Sunday, May 06, 2001

Carroll in town for 'Piano Lesson'

SCPA grad directs production at Taft

        Rocky Carroll hasn't been on a Cincinnati stage since he was a student at the School for Creative and Performing Arts (class of '81). He's been easy enough to find on CBS — for years in Chicago Hope, in this season's brief Welcome to New York and, barring extended writers' and actors' strikes, starting in fall in The Agency.

        He returns to the Cincinnati stage this week in August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson, which he also directs. The drama about a sister and brother and a family piano that carries their family's heritage will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Taft Theatre.

        Mr. Carroll is an old hand at The Piano Lesson. He was with the show when it premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987, and he was in it three years later when it opened on Broadway in a performance that earned him a Tony Award nomination.

        Back in rehearsal 11 years later, he says, “I can still hear their voices in my head.” It doesn't matter what ethnicity the family is in Piano Lesson, he adds. “It's about family and family legacy, about how much you're willing to pack up and sell to the highest bidder.”

        Mr. Carroll made his directing debut with the Children's Theatre with August Wilson's Fences three years ago. He's thinking it would be fun to come back to Cincinnati every couple of years to direct the entire cycle of the playwright's decade-by-decade look at the African-American experience in the 20th century.

        “They're stories worth telling,” Mr. Carroll says. He's finding it possible to act in as well as direct Piano Lesson partly because of the play itself — “You just tell the story and get out of the way. You don't need much to make it work” and partly because he considers himself co-directing with his SCPA mentor and Children's Theatre artistic director Jack Louiso.

        Mr. Carroll was rehearsing here during last month's racial unrest. He sighs. “I could have fallen through the cracks socially and racially if it hadn't been for SCPA. I could have lived a polarized life.

        “But going to a racially balanced school, that experience cleverly disguised as art, music and dance was really about helping our understanding of the world and people other than ourselves. I'm so glad the public school system was on board for that social experiment.”

        After the play wraps, Mr. Carroll will head back to the West Coast to check the state of the fall television season.

        The Agency carries A-List director Wolfgang Petersen's (Das Boot) name as producer and co-creator, his first venture into television. Mr. Carroll plays the assistant to the director of the CIA.

        The pilot has been filmed and everyone's just waiting for a pick-up order on what he says CBS considers “their answer to The West Wing.”

        Piano Lesson tickets $14, $12 and $5. For reservations call Ticketmaster at (513) 562-4949.

        Season change: Children's Theatre will replace a revival of Once Upon a Mattress with a revival of Little Red Riding Hood from 1998 next spring, hoping for a summer 2002 invite to Europe.

        FAF update: Long before the 2001 Fine Arts Fund campaign made its $9.1 goal (a cautious 3 percent increase over last year) by a whistle, the fund's parent Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts had arranged to bring in an outside consultant this summer.

        "It was already planned,” exec director Mary McCullough-Hudson says. The consultant will work with staff, board and volunteers “to take a look, see what are strengths are, what we need to do differently.”

        Despite this year's fund drive, saved by some deep-pocketed arts patrons (including Patricia Corbett) in the 11th hour, Ms. McCullough-Hudson is optimistic about next year.

        She expects the turbulent giving atmosphere “should be stabilized” and sees plenty of room for growth. (Although if you look around you'll see that companies not headquartered in Cincinnati seem more interested in marketing opportunities than giving opportunities.)

        Even after the annual campaign concludes, the institute has a full plate, which this year will include a new arts marketing project with American Express.

        Ms. McCullough-Hudson and the institute have been approached by parties from the recently disbanded Regional Cultural Alliance to talk advocacy.

        “I get kind of irritated when people say we don't do advocacy,” she says mildly. “We do advocacy every day.”

        The institute's government relations committee has been lying low lately, but back in the mid-90s they helped with lobbying when Cincinnati City Council threatened to eliminate arts funding from the city budget.

        “We've been asked if we're interested in re-energizing that effort. Sure. Certainly we're interested and willing to do what we can with the resources we have.”

        Those resources didn't exactly increase with this year's campaign, which brings us to a lesson to be learned here: a region's arts support shouldn't have to rely so heavily on an annual employee giving campaign.

        Too many things — like a concurrent restructuring at Procter & Gamble and a strike at Comair — can affect giving.

        Portune on the arts: Interestingly, less than a week before the Fine Arts Fund finale, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune was eloquent among the participants of an arts symposium at Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park in Butler County in mid-April.

        Mr. Portune sounded like an arts advocate in mid-April. In the wake of the city's street violence, Mr. Portune decried “the lack of value people find in other people, the lack of understanding in culture and community. We talk about dollars and cents and economic impact, what we should also talk about is who we are as a people and what we aspire to be.”

        Mr. Portune also wondered why Cincinnati's “strong business community” that “dictates” the region's agenda “hasn't embraced the arts.” He also pointedly observed that when somebody “gets on the front of these issues, not too many people are behind you.”

        When a fellow panelist announced the demise of the Regional Cultural Alliance, Mr. Portune said he hoped that alliance organizers would reconsider their decision and suggested that a city/county partnership might be fashioned.

        Oh, that somebody will take him up on it.

        P.S. Here's one idea floating around the arts community, where conversation about how to finance an arts council remains alive: a small admissions surcharge at visual and performing arts events. The theory is to meet potential government backers halfway.

        Playhouse struggles: Playhouse in the Park managing director Buzz Ward is watching out for locusts. The theater's schedule has been hit by just about everything else this season — flu bugs, technical difficulties, a show extension, even a citywide curfew — adding up to 18 canceled performances since October.

        In the previous eight seasons a total of three performances were canceled because of actor illness.

        “The short answer is yes, there's a cost,” Mr. Ward ventures, but it's a hard one to calculate. Notifying ticket-holders becomes the job of the entire business staff, which means existing work is temporarily set aside.

        When Avenue X lost three performances to illness, one performance was added and other subscribers and ticket holders were folded into scheduled performances — which means there were fewer individual tickets available to sell.

        Closer lost two performances to the extension of I Love You You're Perfect, Now Change, but potential revenues were more than offset by I Love You's added 10 performances. The current Mystery of Irma Vep has been extended by eight performances, more than making up for the performances lost during its opening weekend.

        Art was going into its final weekend when it was hit by the city curfew. “It had great momentum, it was selling strongly, the curfew hit. We added three performances (to accommodate ticket holders) but the momentum in terms of single ticket sales died. How many tickets might have been sold? I don't know.”

        Despite the performance juggling act, “right now single ticket projections are still ahead of the budget,” Mr. Ward says. “We'll do fine this year.”

        He happily reports that summer show Smoke on the Mountain is “selling strongly.”

       Contact Jackie Demaline at 768-8530; fax: 768-8330; e-mail Cincinnati.Com keyword: Demaline


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