Posts Tagged ‘Cleveland Play House’

Molly Smith — Arena Stage

June 10th, 2011 2 comments

Molly Smith -- Arena Stage

So, Molly Smith was the Keynote speaker at the Dramatists Guild tonight, and never, I think, have I heard/seen a more appropriate choice for a keynote speaker in terms of setting the tone.

I feel compelled, immediately, to discuss Mike Daisey and his explosive article on how Resident Theaters failed America. A year or so ago I brought up Mike Daisey at a Dramatist Guild meeting at the Cleveland Play House–which was boasting about its “innovative” adaptation approach to “theater”. I think Michael Bloom’s head nearly exploded when I suggested that adaptations weren’t real theater.

Molly Smith’s talk goes directly to the heart of this. Smith, at Arena Stage, has turned the “theater” into a “center” that addresses her “four pillars”: production, presentation, development, and study of American Theater. This is more than talk. When Gary Garrison introduced Smith, he noted that Arena Stage has started a new program (New Play Institute) that provides 3 playwrights with 3 years at Arena at Full Salary, Full Medical Benefits, an Office, Travel Expenses, and 1 Full Production. Smith immediately corrected Garrison to note that now it is 5 playwrights. Thunderous applause followed.

Let me be clear. Daisey’s argument in How Theater Failed America is that the whole point of Resident Theaters was to SUPPORT theater artists. To provide a living to playwrights, actors, directors, and other technical stage personnel instead of what has happened: a steady stream of support to Artistic Directors, Marketing personnel, Development Officers and staff, etc; while theater artists have been designated as expendable and thrown aside. Case in point, the Cleveland Play House now makes the majority of its season’s productions Adaptations of works by “popular” or “long dead” writers. Then it adds some “classic” plays. In the past few years it has expanded to “Fusion Fest” which may be considered new theater, but, it pales in comparison to Cleveland Public Theatre, for instance, which is dedicating itself to a complete process of staging new works by local playwrights–such as Eric Coble‘s My Barking Dog. The question might legitimately be asked, why hasn’t the Playhouse given Eric Coble and Eric Schmiedl and others the 3 year salary and 3 year health benefits and 1 guaranteed main stage production? Where is the Play House in the innovation game that Arena Stage clearly is marking out? Arena worked with the Mellon Foundation to get it done and support the artists in its community, and it aims to go national with it.

I’m no fool. I have a certificate in Nonprofit Management from the Mandel Center at Case. I know you need Artistic Directors to provide charismatic leadership; Marketing people to develop your targets and “offerings”; and Development officers to keep in touch with $$ in the community. But somewhere along the line too many theaters got far too caught up in this aspect of the “corporation” and lost sight of the actual reason for their existence.

Thank God Molly Smith has come along to provide clear and refreshingly committed energy to theaters and their commitment to their artists.

Smith is no fool. She understands the necessity of a variety of offerings: Classic theater for audiences that expect O’Neill and Williams and so on; Musical theater for those who want relief from thoughtful anything when it comes to theater entertainment; and new voices for those who are more daring in their palettes. She has worked at the Shaw Festival in Ontario, for instance, and knows assuredly the value of the “marketing mix.” But she hasn’t let that kill her vision of the place of the modern artists in the equation–and God bless her for it.

Smith received constant applause and a standing ovation for her keynote, as she well-deserved, for saying what to my mind should be a basic truth: playwrights provide value to our culture: not through simple “civilizing” of theater-goers, nor through new, modern approaches of “engines for economic development”, but as forces for empathy and understanding in a world that is becoming more and more detached, impersonal, and removed in its day-to-day human interactions.

Smith, equally, pointed out that Theaters as organizations deserve loyalty from those whom they helped. Smith posited the question of what would have happened to Florida Stage had every writer and actor who had his/her start at that theater come to the aid of that theater in its time of need? As artists we are obligated to our theaters and theater communities just as much as we insist that our theaters are obligated to us.

In another fascinating moment, Smith pointed to a resource or experiment called the New Play Map ( that seeks input from all playwrights. This map will “map” new productions and second productions and so forth so that trends and patterns of the staging of plays can be seen; as well as the theaters in which they are appearing.

Along these lines, like so many others, Smith bemoaned the fact that playwrights are not getting full productions, but readings and workshops, etc. A topic that was equally taken up by Christopher Durang, whom I’ll touch on soon.

Coming from the Perseverance Theater in Alaska, Smith frankly stated that theaters owe more to their artists, especially playwrights, but it is equally important that playwrights (as assembled at this conference) take responsibility as well and work for serious systemic change.

Clearly Molly Smith is someone to be admired and respected and I look forward to talking with her at greater length.

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.

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