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A Reniassance without Writers

June 7th, 2010 No comments

The Allen Theatre renaissance that has been discussed in Tony Brown’s article on Sunday in the Plain Dealer is indeed excellent news.  There is absolutely no doubt about how powerful is the combination of the Cleveland Play House and Cleveland State University, as well as Playhouse Square and a host of investors.  With the existing theater spaces as well as the participation of Case Western Reserve’s MFA acting program the stage is set, literally, for a formidable arrangement of spaces, players, actors, directors, technicians.  What else could there be?  What possibly could be missing from the theatrical feast?  Oh, yeah, playwrights.

Link to Photo by Lisa Dejong

Allen Theatre Ceiling, Photo by Lisa Dejong

I really do feel impassioned about the opportunity that is opening up in Cleveland and the true and powerful force this represents for Northeast Ohio and the performing arts generally.  Coupled with the wonderful boon that the Cuyahoga Arts and Culture grants have been to this region (especially in a time of dwindling corporate and foundation donors), there is no doubt that performing arts represents a form of economic engine that can drive the revitalization of our communities—and God knows that stretch of Euclid Avenue really, really needs something.  For the truth of the economic cornucopia that performing arts offers neighborhoods, we need look no further than the Gordon Square Arts district and all the work that James Levin and Raymond Bobgan and of Cleveland Public Theatre and Near West Theatre and a host of others.  As I noted in my article on Theater Impact nearly a year ago, and as was mentioned in a Plain Dealer article by Steven Litt in 2007 (Energizing Detroit-Shoreway; Theater renovations, new building at the heart of neighborhood revitalization. June 24), theater has a definite economic impact on a region and especially on a neighborhood.  A fact discussed in various NEA reports as well (American Participation in Theater, AMS Planning and Research Corporation, Research Division Report #35, National Endowment for the Arts, Santa Ana, Calif. : Seven Locks Press, 1996).  The Gordon Square Arts District is poised to raise $30 million dollars itself for the renovation and reconstruction of the theater district on the Detroit Shoreway, and this $30 million dollar investment in the downtown theater district will turn Cleveland in to a powerhouse of theater with a true potential to rival Chicago as Brown notes about the Loop theater district there.

And I am pleased that what Tony Brown wrote about nearly two years ago, with regard to this possible merger and renovation, is coming true, as will some of what I wrote about then in another article.

What I continue to be sorely, sorely disappointed in is the lack of interest in playwrights or writers in general in this process.  I have learned over the years that you don’t wait for someone to ask you to come to a meeting or party or group—that you need to get off your ass and insert yourself into the mix and into the dialog and I guess, as much as anything, I’m asking aloud who should be inserting themselves into the conversation on behalf of writers?  Cleveland State University is a member of the Northeast Ohio Masters of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) program—a consortium of 4 schools: Akron, YSU, CSU, and Kent.  The CSU campus is the home site of the MFA playwrights unit.  This unit has turned out some fine writers already, including Michael Sepesy, a fine writer who has performed his work in the New York Fringe Festival and had many positive reviews of his work at CPT.  Michael Oatman, another fine, dynamic, and outrageous writer who’s work was recently featured in the New York Times, who is now a playwright in residence at the University of Nebraska, and who co-authored Warpaint which was a finalist for the John Cauble Short Play award and was produced at the National Kennedy Center American Theatre Festival in April, 2009 in Washington, DC.  Additionally, I’ll blow my own horn briefly as having authored a play that received Best Original Script by a Local Playwright, 2008, Rave and Pan.  There are others, including Michael Parsons who runs Theatre Daedalus in Columbus, OH, along with another talented writer in Jaclyn Villano. And, unfortunately, the dark side—with other fine writers like Peter Roth and Katie Buckels leaving Cleveland to find more receptive environments, such as Carnegie Mellon and Pace University respectively.

It is just unbelievable that MFA playwrights are not being mixed into the fold along side MFA actors and new theatrical spaces—and all of this brought together in a formidable tempest of creative production.  Why is Cleveland always waiting for winners and not reaching out and grabbing hold of its own fucking piece of the fated future and forging it into a dynasty—why must we look to Chicago for a Steppenwolf and a Mamet or Gilman, etc., who seems to look sideways at New York for something else? Well, I take that back, we can learn from Chicago: learn how to generate a strong theater environment for all theater artists, so that new work emerges from new playwrights using a system of powerful theater companies.

A Burst of Sunlight…with a small cloud or two

July 9th, 2008 No comments

Finally. That’s what I have to say. Finally.

Several articles have been written recently regarding the possibility of a new home for the Cleveland State University Drama Program, these follow on a proposed master plan discussed a year or so ago. The gist of the new plan includes moving the program to the Allen Theatre, right down Euclid Avenue, positioning the CSU Drama program right in the middle of Playhouse Square.

As Steven Litt, of the Plain Dealer, writes: “Meanwhile, the university and Playhouse Square are discussing a project that would turn the nearby Allen Theatre into a new home for the CSU’s drama program. It would cost at least $10 million and would divide the Allen into two or more performance spaces, while keeping most of the historic 1921 theater intact.”

Further, as Tony Brown postulates, “Here’s a possible future: A 21st-century showcase for the best college drama from Northeast Ohio’s major centers of higher education.”

Why major centers? Funny that you ask. Case Western Reserve University’s MFA Acting program has an agreement with the Cleveland Playhouse to provide a venue for the young stable of actors at Case. But this points to the absence of anything comparable for the playwrights in the CSU or NEOMFA program. And believe me, as a MFA playwright I know what a difference having MFA actors would make. I don’t want to knock undergrads, but there’s cutting your teeth and there’s cutting your teeth. Beating this metaphor to death: some of the undergrads are still drooling and figuring out what the little calcium nubs in their mouth are; but the MFA actors are outright chewing and tearing into things. I’ve seen some of their stuff, including a very good Tom Stoppard piece (The Real Thing). But this doesn’t just include playwrights and actors, this includes lighting, sound, costuming, set-design, and more…

But, I digress. It is a hope that these MFA programs can be merged (or at least come to an agreement) and the addition of the Allen Theatre could serve as a strong catalyst. Don’t get me wrong (again) I don’t dislike the Factory Theatre. It has an upstairs blackbox space that is nice and a very large theater space that is, in my opinion, not made available enough for the MFA playwrights. But the Factory Theatre was just that: a factory. A cotton factory. The Allen Theatre was always a theater.

Further, if Brown is correct, “The university [CSU] would manage the Allen as a downtown venue for a consortium of college theaters across the region to show off their work.”

And I say the more the merrier. This tangentially connects with my earlier piece on this year’s Ingenuity work–there is something magical about a gaggle of artists in one place. Ideas radiate, ricochet, and energy pulsates. And to be in Playhouse Square adds a touch of legitimacy (respectability?) for those who would otherwise seek the general run-of-the-mill, anemic theater fare.

Again, according to Brown, “Last week, [Michael] Schwartz [president at CSU] put the Allen on the front burner for his final year at the university when he announced his retirement next June.

“When I got here in 2001, we were at the very edge of Playhouse Square but had virtually no contact, and that made absolutely no sense whatsoever given our location and the voracious appetite for theater in Northeast Ohio,” Schwartz said.

“I am going to do something about that.”

… He now envisions a theater management program, a technical-theater training school, and a new scenery and costume manufacturing shop operated jointly by CSU and Great Lakes Theater Festival, which is now renovating Playhouse Square’s Hanna Theatre into its new performance home.

Other quotes follow, including Timothy Chandler, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Kent; Charles Fee, Producing Artistic Director at the Great Lakes Theater Festival; and Thomas Schorgl, President of the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture. A good beginning to a necessary partnership-building that can make something like this happen. Taken along with the idea I mentioned in an earlier posting, regarding a voucher program I read about in American Theatre, there are great possibilities for building a theater community in Northeast Ohio that can be truly vibrant.

God knows, that certainly is the kind of theater environment I’d like to be in the midst of!

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