Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Why for art though Cleveland Play House?--Revisited

Why for art though Cleveland Play House?--Revisited!

A short time ago I wrote a commentary entitled, “Why for art thou Cleveland Play House?” I indicated that though the Cleveland Play House advertises itself as America’s oldest professional theatre, I thought there were areas of concern about the operation of the organization.

Among other things, I questioned the use of the facilities, the plays selected, the lack of use of local actors, and the viability of the facility if it continues on its present track. The response to my views was long and loud. Almost everyone who sent e-mails and spoke to me inperson agreed with much of what was put forth. Of course, that is not unexpected as individuals who react to commentaries do so because of strong beliefs, positive or negative.

Shortly after the publication and my comments on “Action Talent Live,” the WERE-AM radio show on which I appear regularly, I was contacted by CPH’s Artistic Director Peter Hackett requesting a meeting. He wanted to discuss my comments. The meeting was very amicable. He presented his views. I listened, asked questions and requested some additional information. With that background, I’d like to both explain Hackett’s view and reexamine my stand.

Hackett believes that “the Play House is a nationally recognized theatre company.” He backs up his claims by the reviews of ‘LOST HIGHWAY’, the Hank Williams inspired musical, which appeared at CPH and has received positive reviews in New York. CPH is in the show’s program for its role in the development of the production. He also alludes to the success of ‘LOVE JANIS’ in the Big Apple and its forthcoming national tour. He further states, that the CPH developed ‘SMELL OF THE KILL’ which is “on the rosters for theatres across America.”

Julie Fogel, the Public Relations Manager of CPH, was kind enough to supply information regarding matters about which I needed more information. For example, a Baxter Stage survey , which was based on audience feedback forms placed in the programs of the 2001-2002 season opener, ‘FRANK LANGELLA’S CYRANO’, were returned by about 36% of those who attended. As she indicated, the nature of the survey did not allow for a reaction of pleasure or displeasure with the facility, but based on the information received Fogel states, “we added floor mics to amplify the actors; we also re-recorded the pre-curtain announcement to indicate the theatre’s two fire exits. We improved the appearance of the entryway to the Baxter, as well as added rope lights to increase visibility and better illuminate the walkway into the theatre.”

As for the number of local actors/designers/directors hired by CPH she states, “During the 2001-2002 season, we had 60 Equity roles and 7 non-Equity roles available for a total of 67 roles. Overall, 27 local actors were contracted last season--i.e. 40% of available roles went to local actors. Furthermore, 20 of the Equity roles went to local actors, i.e., 33% ; all non-Equity roles were filled by local actors, i.e., 100%.” She went on to say, “Of the 2001-2002’s 8-show season, local directors were used to stage 6 shows (75%). Of the 32 design positions available during the 2001-2002 season 8 were Cleveland-based. (25%).” She explained “Cleveland-based refers to those who call Cleveland home/consider Cleveland their main residence for more than one year.”

Fogel indicates that the number of subscription seats sold has dropped from 62,508 in 1995/96 to 44, 739 in 2001/2002. But, according to Fogel, the seating usage has increased from 66% in 1997/1998 to 78% in 2001/2002.

CPH has increased its use of performance space by inviting Ohio Dance Theatre to be a resident company and the Lyric Opera Cleveland to use some of the facilities in the summer.

I commend Peter Hackett and Julie Fogel for their openness in discussing the matters, subjecting themselves to my questions, and supplying answers to my questions.

With this said, though some of my views have changed for the better, I still contend that CPH’s productions are not of the high quality that local audiences deserve. So far, of the regular season’s productions, I have found only ‘PROOF’ to attain what should be the script and production quality.

I still find the Baxter Theatre a problematic performance space. Does the configuration cause concerns for safety, whether perceived or real? Is the lack of ease of access for those with walkers and wheelchairs, the lack of intimacy for those who are sitting in the upper rows of the center section, and the elimination of the use of a theatre while the Baxter is in use, equate to the expenditure of sparse dollars? Was it worth the money to get a less than desirable facility? Has it allowed CPH to chose scripts that it ordinarily couldn’t produce? Has it equated to an increase of audience size becauseot is a facility that demands attendance?

I still think more of the space could be used on an on-going basis. However, applause for decisions regarding Ohio Dance Theatre and Lyric Opera Cleveland. Another excellent use of space is the “Next Stage Festival” which has given birth to some thought-provoking and fine play scripts. It could only be hoped that additional performances of these productions could be added. Now, before the word can get out, the stagings and educational opportunities are gone.

I can only wish that the Cleveland Play House will find ways to add to its audience base, attract younger attenders, reach out even more to Hispanic and African American audiences, fill its space with exciting and quality scripts and productions, and bring to Cleveland the fame and glory of The Cleveland Orchestra and The Cleveland Museum of Art.