of CCM's new dean, Douglas Lowry.

        “I think it could turn on a lot of playwrights to the city. With the Rosenthal New Play (at Playhouse), ETC projects and the CSF Studio, we're starting to have a lot of new work produced in Cincinnati.”

        Since the arrival of Nic Muni, Cincinnati Opera has been producing some of the best theater in the city.

        “This is going to be a political year,” Mr. Muni predicts. “The combination of a changing of the governing guard and the economic slowdown could retard the tremendous growth in the arts here (and elsewhere).

        “We'll get an indication of how well the arts are supported when the challenge is greater. So it will be an interesting time.

        “We also have to get outside ourselves more. Much more. What passes for excellence here is viewed very differently in the wider arena. If we as a city are truly interested in becoming world class, then it's imperative that we become exposed to world-class artistic activity.”

        That has to start, Mr. Hess says, “with recognition and support from our own city and county. We have been severely let down by our elected officials who continually fail to support the arts in meaningful and deserved ways.”

        “The one thing that could move us ahead fastest is a tax-based funding mechanism,” Mr. Muni says. “As heretical as this may sound, something like this could be stronger than the Fine Arts Fund drive because it would be automatic. It would strengthen bonds between the broad population and culture.”

        Running a theater in 2001, Mr. Korn says, “will not be for the faint of heart. But it's worth it.”

        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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