Tag Archives: Theatre

Shine Bright at Cleveland Public Theatre’s Pandemonium

Blogkeeping: Congratulations to entry #40, Megan McFadden. After removing one pingback and placing the other entries in Random.org, you won 2 tickets to Locavore. Please reply to my email by 9/5 or I will need to select another winner.

Locavore Winner

One of the things I love about this city is its desire to climb high. Dream big. Shine bright.

For over 30 years, Cleveland Public Theatre has lit up Cleveland’s west side with brilliant creativity and innovation. Every season they bring to the Gordon Square Arts District productions that embrace the risk and adventure of life, while also showcasing new, local talent.

They’ve aspired to – and succeeded in – celebrating the remarkable, the experimental, the weird in CLE.

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Giveaway: PlayhouseSquare Broadway Launch and Gift Card

PlayhouseSquare Broadway Launch

Enter to win tickets to an exclusive PlayhouseSquare Broadway Launch Party and PlayhouseSquare giftcard!

A couple weeks ago, the Book of Mormon-craze hit Cleveland when tickets went on sale for their PlayhouseSquare stop. I know when I went to buy mine, it took some time to find 2 good seats together.

The popular Trey Parker-Matt Stone musical is just one of 7 Broadway shows PlayhouseSquare has brought to Cleveland this season.

From the magical Beauty and the Beast to the quirky Priscilla Queen of the DesertPlayhouseSquare’s KeyBank Broadway series has had something for every taste.

And with Sister Act, War Horse, Guys and Dolls, and Book of Mormon still ahead, it’s hard to imagine what PlayhouseSquare has up their sleeve for next season.

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Cleveland Public Theatre’s Secret Social

Did you know a clandestine society makes its home on the shores of Lake Erie?

Secret Social at Cleveland Public Theatre now through Dec. 23; graphic by Sean Higgins

The 12 and 12 believe that the Grimms’ tragic 12 Dancing Princesses wasn’t just a fairytale and work to reunite the princesses and their suitors. Oh yeah, and they throw really great parties.

Earlier this week, Scott and I attended one
of their initiation ceremonies.

But don’t worry, I can share a bit of the secret rites that transpired.  Because the 12 and 12 isn’t a real secret society, but the heart of Cleveland Public Theatre’s latest undertaking – the highly immersive world-premiere
The Secret Social.

Playing now through December 23, The Secret Social is the latest brainchild from Cleveland Public Theatre and the award-winning Conni’s Avant Garde ensemble.

If you’re familiar with Cleveland Public Theatre’s work, you may have seen their previous collaboration with Conni’s during the last couple of holidays: Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant.

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PlayhouseSquare Partners' Bartending for Buses

PlayhouseSquare Partners Presents Bartending for Buses, May 17 at Around the Corner

Although Jump Back Ball may be the first thing that comes to mind when PlayhouseSquare Partners is mentioned, the young professionals group also organizes a number of other programs year-round to support Cleveland’s downtown theatre district.

From helping out at the International Children’s Festival to Neighborhood Dine-Arounds and the recent Mini-Golf Par-Tee, Partners offers a broad spectrum of volunteer opportunities and social events for the community to enjoy.

Whenever we have an upcoming event I think you guys might enjoy, I like to share it.  And our next event on May 17 will give you an opportunity to not just eat, drink and be merry, but also help raise money for a great arts cause – PlayhouseSquare’s Bus Fund.

Next Thursday from 7-10, join PlayhouseSquare Partners at Around the Corner (18616 Detroit Ave., Lakewood) for Bartending for Buses.

While the theatre can help introduce students to the arts by providing discounted and free tickets, many schools are still unable to afford the cost of busing students to and from the theatre. Through fundraisers like next week’s “celebrity bartending night,” PlayhouseSquare Partners helps overcome this roadblock by raising money for the bus fund.

Longtime Partners like my Jump Back Ball co-chair Meredith will be doing their best Tom Cruise impersonation and slinging drinks behind the bar. Tip them well because all tips from the evening will go towards the Bus Fund.

School trips are many children’s first introduction to the arts and local theatres, especially for those who may not otherwise be able to afford it. So stop by Around the Corner next Thursday, let us pour you a beer or shot, and drink up — for the kids!

Disclosure: I serve on the board of PlayhouseSquare Partners, but – as with any event I post about – am sharing this event because I think it is something that would interest people who read my blog.

Cleveland Play House's New Ground Theatre Festival

Cleveland Play House's New Ground Theatre Festival runs May 3 through May 12

I’ve written a lot over the last season about the changes going on at Cleveland Play House this season – from their move downtown to their increased dedication to audience engagement.

It’s been an exciting ride seeing a theatre that’s almost 100 years old not be content to rest on its laurels and reimagine itself.  Even though they’ve been in their new home for almost a year, the changes aren’t done yet.

To complement their move downtown, CPH decided it was the perfect time to makeover their renowned FusionFest, which had celebrated its 6th year last season. To recognize their new facilities and a greater focus on new theatre pieces, the festival has now received a much more fitting name: the New Ground Theatre Festival.

Starting May 3rd and running through the 12th, Cleveland Play House will present a variety of new work from nationally recognized artists.   From a show that will have Cleveland literally buzzing, to a unique collaboration with the Cleveland Orchestra and a handful of new play readings, the most difficult part for me will be deciding on what I want to see.

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play - April 13 through May 13

The centerpiece of this showcase is Cleveland Play House’s Mainstage production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.  At the dawn of electricity, patients diagnosed with “hysteria” are being given a radical new treatment – arriving troubled but departing delighted with the assistance of the doctor’s “little helper.” Inspired by actual 1880s medical science, In the Next Room tenderly explores how we connect – both emotionally and physically – with our loved ones.

Although the New Ground Festival doesn’t start til May, you can actually see In the Next Room starting today (April 13). Due to advance audience demand, Cleveland Play House extended its run from now through May 13.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favor - May 3, May 4 and May 5

Another festival highlight that I’m particularly excited about is their production of Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favor: A Play for Actors and Orchestra.  I have been a big Stoppard fan since high school and I’ve been kicking myself ever since missing a production of this play when I lived in Philly.

With music by André Previn, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor is the only play ever written that includes an orchestra as central to the action. This witty satire on state-sponsored repression focuses on 2 cellmates, both named Alexander Ivanov. One’s a political protestor, the other a madman who ‘conducts’ an orchestra that only exists in his head.

Because you need an orchestra who’s up to the challenge, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor is not staged very often. Fortunately, Cleveland is lucky enough to have the Cleveland Orchestra.

The CPH production runs for only three performances – May 3, 4 and 5 – and features a cast of 6 actors and 38 Cleveland Orchestra musicians.  In my opinion, this unique collaboration between 2 of Cleveland’s most exciting cultural institutions is reason enough to go.

First Annual Roe Green Award New Play Reading - May 5

In addition to In the Next Room and Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, the New Ground Theatre Festival will include a public reading of a new play by Quiara Alegría Hudes, the winner of CPH’s first annual Roe Green Award. Awarded to a nationally recognized playwright, the prize included $7,500; a week-long residency including rehearsals; a Master Class with CPH Playwrights’ Unit, Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland State University students; and a public reading of a new play.

On May 5, Hudes will workshop her new play as part of this award.

Lauren Weedman's BUST - May 10, May 11 and May 12

Rounding out the line-up are performances by solo artists Lauren Weedman (BUST) and Baba Brinkman (The Rap Guide to Evolution), as well as readings of new plays including one written by CPH’s own Artistic Director Michael Bloom:

  • BUST is Lauren Weedman’s semi-autobiographical play built around her experiences working as a volunteer advocate in a Southern California prison for women. With one foot in Hollywood and the other in jail, the former Daily Show correspondent careens wildly between the two worlds, taking the audience on a hilarious, poignant, and completely unforgettable ride. (May 10-12)
  • A novel species of theatre combining the wit, poetry and charisma of a great rapper with the accuracy and rigor of a scientific expert, Baba Brinkman’s The Rap Guide to Evolution uses hip-hop as a vehicle to communicate the facts of evolution while illuminating the origins and complexities of hip-hop culture with Darwin as the inspiration. (May 11- 12)
  • Written by CPH’s Artistic Director Michael Bloom, The Fagin Effect is a pastiche of Oliver Twist in which “ghosts” of the original characters are used to tell a new story that takes place in London, 1850. As entire neighborhoods are demolished to make way for the first underground railway, the appearance of a young man in the ‘shop’ of one Julius Fogel presents an opportunity for some of London’s dregs to turn their lives around with the assistance of a real estate developer named Whitelaw. (May 12)

Baba Brinkman's The Rap Guide to Evolution - May 11 and May 12

Tickets for the New Ground Theatre Festival are on sale now, and if you can’t make up your mind, you’re in luck because discounts are available when you purchase tickets to more than one show. Call 216-241-6000 or visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com for more info.

After being impressed by my first FusionFest last year, I’m glad to see that although the name has changed, CPH has put together a lineup that rivals if not surpasses their previous festivals.

(Note: Images courtesy of Cleveland Play House)

The Art of Engagement, Part 4: Cleveland Public Theatre

Over the last month, I’ve enjoyed blogging about one of my favorite topics: Cleveland theatre.  Specifically, highlighting what a few of our local theatres are doing to engage more diverse audiences and help members of the community explore a deeper relationship with the performing arts.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about local enrichment programs along the way and will check some of them out the next time you see a show.  Today I’m happy to conclude the Art of Engagement with Cleveland Public Theatre.

CPT is the ideal setting for audience engagement programs. Founded in 1981, CPT was inspired by Cafe LaMama, an internationally renowned experimental theatre in New York City. For over 30 years, Cleveland Public Theatre has been Cleveland’s leading stage for adventurous new theatre, nationally recognized for its unconventional and ground breaking work.

From productions like Conni’s Avant-Garde Restaurant to their Big Box series, which gives local artists the opportunity to create new work, CPT challenges their audiences to experience theatre as “a site for celebration, a forum for debate, a vessel for exploration.”

To help audiences dig deeper into the labyrinth, Cleveland Public Theatre has introduced a handful of audience engagement programs this season.

After Friday night performances, CPT invites the audience to stay and enjoy a drink on them. However, Free Beer Fridays are about more than just drinking for free.

Artists from the show, such as actors, designers or the director, as well as CPT staff attend Free Beer Fridays to mingle with the audience and have a conversation about what they just saw.  The goal is to make the theatre feel more like a home where questions, thoughts and discussion are always welcome.

CPT is also engaging audiences and helping newer artists through two development programs: the Springboard: Staged Reading Festival and Leap/Conceive.

CPT opened the 2011-2012 season with their first Springboard series. The festival featured staged readings of new scripts by local writers as well as work that was under consideration for future production.

In addition to post-show discussions, comment cards were left on every chair so that if audience members wanted they could anonymously share their feedback on the show.

With Leap/Conceive, audiences got a sneak peek into the creative process as CPT presented showcases of performances in the middle of development.  The artists — all from Northeast Ohio — chose a 10 minute segment of their future production to develop and share. Audience and artists saw the work together, assessed it and offered their reactions.  CPT took a flip/cam around immediately after the show to get people’s reactions on what they had just experienced.

Both of these series not only supported local artists, but also offered audiences a rare opportunity to participate in shaping new work.  The final production will show the fruits of the audience feedback it received during development.

Coming up next for Cleveland Public Theatre is their production of Antebellum which opens this coming Thursday, February 23.

Against the backdrops of a southern American plantation, a German concentration camp, the world premiere of Gone With The Wind and 1930s Berlin cabarets, the love story of two men, one Jewish and the other African-American, bridges time, space and gender and challenges intolerance of race and religion.

In addition to Antebellum, CPT’s upcoming productions of Poor Little Lulu and Akarui were either written by an openly gay playwright or deal with LGBT issues. To further engage the LGBT community and allies during these productions, CPT created goPUBLIC.

On the second Friday of these three productions (March 2, March 16 and June 1), CPT will host their goPUBLIC pre-show happy hour as well as the Free Beer Friday after the performance.  With the production bookended by these opportunities to socialize pre- and post-show, the performance creates a source of insightful conversation.

More information about the goPUBLIC night for Antebellum can be found below:

From social to educational experiences, new to well-established programs, I’ve loved learning about the audience engagement experiences the Cleveland Play House, Near West Theatre, Great Lakes Theater and Cleveland Public Theatre offer.

There are a lot of opportunities (most of them free!) to discover more about the shows you see onstage, meet new people who are similarly interested in the arts and even get involved with the creative process.

Of course, there’s a lot I still need to explore within Cleveland theatre – Dobama, Beck and convergence-continuum are on my list to name just a few.

But that’s what I think is at the heart of audience engagement and its greatest gift: the desire to keep exploring new theatres, shows and the unique approaches each company takes. And at the end of the day, I hope I was able to share a bit of that with you.

Missed parts 1-3 in the Art of Engagement? Here you go:

The Art of Engagement, Part 3: Great Lakes Theater

After I moved to Cleveland, the first theatre company I fell in love with was Great Lakes Theater at PlayhouseSquare’s Hanna Theatre.

Providing a nice complement to Cleveland Play House’s contemporary plays, GLT most often focuses on classic theatre – having its roots in Shakespeare when John Lithgow’s father helped found it 50 years ago.

After taking a slight break last week from the series, I’m happy to return with Part 3 of the Art of Engagement by focusing on Great Lakes Theater’s audience engagement programs.

What initially endeared me to Great Lakes was their emphasis on enhancing the typical theatre-going experience by making it more accessible and social.

The Hanna Theater after Great Lakes Theater's renovations

At GLT, access to its artists and production process starts as soon as you arrive at the theatre – even before the curtain rises.  After helming the renovation of a completely reimagined Hanna Theatre in 2008, Great Lakes Theater instituted an “Arrive Early, Stay Late” program.

Before every performance, the Hanna opens its doors ninety minutes early allowing guests to observe the complete pre-show preparation process of GLT’s actors and technical staff.

Elements traditionally hidden from audiences such as stage combat rehearsals, dance calls, prop/scenic pre-sets, technical cue rehearsals and actor warm-ups are conducted in full view of patrons, offering GLT audiences an unprecedented glimpse into the theatrical process.

And because theatre has always been a social experience, the Hanna stays open after the show so guests can hang out at the in-theatre bar, meet other audience members and discuss the show.

Audiences of GLT's spring productions Romeo & Juliet (pictured), The Mousetrap and Sondheim on Sondheim will have a variety of Experience Enhancement programs to enjoy and enrich their time at the Hanna.

Throughout each production, Great Lakes Theater also offers an Experience Enhancement Series, with a variety of pre and post show programming that highlights the Hanna’s unique amenities and continues GLT’s mission of providing extraordinary access to Great Lakes artists:

  • Salon Thursdays feature an engaging pre-show discussion/presentation beginning one hour before curtain with a Great Lakes Theater artist.
  • Happy Hour Fridays afford audience members the opportunity to gather and socialize at the Hanna’s bar and lounge immediately after work with an assortment of small bites and beverages.
  • Nightcap Night Saturdays are designed to encourage audience members to stay after the evening performance and enjoy entertainment hand-selected by the director of programming for Cleveland’s landmark Nighttown.
  • Ice Cream Social Sundays offer guests the opportunity to enjoy a London theatre tradition for half-price.  Food and drinks are sold and allowed inside of the Hanna for every performance, but on Sundays, ice cream is discounted.
  • Director’s Nights feature lively pre-show discussions with GLT’s Producing Artistic Director, Charles Fee, and the director of each production before preview performances.
  • Playnotes Pre-Show Discussions provide patrons with illuminating introductions to the content and history of each play in GLT’s season presented by a guest scholar before Saturday matinee performances.

In addition to these offerings, GLT will be bringing back its Classics & Conversations Series during its runs of The Mousetrap and Romeo and Juliet this Spring.

On Friday, March 23, “Cleveland’s favorite [mystery] writer” Les Roberts will present a pre-show conversation called “Mysteries Solved” before that evening’s performance of Agatha Christie’s iconic murder mystery.

And on Friday, April 27, prior to R&J, their pre-show discussion “What’s Love Got To do With It?” explores the science behind “attraction.”

Behind many of these programs is Great Lakes Theater’s Audience Engagement Manager Chris Fornadel. Fornadel is responsible not just for coordinating pre- and post-show special events, but also arranging behind-the-scenes tours and working with visitors to create unique experiences based on their requests. He can be contacted here.

Exclusive access to each production's artistic process can be found on GLT's website, blog and social media channels. Pictured here: their Fall production of The Taming of the Shrew.

What happens inside the walls of the Hanna is only half of Great Lakes Theater’s audience enrichment programs.

Before you even visit the theatre, you can experience a lot about a production on the GLT website. GreatLakesTheater.org offers comprehensive background info about each of its productions, including video features, audio clips, cast and production team bios and behind the scenes access to the creative process. Although the information for their Spring Shows will be up soon, you can check out previous productions online such as The Taming of the Shrew.

GLT’s social media channels also offer a number of ways to connect directly with their productions.  On their blog, you can find backstage photos and insight directly from the actors and production crew (sometimes even written by the artists themselves). Audience members can likewise access exclusive information and share their input on Facebook, @GLTFCleveland and their Youtube channel.

Great Lakes Theater is even coming to a Northeast Ohio neighborhood near you with a special audience engagement opportunity:  FREE THEATER!

Every season, GLT presents a free touring production that visits nearly two dozen neighborhood venues throughout northeast Ohio to kick off their annual series of Surround outreach programming. This season, in conjunction with The Mousetrap, the Outreach Tour features a world premiere adaptation by David Hansen of Agatha Christie’s Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Feb. 4 - March 7, catch a free performance of GLT's Outreach Tour Production - The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

The twists and turns of Detective Hercule Poirot’s very first mystery will premiere Feb. 14 and tour until March 7.  The production will reach audiences from Cleveland Heights to Akron, Cuyahoga Falls and Oberlin.   These performances are all open to the public (arrive early since you can’t reserve tickets) and they’re FREE (I can’t emphasize enough how awesome that is)!

It’s a great example of how audience engagement doesn’t need to take place inside of the theatre and emphasizes GLT’s goal for audience accessibility.

If you haven’t experienced Great Lakes Theater yet, this Spring is an excellent time to start. Dates, times and locations for the Outreach Tour can be found here. And check out The Mousetrap, Romeo and Juliet, and Sondheim on Sondheim‘s performance calendars for the full selection of Experience Enhancement programming.


Want to learn about other Cleveland theatres’ audience engagement offerings? Next week is part 4 and the conclusion – a look at Cleveland Public Theatre. In the meantime, read parts 1 and 2 below:

The Art of Engagement, Part 2: Near West Theatre


Today is part 2 in my blog series “The Art of Engagement” (your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you; I slightly changed the name), which takes a look at Cleveland theatres and the different ways they engage their audiences.

If you want to catch up, check out last week’s post which focused on the Cleveland Play House and how their move downtown wasn’t the only change the theatre underwent this season to better reach the Cleveland community.

For part 2, we’re heading to the Gordon Square Arts District for Near West Theatre.

Community engagement is at the heart of Near West Theatre’s philosophy.  In addition to making their shows accessible to the entire community with $8 tickets and post/pre-show talkbacks, Near West has spent the last 30 years building a home where “Ordinary People Create Extraordinary Theatre.”

Although Near West places an emphasis on serving youth, they are an intergenerational theatre with casts and crews that range across all ages, social/economic backgrounds and theatre experience.  By sharing their wide spectrum of backgrounds and experiences with one another, both personal and communal growth happens within the production process, resulting in authentic, passionate theatre for audiences to enjoy.

Last season's production of Willy Wonka

For the audience member who has always wanted to try out the “other side” of the footlights, Near West’s audition nights are unlike other theatres of their calibur, offering a group audition process designed for everyone in the community.

Don’t worry about preparing a monologue or a headshot, as everyone is led through a series of acting, movement and improvisational exercises and taught a song as a group. Although you will eventually need to sing a bit, you can do it as a solo or duet.

The idea behind this is that people often don’t realize their potential to perform or how personally enriching the experience could be. Subsequently, regardless of whether it is honed or raw talent, every individual who auditions for a show is considered of equal value.

Earlier this week, Julie Cajigas from CoolCleveland posted an article on Near West’s upcoming benefit and shared her experiences from attending one of their auditions. Although she originally attended the audition to observe, she was invited to participate and has a great story to share about the transformative audition process that’s open to everyone. Definitely check the article out.

If you don’t want to step on stage (like me), but are still looking for an enriching experience, there are many other volunteer opportunities open to the public.

Those interested in volunteering as a house manager or at the concession-counter can learn what makes a theater tick by hearing pre-show warm-ups, mike checks and all of the craziness that happens before the curtain goes up.  As someone who got hooked on theatre this way, it is an easy commitment that has a lot of benefits.  There are longer-term opportunities, as well, for volunteering on the Production Crew over the course of a show’s run and helping with the set constructions, props and costuming.

Auditions and volunteer opportunities for Near West's next production are coming soon

Near West Theatre’s next production is Ragtime, which will run May 4-20.  And the opportunities to be involved are coming up soon:

Auditions will take place Feb. 28, Feb. 29 and March 1 at 7:30pm each night.  The auditions will take place at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 1349 W. 78th St. Because the characters in this show almost entirely consist of teens and adults, the group auditions are open to those age 16 and older.  The auditions for the three younger roles will be offered at a different time for children.

As with previous productions, the experience is designed especially for someone who’s always admired theater but never auditioned.

Hans Holznagel, Near West’s Chief Operating Officer, shared some advice for first timers: There’s no need to prepare anything. Come dressed for movement and in shoes you can dance in. Be ready and willing to listen, learn about the themes of the show, work with others, and share yourself.

Advanced registration isn’t necessary. Show up on any one of the three evenings and arrive a little early to fill out some information about yourself and your availability (in case you should later be cast!).

Even if you’re not cast you’ll get first-hand experience of improvisational exercises, learn a bit of song and dance, and meet with Artistic Director Bob Navis Jr. and other members of the Near West staff.

Learn more about the auditions for Ragtime and Near West’s two other Spring shows by visiting their auditions experience page.

In addition to auditioning, there are also opportunities to volunteer on the production crew. Pictured is a shot of Near West's Into the Woods set in the middle of the rehersal process.

Backstage volunteers are also needed for Ragtime, including people to specifically help with lighting, sound, set construction, properties, costumes, and on-stage crew. Production crew volunteers are needed at every rehearsal for the last couple of weeks of April and in early May and then at every show in May.

If you want some flexibility or can’t make a huge time commitment (a hurdle I know a lot of us face), house managers, assistant house managers, and volunteers to work concessions, gift shop and ticketing are needed during the run. You can volunteer at just one or multiple performances and only need to show up an hour or so before curtain.

Or (and this is what I’m most excited to learn about) keep an eye out on their website and sign up for their newsletter to learn when the Community Work Day is going to be held (I was told it’ll likely be sometime in March or April). Set building, painting, organizing of costumes and props, and other tasks are done that day. And because you’ll have the help of Near West’s professional production team, no experience is necessary for any of this.

If you want more information or coordinate volunteering, Near West’s Business and Operations Director Carole-Leiblinger-Hedderson can be reached at chedderson@nearwesttheatre.org or 216-961-9750 .

This Saturday's Near West Benefit will help raise funds to continue the theatre's mission of community engagement

Ultimately, the result of all of this is a community and audience that is engaged in a production even months before they see it take the stage.  It’s because they’ve had the unique opportunity to see how a show develops from audition to dress rehersal. And I can share from previous experience that even when all I did was paint a section of set, the connection you feel when sitting in your seat is ten-fold and that’s some of the best audience enrichment you can ask for.

Come back next week for part 3 of the Art of Engagement and a spotlight on Great Lakes Theatre!  In the meantime, if you’re free this Saturday evening, you can still get tickets at the door for Near West’s Consider Yourself One of Us Benefit.  Funds raised through the evening go to support the theatre’s mission of accessibility and engagement.

Many thanks to Hans Holznagel for sharing Near West’s mission with me and discussing their community engagement. All images are courtesy of Near West Theatre.

The Art of Engagement, Part 1: Cleveland Play House

Engagement programs, like Cleveland Play House's Gen.NOW series, give audience members unique social experiences while learning more about the shows and theatres in Cleveland. Pictured: Mattie Hawkinson, Rob McClure and Lise Bruneau, part of The Game's Afoot cast, at the Gen.NOW pre-show happy hour.

Considering how much it interests me now, I’m sometimes surprised that it wasn’t until I was about to head off to college that the theatre bug bit me. I had enjoyed seeing plays and musicals as a child and had performed in a couple of shows like a lot of kids with an overactive imagination, but it wasn’t until an experience at the very end of high school that I found how enriching the performing arts can be.

When I was trying to decide on colleges, I spent the weekend at La Salle University with a senior who was involved in their theatre program. She took me on a tour of the theatre before curtain went up on opening night. I met the cast and crew and got to experience the behind-the-scene workings.

It was this experience, and my fascination with how much went on backstage, that started my engagement in the arts – leading me to get involved in productions during college and for a few years after graduation.  And even though I don’t work in theatre anymore, I still look for opportunities to go beyond what I see onstage to learn and further my experience.

When I moved here, I was happy to discover Cleveland’s theatres offer a variety of engagement programs to enrich my experience as an audience member – from learning more about the show’s history to how the production fits within the Cleveland community.

It’s easy to take advantage of these programs — most of which are free. Usually it’s as easy as knowing what each theatre offers and when.

Because I feel these off-stage programs have made my Cleveland theatre-going experiences more fulfilling, I’m going to take a look over the next month at the different ways Cleveland theatres get their audience members engaged.  I hope you find something you like and have a chance to check some of these offerings out.

I’m starting things off with the Cleveland Play House.


CPH’s move downtown this Fall was not the only change America’s first regional theatre made to further engage and enrich audiences during their 2011-2012 season. Last Spring, they hired Corey Atkins for a brand new position – Artistic Associate – Engagement.

As one of only two positions like it in the country, Atkins’ Engagement role is unique because it is not a marketing position, but an artistic one. The purpose is to create new relationships through engagement events and build upon the experience of current audiences through enrichment programs — regardless of whether someone purchases a ticket.

Their new downtown theatres - like the Second Stage pictured here - weren't the only changes CPH made this season to further engage audiences.

When I spoke with Atkins last week, he shared that one of the changes he made right away was to evolve the already-existing pre- and post-show talks into a conversational format — as more of an audience forum than a lecture. Although CPH staff may facilitate the conversation, guests are able — and encouraged — to openly share their opinions and experiences.

I saw this openness first-hand when I attended a pre-show conversation for The Game’s Afoot and we learned detailed history about the Gillette mansion from an audience member who had visited it.

If you can make it to the show early, these half-hour pre-show conversations start 45 minutes before every performance. The post-show discussions take place after the second Tuesday and final three Sunday performances. Both are free with your ticket to the show and allow you to connect with the people that are involved in the production and continue the dialogue that was started on stage.

Also new this season, CPH has introduced comprehensive Play Guides and a Reading Club for further insight into each play.

The play guide for Ten Chimneys, their latest production, features profiles on the real-life theatre legends that the play is based off of, as well as a history of American theatre and an interview with a Case Western Reserve University/CPH Master of Fine Arts student who is in the production. If you’re planning on attending the show, it’s a great read.

For $10, the Cleveland Play House Reading Club provides audience members with a copy of the script and discussion questions four weeks prior to the show. Then when they see the show, audience members can engage in a lively discussion with the artistic staff and other audience members about the production. The best part is that Reading Club members can bring along any family or friends for free to the discussion.

Gen.NOW, night.OUT! and College Night @ CPH are all part of this season's new SHOW+ programming.

In addition to fostering a deeper relationship with their current audiences through these enrichment programs, CPH is also building new audiences by giving the community more reasons to check them out.

Their new SHOW+ programs introduce younger and more diverse audiences to CPH as a social experience. While the show is always the focus, SHOW+ guests get to also enjoy a pre- or post-show party. These happy hour parties feature food and drink where guests can interact with one another and meet the actors and CPH staff, while enjoying a special discounted ticket price.

Just like their move downtown, the SHOW+ program reflects CPH’s dedication to contemporary theatre and contemporary audiences by reaching out to community members that have been absent in the past and are necessary to keep the theatre growing.

For instance, the Gen.NOW and College Night @ CPH programs target young and engaged Clevelanders and college students, respectively — encouraging them to explore downtown restaurants and bars and socialize with one another in a creative, fun atmosphere. Plus, they get to enjoy the show at a price that fits their budget.

The next Gen.NOW and College nights take place April 24 and May 1, respectively, during In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play. The discount code for Gen.NOW is “NOW” and college students are able to take advantage of CPH’s student discount.

I am a huge fan of CPH’s third SHOW+ program because it was created to engage with another under-served audience – the LGBT community and friends. night.OUT! focuses on providing a friendly environment for socializing and networking with a happy hour and show costing only $25.

After the success of their first night.OUT!, the Jan. 19th performance for Ten Chimneys is nearly sold out.

The next night.OUT! on Jan. 19th will feature a pre-show party at The Wyndham’s Blue Bar with free appetizers and drink specials, followed by a performance of Ten Chimneys.  CPH will also offer a night.OUT! event on April 19th for In the Next Room (discount code: OUTCPH).

For each of the SHOW+ events, CPH incorporates a creative activity to encourage guests to step out of their comfort zones and meet new people. For instance, during The Game’s Afoot Gen.NOW event, audience members were given a slip with either a Question or Answer on it when they arrived. If they found the matching clue among the other guests, they were entered in a raffle for tickets to a future show.

The growth and success of the SHOW+ events so far have demonstrated the need for programs like this within Cleveland. Individuals and Cleveland young professional groups have helped the Gen.NOW program triple in attendance between The Life of Galileo and The Game’s Afoot. 

Similarly, night.OUT! has been so popular that online tickets for the Ten Chimneys event are sold out. CPH is reserving a block of tickets for the January 19th performance that are available by phone on Jan. 17 only. Details about this special block of tickets are available here.

Ten Chimneys, playing on the brand new Second Stage until Feb. 5, will also feature other community engagement programs, such as a special discussion for University Hospital outpatients and their families with actress Mariette Hartley.

Hartley, who is not just famous for her theatre experience, but also as the former host of the CBS Morning Program and the author of Breaking the Silence, will lead a conversation on emotional and mental health while sharing her own journey and struggles.

Additionally, Ten Chimneys actress Jordan Baker will run a workshop on the business of acting for CSU and Case students – reflecting the play’s theme of balancing an onstage and offstage life.

Events such as these reinforce the notion that plays and artists can make a ripple not just on stage, but within the broader community as well.

CPH staff, crew and cast members are often involved in each show's audience engagement programs. Pictured here: Gail Rastorfer, Mariette Hartley, and Jordan Baker in CPH's current production - Ten Chimneys. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

As they look at the success of this year, CPH is looking ahead to next season’s engagement goals. Building on the success of night.OUT! and Gen.NOW, Atkins hopes to create more ethnically and culturally diverse programs. They also will closely examine how the work that is produced more directly connects with different parts of the city.

The Cleveland Play House is just one great example of how Cleveland theatres are making more of an effort to engage the community and build awareness within the region. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be spotlighting other examples in a series of posts titled “The Art of Engagement”. Next up – Gordon Square Arts District’s Near West Theatre.

Many thanks to Corey Atkins for sitting down with me to discuss Cleveland Play House’s audience engagement programs. All images are courtesy of Cleveland Play House.

This Wonderful Life at The Cleveland Play House – a Wonderful Way to Spend the Holidays


This Wonderful Life - a reimagining of the holiday classic - is at The Cleveland Play House until Dec. 19. (photo from clevelandplayhouse.com)

When It’s A Wonderful Life premiered in 1946, it was a box office flop.  Completely financed by Director Frank Capra and his Liberty Films studio for $3.8 million, its total run grossed only $3.3 million and resulted in the studio going bankrupt.  However, much like George Bailey in the story, the movie got a second chance when it accidentally entered the public domain due to a clerical error and tv stations all-over aired the film throughout the holidays.  Thus, it’s become a classic — a symbol of the holiday season, forever part of the American consciousness.

With its beloved status, there have been numerous adaptations of the story – from stage to radio, as well as a handful of spoofs.  In This Wonderful Life, currently playing at the Cleveland Play House, we’re given one of the freshest re-imaginings that I’ve seen of the inimitable original.  Conceived by Mark Setlock (a Cleveland native, now living in NY) and written by Steve Murray (a longtime film, theatre and book critic turned playwright), This Wonderful Life is a one-man retelling of It’s A Wonderful Life – part re-enactment, part commentary.

This Wonderful Life is told through the eyes of one actor – James Leaming. Leaming plays both the narrator, as well as all of the characters in the film. The play opens up on a fairly empty stage with a few props and set pieces and a small control panel. After talking to a few audience members before the show, Leaming casually enters the stage and delivers probably the best pre-show, turn-off-your-cell-phones speech I’ve ever heard. The show starts off with Leaming talking to the audience – very deftly putting the audience at ease.


James Leaming portrays the narrator and all of the residents of Bedford Falls in the one-man show This Wonderful Life (photo from clevelandplayhouse.com)

As a one-man show, This Wonderful Life was completely dependent upon its leading man – even moreso than The Kite Runner which was similarly dependent upon the success of its narrator (Jos Viramontes in the role of Amir). The one-man show is the marathon of acting — with one actor having to learn how to not just be a narrator guiding the story, but also how to distinguish a variety of characters from one another through his actions and voice. Leaming delivers on a 30+ character marathon for an hour and half without intermission.

Leaming struck an excellent balance between the script’s irreverence towards and insight into the original film.  Much like a group of loved ones celebrating the holidays together, there were a number of comedic moments  that poked gentle fun at It’s A Wonderful Life and the times it was filmed in – one of the funniest bits was Leaming talking about George and Mary’s first lipless, face-smashing kiss. However, it managed to be funny without being callous — the same sort of jesting we would do if we were watching it in our living rooms.

He also provided a heartfelt insight into the film.  About how it’s become a part of the American psyche, why George Bailey’s challenges resonates so strongly with us. At a particularly life-changing moment in George’s story, Leaming realizes that this holiday classic is not in fact a movie about Christmas and the holidays, but instead about every other day of the year and the hard decisions we have to make that get us from day to day.

In addition to poking gentle fun at It's A Wonderful Life, Leaming captures the moving realizations made by George Bailey and the other characters. (photo from clevelandplayhouse.com)

Leaming portrayed the town of Bedford Falls not just with his voice (though he did spot-on depictions of Jimmy Stewart’s Bailey, Mr. Potter and Clarence), but he also brought a great physicality to it. Often with one-man shows, you don’t have widesweeping action because you’re limited to how far one actor can move in a scene. However, Leaming was all over the place during scenes — magically exiting one side of the stage and while the action still seemed to be going on (thanks to a few well-timed sound cues), then entering from the other side of the stage.  And a soaring dive from the top of a staircase surprised everyone.

Although it was a one-man show, the technical aspects of the show played such an important part in the production that they were almost like another actor. The set itself was fairly straightforward with a small handful of set pieces and props including a desk, easel to prop up a few signs, and rolling staircase. However, the lighting and sound cues created a fully vibrant Bedford Falls, Clarence and the angels, and a complement to Leaming – allowing him to play off of something much like another actor would. Together, Leaming and the Play House artistic staff brought the wonder of the film to the stage.

The Cleveland Play House was filled with audience members after the show marveling at the lobby and halls decked for the holidays.

When we went to see This Wonderful Life, our evening was bookended by two free events offered throughout the show’s run: a preshow discussion of the play and the Cleveland Play House’s ongoing Festival of Trees celebration.

Prior to every performance, the Play House offers a free pre-show discussion for audience members.  It generally starts 45 minutes before curtain and when we attended Tuesday night, Associate Artistic Director Laura Kepley hosted the conversation.  We talked a lot about the film’s history and random pieces of trivia, as well as why it’s made such a lasting impression on the American psyche. Although we also talked very briefly about the play, the purpose of the pre-show discussion was not to cover what we were about to see but to put the performance into a context that would make for a fuller viewing experience. The Play House generally offers this pre-show discussion for each production, as well as post-show discussions after every third Wednesday evening performance and every third Sunday matinee.

Arrive 45-minutes before the show for a free pre-show discussion. The Cleveland Play House offers this for each production to help audiences understand the context behind the shows.

The Festival of Trees runs from now until December 30.  It’s free and open to the public, featuring more than 70 locally sponsored and professionally decorated holiday trees displayed throughout the Cleveland Play House.  We looked at a few on our way to the pre-show discussion as well as after the show while they were turning off the lights in parts of the building.  It was a beautiful site to see the variety of decorations – from the traditionally decked out Christmas trees, to trees that uniquely featured the Cleveland organizations they were sponsored by.  I loved the dog angel on top of the Cleveland APL’s tree, but the tree for the women pilots association was my absolute favorite.

If you’re planning on visiting the Play House and want to take a long lunch break next Thursday, they will be hosting a Holiday Luncheon starting at 11 am on Dec. 9.  Guests can enjoy a self-guided tour of the Festival’s trees, followed by a holiday program featuring a reading by Associate Artistic Director Kepley. Boxed lunches will be then served among the tree display prior to the Matinee performance of This Wonderful Life.  Tickets are $20 for the Holiday Program and Luncheon or $49 for Holiday Program, Luncheon and Matinee and can be purchased by calling 216.795.7000 ext. 4.


My personal favorite tree at the Play House's free Festival of Trees sponsored by a women's pilots association.

After the Play House announced last year that its five-year run of A Christmas Story was coming to an end, some may have wondered if anything could replace the Cleveland staple. With This Wonderful Life, they’ve re-introduced us to another holiday treasure.  Whether you see it at the Holiday Luncheon or go to one of the other performances prior to Dec. 19, a visit to the Play House is a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays in Cleveland.

This Wonderful Life / The Cleveland Play House 411: