Sunday, April 08, 2001

Shakespeare Festival's backstage drama

Highs and lows of putting together its ambitious season are worthy of any script

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In 2001-2002, Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival will present five regional premieres, have its first collaboration with the Children's Theatre, introduce an intern company, debut a world premiere, possibly produce an entry in the New York International Fringe Festival — and perform some Shakespeare.

        How the ambitious season came together, a combination of spunk, serendipity and commitment to growing a company, is almost as intriguing as the season itself.

        It's been a long time in the making, with the first sparks traceable to October 1999. That's when we began keeping a journal to follow its progress.

        Here are highlights of how 2001-2002 came together:

October 1999

        Festival artistic director Jasson Minadakis is looking for a way to “bridge the gap between contemporary and classic plays” when the solution drops in his lap. It is a script of Jeffrey Hatcher's Compleat Female Stage Beauty, a drama about actors in Restoration-era London. Othello is pivotal to the action.

        It is exactly what he wants — “language-based, contemporary issues set in a classical framework” and roles that fit company members like custom-made gloves.

        Talk about backstage drama. Mr. Minadakis will chase the producing rights for more than a year.

        He never does get them — at least not yet — but Mr. Minadakis' zealous pursuit says a lot about his desire to schedule theater that plays to his actors' strengths. It points to his quest for challenging new work and how he uses each season as a stepping stone to the next.

        It also explains the festival's rocketing growth. Next year's $750,000 budget is 100 times the $7,500 Mr. Minadakis had eight years ago to start up the company.

2001-02 CALENDAR
    Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival
    719 Race St., downtown
    Fuddy Meers, Sept. 6-30
    Twelfth Night, Oct. 11-Nov. 4
    The Importance of Being Earnest, Nov. 8-10 (Children's Theatre production, not part of subscription series)
    Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, Nov. 29-Dec. 31
    Arcadia, Jan. 17-Feb. 10
    Othello, Feb. 21-March 31
    The Beard of Avon, April 11-May 5
    Pericles, May 16-June 2
    Play commission, title TBA, June 13-30
Studio Series
    One Flea Spare, July 25-29
    Workshop of 2002 play commission, Dec. 16
    TBA, June 30
Educational tour public performances
    Julius Caesar, Aug. 2-5 and Nov. 8-11
    A Midsummer Night's Dream, Aug. 9-12, 23-26 and Nov. 15-18
    Tickets: Subscriptions on sale: early bird (through June 24): Enjoy the Arts/Start $70, students/seniors $90, adults $120. Starting June 25: Enjoy the Arts/Start $80, students and seniors $104, adults $144.
    Individual tickets $18, $13 students and seniors
    Information: 381-2273

February 2000

        Key members of the acting ensemble, Giles Davies, Jeremy Dubin, Brian Phillips and Nick Rose, discuss long-term commitment to the festival.

        What would that require artistically?

        “What shows would fit an ensemble that was going to be here a long time?” Mr. Minadakis muses. “How does an actor improve his craft? Part of that is constant training, which is where the studio can come in.

        “You can't just do classical theater. We've lost actors doing that. How do we breed and encourage excitement? How do they get invested in each other's work? There have to be large challenges. Difficult roles, strong guest artists to push them.”

        Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, which moves back and forth through time, has long been a favorite. “For years I've considered it and dismissed it as being too difficult.”

        He decides the core company will be ready for it after another season. Mr. Minadakis isn't concerned that it will be too difficult for an audience. “If actors want to do it, then your audience will want to see it.”

June 2000

        A significant stepping stone is a Cinergy Foundation grant for the 2000-2001 season. It will be used to start a lab series.

        While Mr. Minadakis casts his net for scripts in need of workshopping (and local actor Sunshine Cappelletti recommends playwright Jeff Arca), part of the Cinergy funding is used to see how successful programs run. Mr. Minadakis' first stop is the Pacific Playwrights Festival at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, Calif.

        He puts in several days with dozens of playwrights, directors and dramaturgs. Among them is John Strand, author of Lovers and Executioners (playing at the festival through April 22). Mr. Minadakis develops a relationship with the writer, who's becoming a hot commodity on both coasts.

        Mr. Minadakis comes home with a briefcase crammed with scripts. At the top of the pile is Amy Freed'ssmart comedy The Beard of Avon.

        Cincinnati Shakespeare will have one of the first productions in the nation after Beard premieres at South Coast Rep this summer.

July 2000

        Mr. Minadakis spends a month in London as one of a handful of young Americans accepted into a directing program at the National Theater. Between work sessions, he puts in pub time with his British colleagues and hopes those relationships will play out long term.
    Here are brief descriptions of the works Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival plans on producing next season.
    One Flea Spare: Acclaimed Kentucky-born playwright Naomi Wallace locks four people in a house during the Black Plague to explore issues of life and death and self. Mary Tensing will direct.
    Fuddy Meers: Claire is having a very bad day. Not only does she have a form of amnesia that makes her forget everything every night when she goes to sleep, but she's been kidnapped by a very strange man. And that's just the beginning of David Lindsay-Abaire's New York hit.
    Twelfth Night: It's giddy romance from the Bard, when Viola, having lost her twin in a shipwreck, disguises herself as a boy and enters the service of a duke. Of course she falls in love with him, but he's in love with Olivia, and Olivia falls in love with the boy Viola. They all have glorious comic support in the timeless characters of Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol: The captivating salute to Charles Dickens' perennial holiday tale reimagines the story of Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and the Christmas Eve spirits from the viewpoint of Ebenezer's former, long-dead partner.
    Arcadia: Tom Stoppard, our era's most thinking playwright, has Newtonian physics, landscape architecture and sex on his mind as two sets of related characters occupy the same setting — although they're living centuries apart. Ideas pop like champagne corks and language bubbles. Regional premiere of a sublime comedy.
    Othello: The noble Moor's tragedy is that he trusts his faithful wife Desdemona less than the cunning whispers of his subordinate Iago, set on revenge when he's passed over for promotion. College-Conservatory of Music's Michael Burnham, fresh from a production of The Tempest at the University of Cincinnati, will direct.
    The Beard of Avon: Playwright Amy Freed has great fun with the ongoing controversy over the authorship of the plays of William Shakespeare. Was he the Bard of Avon or was the erudite Earl of Oxford the scribe? With tongue firmly in cheek, Ms. Freed's delicious new comedy subscribes to another theory which bears a passing resemblance to Woody Allen's blacklist comedy The Front.
    Pericles: An adventuring prince solves a riddle, ends a famine, survives a shipwreck, experiences love, loss and even pirates before finding his way to a happy ending in a rarely performed Shakespearean play.

September 2000

        “The acting company was very interested in talking about next season. They didn't talk about what they were going to play but where we were going to be, what we can accomplish together over time.

        “We started talking about creating projects, like a company Moby Dick or Frankenstein.

        Mr. Minadakis asks the actors what they would be interested in doing.

        Mr. Davies is eager to play Iago in Othello.

        Mr. Rose will try his hand at Pericles. Anne Schilling, who will take the final slot in the five-member core company (down from seven in 2000-2001), will take the lead in Twelfth Night.

        By mid-autumn, the Shakespeare entries in the season had quickly fallen into place.

October 2000

        Another script drops into Mr. Minadakis' lap, Adam Rapp's Nocturne, a dazzling one-man tour de force that rises from a family tragedy. It was a hit at American Repertory Theatre in Boston last fall.

        “We went on an Adam Rapp love fest,” Mr. Minadakis says, laughing. “I went radically on the hunt for that.”

        He didn't get a “yes,” but he managed to get past “no.”

        “I'll hear in June,” he says. It all hangs on the success of the upcoming off-Broadway production. If he gets his yes, Mr. Minadakis will add it to the season.

        By mid-month, Mr. Minadakis is penciling in possibilities. He won't even venture a guess on how many scripts he's read. “I spent over $6,000.” He cringes. “And that doesn't include (free) reader's copies.”

November 2000

        The festival spends a week working on Incoming by Jeff Arca as a studio project. It's another love fest, so much so that Mr. Arca is awarded the 2002 play commission, and Incoming, an apocalyptic comedy, is submitted for entry in this summer's New York International Fringe Festival. Notification is expected within the next few weeks; Mr. Minadakis would direct.

        At the end of the month, Mr. Minadakis gets a phone call from Children's Theatre artistic director Jack Louiso. Next season's Young Adult entry will be The Importance of Being Earnest. Would the festival company like to take it on?

        “It fits the ensemble, it puts our actors in front of a 2,400-person audience, it gives us a chance to work with costumes, sets and a running crew comparable to the Playhouse.”

        Mr. Minadakis measures the leap from the festival's 200-seat home in the former Movies Repertory Cinema on Race Street to a Broadway-touring size stage and auditorium. “It's an opportunity we couldn't turn down.”

        The collaboration with Children's Theatre finalizes the decision to create an intern company.

        Last year the festival booked 36 school tours and had to turn down 27. Rehearsing Earnest will eliminate even more touring dates.

        The solution: a full-time intern company to take on educational touring as well as roles in mainstage productions.

        Through January, Mr. Minadakis sees almost 2,000 students at several mass auditions and regional universities. Twenty-three finalists travel to Cincinnati last week to compete for seven slots.

December 2000

        Mr. Minadakis is thumbing through American Theatre magazine and sees an ad for Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol.

        He knew the Carol reimagining, which looks at the action from Marley's point of view. It's a one-man show he's been mulling over for Mr. Davies.

        The ad reports that a five-character version is about to be released. That sounds right for his five-actor company.

        “I left a call in the middle of the night,” he says, laughing, “saying please call me in the morning.”

        This was also about the time that he begins asking himself, “How many Shakespeares does a Shakespeare company do?”

        He and Mr. Davies make plans for Mr. Davies to take a break and do a performance piece, Whu Is One, in autumn at a site TBA.

        By the time he leaves for New York to join wife Marni Penning Minadakis for the holidays, Arcadia, Marley and the Shakespeares are in place.

        He is in New York when final word comes that Compleat Stage Beauty is a no-go. Beard is quickly given a slot.

        At this point, Pericles leads off the season.

January 2001

        Mr. Minadakis noses around for a performing space for Whu Is One.

February 2001

        A phone call comes from Kristen Dietsche, general manager of the Janus Project based in Oakley. The theater is dissolving. One of its most interesting programs is a women's project that debuted this season. Several scripts had staged readings in October with plans to produce one of the plays in May.

        Was the festival interested in adopting the orphaned project?

        “I was very excited,” Mr. Minadakis says. Rebecca Bowman, who counts the festival's summer camp among many duties, will work with Ms. Dietsche on the program.

        Naomi Wallace's fascinating One Flea Spare, set in time of the Black Death, will be a studio presentation in July. Readings will begin again in fall for 2002. “It's open to people to make suggestions,” Mr. Minadakis says.

March 2001

        Playhouse in the Park announces it will open with King Lear, and Mr. Minadakis knows that CCM's drama department is planning The Tempest.

        Mr. Minadakis starts re-thinking his season. For seven years the festival has opened with Shakespeare “because we're a Shakespeare festival, so the expectation is you have to start with Shakespeare.”

        But the week after Labor Day, he says, “is a tricky slot. The schools haven't been back in session long enough,” and Pericles is not a big name.

        Mr. Minadakis decides “if everybody else is doing a classic, I'll do a contemporary,” which turns out not to be so easy.

        First choice: Fuddy Meers, David Lindsay-Abaire's dark farce about an amnesiac who forgets everything each time she falls asleep. Mr. Minadakis was introduced to the playwright's work back at South Coast Rep, where he saw a staged reading of Mr. Lindsay-Abaire's new Kimberly Akimbo.

        Mr. Minadakis is sweating out producing rights again. Fuddy is also in Ensemble Theatre's potential 2001-2002 mix. The rights will not be settled this month, and Mr. Minadakis is thinking of alternative routes.

        He's philosophical about being third in line (behind Playhouse in the Park and ETC) when licensing agents are deciding who produces what in Cincinnati. “I just want to see (Fuddy Meers) done here.”

        He quickly positions the regional premiere of Arcadia to start his season. It turns out the acting company likes Arcadia where it is. They lobby to open the season with Twelfth Night. Mr. Minadakis acquiesces.

        Ironically, there's suddenly an opening for the one thing missing from the season mix: a 20th-century classic. The festival has had great success for the past two years with Waiting for Godot and Betrayal.

        Mr. Minadakis loves Arthur Miller's All My Sons, a post-war family drama about wealth versus social responsibility, and starts running numbers. Sons would push Mr. Minadakis past his allotment of guest artists for the season.

April 2001

        At the 11th hour (about 6 p.m. April 4), Mr. Minadakis gets a call from New York giving him rights to Fuddy Meers. All the arguments for not opening with a Shakespeare come back into play and next season gets one last adjustment.

        Costly All My Sons is dropped, Twelfth Night is delayed until a school term-friendly late October and Fuddy Meers will lead off the season.

        Mr. Minadakis already has 2002-2003 in the back of his mind. “Absolutely,” he says.

        He suspects one of the studio slots will be used to start to develop a company work, possibly Moby Dick or Frankenstein or maybe something else. “One thing leads to another,” he says enigmatically.

        All My Sons has merely shifted to a back burner.

        Mr. Minadakis is still hoping for Female Stage Beauty, which would make a great centerpiece to any season, and contemplating “which Shakespeare's would complement it, if it is.”

        And there's the fresh pile of newly arrived scripts on his desk.

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