The front-row view of the empty Ensemble Theatre is no sight to see. On an offseason summer afternoon, the stage is stripped bare, a hose and curtain weights scattered around. The floorboards are warped, after-effects of rain from last season’s production of Outside Mullingar, and from the seats you can see all the way to the back wall, the bones of this 111-year-old building on full display. But it’s all still here.
For more than a quarter century, 1127 Vine St. has been Ensemble’s home. As Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers and Managing Director Rick Diehl sit up front and glance around the empty stage, they relive the story of the unlikely, circuitous route that has kept them here, in the heart of Over-the-Rhine, after all these years. Ensemble Theatre began three decades ago, in 1986, producing out of the dilapidated Memorial Hall for a couple of years before moving to Vine. But by the time Diehl and Meyers arrived, both during the 1996–1997 season, things weren’t looking good. The business was a million dollars in debt and in the midst of staff layoffs, with Diehl, Meyers, and technical director Kevin Murphy forced to play Dr. Kevorkian and decide if the place was salvageable. “Honestly, all we did that first summer was open bills and categorize them,” says Meyers.
The biggest thing going for them was a building. In 1988, board members Ruth Sawyer and Mary Taft Mahler saw possibilities in the ponderous edifice with thick columns on a scary block of Vine Street, eventually gifting it to ETC. “They could have bought down on Fourth Street, they could have bought anywhere—but they bought on Vine Street where there was nothing but a pawn shop and a crack house,” says Meyers. The location would eventually be their salvation, but first it was their ball and chain, a deadbolt on their escape route.
Few were buying real estate in OTR in the late ’90s and early ’00s, stymying any attempts to flee the community. Meyers used to pay a drug dealer who worked the block with a case of Heineken every Friday at 5 o’clock, ensuring that he wouldn’t sell from a half-hour before until a half-hour after shows. “For three years he never broke his word,” she says. “Then one day he was just gone. And I didn’t go looking for him.”
“They day they put the ATM across the street from us, that was one of the only days I can remember crying,” says D. Lynn Meyers. “You can’t cry much in this job.”
During the rioting of 2001, they were ordered to evacuate, boarding up the windows on their way out. CNN parked its cameras in front of the building, and Ensemble Theatre became a national image of an imploding Cincinnati. The theater almost didn’t recover, with more and more people staying away from the area, even after the unrest. If not for a kickass production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch that summer bringing them back from the edge, they may have gone under. Instead they survived, and they stayed. The same happened after a messy board split in 2004, when a majority decided to remain in OTR as opposed to moving to Covington. Eventually, it paid off. “We were in this neighborhood that was exploding, reinventing itself, and we had a rare opportunity to grow with the place,” says Meyers.
The 30th anniversary season of 2015–2016 is a celebration of that resolve, with a diverse lineup that theatergoers have come to expect: an ambitious holiday musical (Cinderella); bold new work brought to town after playing New York City (George Brant’s Grounded); and themes ripped from the headlines (drone warfare in Grounded, sexual abuse and drug addiction in Luna Gale). And as board member and longtime supporter Otto Budig notes, roughly 80 percent of subscribers to this year’s season signed on before they even knew the schedule. “That is a remarkable testament to the Ensemble Theatre and its place in the city, but also to the respect we all have for Lynn Meyers,” he says.
Meanwhile, Meyers is now standing at the front door, looking out at the bustling foot traffic on a block of Vine Street that was once no-man’s land. “I can’t believe we sell tickets with walk-up business now,” she says. “That’s so cool.”