As They’d Like It

They’ve got stability, staying power, and a loyal audience. What they don’t have is a decent home. Could a new theater launch Cincinnati Shakespeare Company into the big leagues?

Correction: R. Chris Reeder was the fourth founding member of the company. His name has been added to the story.

Brian Isaac Phillips was pumped. He had just attended his first Shakespeare Theatre Association international conference, and while the final day in wintry Stratford, Ontario, was highlighted by a polar vortex–generated blizzard, nothing was going to ruin his excellent mood. He’d been there with some of the world’s biggest and best classics companies, talking shop with the likes of Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Chicago Shakespeare Theater—both Tony Award–winning companies.

“We were at the adult table,” Phillips, the producing artistic director of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC), told me as we talked by phone; the snow had followed him home to Westwood, where he was shoveling his way out of the house and doing his part to keep his two young kids entertained.

Among the things he could brag about is that CSC, a small storefront operation with distinct spatial challenges doing large, willfully ambitious productions of Shakespeare (among other theatrical works) in an old art-house cinema space on Race Street, will cap its 20th season this spring by completing the canon. That is, when the figurative curtain goes up on Phillips’s production of The Two Noble Kinsmen in May, the company will have presented all 38 plays written or cowritten by William Shakespeare. So many small theater companies have come and gone in the city in the last 20 years that CSC has much to celebrate. They’ve survived, for one thing. For another, they’ve thrived, albeit while experiencing some growing pains. Most important, they’re on a firm financial footing and their ambitions know no bounds.

Well, almost no bounds. If we can whimsically apply Shakespeare’s iconic Seven Ages of Man (“All the world’s a stage…” from As You Like It) to a theater company, completing the canon brings CSC to the end of adolescence. Entering adulthood is a gradual process—there’s still some maturation to come—but several of its dearest goals should be fulfilled in 2014.

Talk to anyone in the theater’s leadership for more than a few minutes and you’ll hear the words “world-class.” That’s what they want to be. Ask Phillips, who has yet to turn 40, what the next challenge is and he launches into an enthusiastic conversation about working on the Bard’s history cycle and the engrossing, demanding plays that give a dramatic account of the British monarchy. Then he pauses. “And,” he adds, “our lease is up in three-and-a-half years.”

The company’s dream is a home of its own. And at long last that dream is flirting with reality. The Greater Cincinnati Foundation is a major partner in funding a feasibility study that will help determine if Cincy Shakes, as it’s come to be known, takes the plunge and becomes the city’s third professional theater—after Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati—to support a permanent home.

But whether that happens or not, the company has become an established part of the city’s cultural life. And sitting at that adult table brings its own drama.

It does seem like a lifetime since three soon-to-be-graduated college theater students—Jasson Minadakis, Marni Penning, and Nick Rose—resolved to found a theater company specializing in Shakespeare and new plays. As they finished up their degrees at James Madison University in Virginia, they began their hunt for a city where audiences (and donors) might support the classics. After they identified the three that best met their criteria, they set off to spend an exploratory season in each city.

Minadakis came to Cincinnati as an intern at Ensemble Theatre. It didn’t take him long to send up an urgent smoke signal to Penning, who was performing in Washington, D.C., and Rose, who was waiting tables in Atlanta. The message was simple and emphatic: “There’s no Shakespeare here.” When Penning’s touring season ended in D.C., she and Rose made their way to the Queen City.

The three—along with R. Chris Reeder, another founding member—incorporated in 1994 as Fahrenheit Theatre Company, a vagabond troupe of recent college grads with buoyant energy, no money, and a tendency to throw everything at the stage to see what stuck. They were exuberant and young and their productions were a good time, but the situation didn’t promise staying power.

It turns out that Fahrenheit was going through Shakespeare’s first age—infancy. With a 1997 name change to Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, they were affectionately dubbed “Baby Shakes,” performing in mostly alternative spaces—Gabriel’s Corner in Over-the-Rhine, named for the horn-blowing angel topping the steeple of the church at Sycamore and Liberty; upstairs at Dance Hall on Short Vine; and The Carnegie, which, years away from its classy renovation, looked (and slightly smelled) like a home for the Phantom of the Chamber Opera. In all cases, they brought with them Fahrenheit’s thrift store design elements and rambunctious style.

Minadakis and Penning eventually moved on. Rose shared artistic director duties with Brian Isaac Phillips for a year, then did a successful turn in the corporate world. But in 2011 he followed his heart back to the stage, returning to CSC in Bedroom Farce that fall. Rose looks back fondly on the spirit that the company displayed in its salad days. “We wanted to put on a show,” he says. “As the company grew up, the new management had more maturity. They want to run a professional theater and provide professional world-class shows to Cincinnati.”

There’s that word again. In fact, CSC’s slate of actors has matured. The current core of 16 resident performers features several veterans who have been with the company
for 10 or more years. They are in their 30s and 40s now. They
are married (some to each other). They’ve bought houses and some have started families. Phillips and his wife Corinne Mohlenhoff, a favorite of CSC audiences, have a son and daughter. These days, he jokes, “Baby Shakes is what we call our daycare.”

Such stability did not arrive overnight. Phillips, who started as a member of the acting company in 1999, became artistic director in 2003. During his first season, he scheduled Shakespeare’s infrequently-produced Pericles, Prince of Tyre. “We had no money, a play with 40 characters, and 10 actors, six of them interns,” he recalls. Not the smartest prescription for a theater struggling to keep its doors open, but it was part of CSC’s prolonged, sometimes painful, transition from childhood to adolescence. At times, there could be a real frat house sensibility in productions rife with inside jokes. In a handful of comedies, audiences were left to wonder which came first—the shaky concept or the gorilla suit?

At the same time, some company members were joining the professional union Actors Equity. That meant growing payrolls for the large-cast shows demanded by traditional productions of Shakespeare’s plays. As the players grew more seasoned, the spontaneous combustion of their earliest years was replaced by increasing polish—but also, at times, by complacency.

Phillips has matured in his decade as artistic director and a few years into his tenure he was worrying about the comfort zone the ensemble seemed to have found. “It was the season after I directed Angels in America [at Know Theatre],” he recalls. Guest-directing the Pulitzer Prize–winning epic about the AIDS crisis caused him to cast a critical eye on his home company. “Everything was fine, but nothing was inspiring,” he says. At CSC’s annual retreat in 2011, he staged a come-to-Jesus moment: He fired the entire company. “I told them I never want to have that season again.”

Then he immediately rehired them. It was a stunt, but it got their attention.

“That was a fun day,” Jeremy Dubin, 15-year company member and artistic associate, notes wryly. Looking back (without anger), he describes it as “a great call to arms.” Eyes were quickly refocused on the journey and the destination. The resident company now comes up with a watchword to be mindful of every season. During the 2011–2012 season it was inspire. For 2012–2013 it was momentum. This season it’s accelerate. Next season is TBA.

So what lies in store?

“We have the art under control,” says Don Tecklenburg, an associate professor of accounting at Ohio Wesleyan who serves as CSC’s board president. “There’s not a lot of room for increasing the quality of the acting.” Indeed, he says he’d be happy to put CSC “up against Stratford any time.”

Phillips is more clear-eyed. “There’s been a lot of growth in the last couple years, but there are improvements to be made,” he says. Still, “I’ll stand our [principal cast of] Hamlet [from earlier in the 2014 season] in front of what I saw at Stratford a couple of years ago.”

Despite a budget of $1.4 million—minuscule compared to the biggest and best national Shakespeare companies, which run into the tens of millions—dedicated CSC theatergoers have noticed that the production elements have taken a marked leap forward since lighting and scenic designer Andrew J. Hungerford signed on a few seasons back. Hungerford, who is also longtime scenic designer for Over-the-Rhine’s alternative Know Theatre, is about to become Know’s artistic director. But he’ll still be working with CSC.

Jeremy Dubin suggests CSC’s current spot on the Age of Man continuum is “soldier.” “We had an exuberant youth,” he says, “something we were known for—for better or worse. We’re more mature now, looking for more respect. We’re working toward wisdom.”

This year the CSC resident company numbers 55, including staff and designers. There are 34 actors on the roster. Having a resident company such as this, which includes actors who appear in as few as one or two productions a year, “is one of our great strengths,” Dubin says. Working together for years “creates a shared background, relationships, fellowship. We have common goals.” He and Phillips share a belief of what will get CSC to the next level—but “it won’t be a short journey,” Dubin warns.

Phillips has an anecdote to illustrate the point. On a visit to New York last December, he saw Twelfth Night, an import by Shakespeare’s Globe led by the incomparable Mark Rylance, performed by an all-male cast (the way Shakespeare was performed for its original Elizabethan audiences.) Cincinnati Shakespeare also produced Twelfth Night earlier this season as its holiday entry. When Phillips returned from seeing it, he says, “Sara [Clark, also a CSC artistic associate] asked me, ‘What’s the difference? What makes theirs so much better than ours?’” There’s no missing the fire in Phillips’s gut when he explains the difference. “There’s not a missed step by anyone on the stage. The great British companies have the best classically trained young actors. Even the second spear carrier is great.”

This season, Phillips is reinstating auditions for company members, the first time since their original auditions that resident actors have been told they need to do a general try-out to be considered for the coming season. “I want people to remember that being here is not a lifetime guarantee,” he says. “But I also want to let people have the opportunity to show me something new or express interest in a show or role that they really want to be considered for. Complacency can be the death of an ensemble. This is my hope of battling that.”

He identifies rehearsal time as one of the company’s greatest challenges. There’s a lot of schedule-balancing before the season even begins in order to make the comings and goings of the Young Company (a.k.a. paid interns) match up with full company rehearsals. The Young Company spend many mornings performing in middle and high schools. They return to the theater for a mid-afternoon rehearsal, and often continue on to an evening performance, all for an undisclosed (though meager) salary plus housing. Phillips wants to create a separate educational troupe for school tours. Having a separate school troupe could minimize scheduling conflicts. Plus, every year CSC has more requests from schools than it can handle. A separate troupe would be available to travel region-wide, not just locally.

CSC has always recruited eager grads of four-year programs at regional auditions, and Phillips acknowledges that these are actors who are still on a learning curve. Continuing the networking that began at Stratford in January, Phillips believes, will help CSC take another necessary step: he wants to start auditioning in New York, seeing MFA grads from the top theater programs. He wants the “no missed step by anyone on the stage” that he admires in British theatre. He knows this can’t be accomplished immediately; but if he had his way, he’d be recruiting MFAs next season.

Michael Haney, longtime associate artistic director at Playhouse in the Park during Ed Stern’s stewardship and widely acknowledged as the best director in the region, started working with CSC on the 2012 summer box office smash The Hound of the Baskervilles and tries to make an annual guest appearance. Shakespeare wrote for young people, Haney points out. His suggestion is to absolutely recruit “one or two young guns”—not for an entire season but for specific shows to get them to Cincinnati without asking for a long-term commitment. “That means flying them in, putting them up, paying them more than what the Young Company is earning,” he says. “It’s a big-time budget commitment.”

Any such move to buoy the talent on stage would mean that the budget, currently growing at about 10 percent a year, would need an additional bounce. But an uptick like that next year would be rubbing shoulders with a capital campaign if the theater moves forward on its plan to occupy a new home for the 2017–2018 season. Which is what makes 2014 such a pivotal year for CSC. To quote a writer they know so well, “There is a tide in the affairs of men . . .”

Even CSC’s most loyal fans have to admit the theater’s home is lacking. The lobby gets the job done, but lacks sparkle. An expansion a few years ago bought breathing room but it isn’t a buzz-y space where theatergoers want to hang out for a drink, even now that it has a full liquor license. It’s a few high steps into the small auditorium, which looks like what it was in a former life—a bare bones rep cinema. To get inside the auditorium, a patron who arrives in a wheelchair is sent outdoors, down the alley along the side of the theater, and up a steep ramp. It’s not pleasant in cold or wet weather.

The stage is also small, not easily accommodating a dozen-plus actors and elaborate scenic design. There’s barely wing space (where actors go when they exit the stage) and no fly space (which allows scenery and even actors to drop to the stage from above).

Does the theater environment affect the first impression that CSC makes on newcomers? How could it not? CSC leadership believes a new home for the company is key to having the community see it with new eyes—or simply see it for the first time.

In 2013, more than 6,000 people saw Shakespeare in the Park, a free summer preview of their annual tour of Greater Cincinnati schools, where more than 30,000 students also caught them. But what a lot of those park audiences and students’ parents don’t know is that CSC has a 10-play season downtown. Even Tecklenburg laughs that he didn’t know Cincinnati had a Shakespeare company until a few years ago, when someone took him to a performance.

This season the company has 1,110 subscribers to date (CSC sells flex passes rather than play series)—so there’s still plenty of opportunity to make a first impression on existing Cincinnati theatergoers as well as a not universally Shakespeare-crazy audience. Next season, the company plans to lure that general audience with popular classics: stage adaptations of The Great Gatsby, Little Women, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

One of the coming season’s big buzz shows should be Bruce Cromer and Joneal Joplin (both have played beloved Scrooges in A Christmas Carol at the Playhouse) sharing the stage in Waiting for Godot. Another could be One Man, Two Guvnors, a screamingly funny modern take on Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters. Phillips grabbed the rights to that after Blake Robison, artistic director at the Playhouse, passed on it. If CSC meets its challenges, it could have a huge pay-off. Interestingly, there are only three plays by Shakespeare on next season’s schedule—popular comedies The Taming of the Shrew and The Comedy of Errors, with Henry V taking the history slot.

Executive director Jay Woffington joined the staff in 2012. Woffington was recruited to the board as a branding expert, so successful as CEO of advertising agency Bridge Worldwide and global president of the international Possible Worldwide agency that he could find a second career with his first love. Woffington’s a lifelong theater guy—so much so that he was still logging plenty of volunteer hours with community theater Footlighters, Inc., in his first year with CSC.

Since he moved into his CSC office, Woffington says he has spent “50 percent” of his time on CSC’s wished-for move. “Having sat on the board for six years prior to joining the staff as exec director, I knew what the key priorities for the company were,” Woffington says. “Investment in the artistic product, financial growth and stability, long-term capacity creation, employee development—hey, we were named [one of] the best places to work in Cincinnati this year!—and sustainable improvement to our facility.”

Having ticked off many of those priorities, the need for a bigger, better theater remains. It’s a goal he calls “ambitious but sustainable.”

Concrete details will have to wait for the release of that feasibility study, but there is a growing list of potential spaces in and near downtown—a list that morphs as real estate moves on and off the market. Might the company leave the downtown core? Woffington acknowledges that “enhancing 12th Street [in Over-the-Rhine] would be awesome.”

Phillips and Woffington both talk about—you guessed it—a world-class facility, but quickly add they want “best” not “bigger.” Phillips’s wish list includes a thrust main stage with fly space and wing space that would have seating capacity of about 250 (a 25 percent increase that would make it similar to the Shelterhouse theater space at Playhouse in the Park). There would be a smaller, flexible studio space, classrooms for the education program (CSC’s summer camp is currently housed at Xavier University), a rehearsal area, a lobby suitable for high-end receptions, and “disabled access with dignity.”

The list sounds not so much “world-class” as “state-of-the-art.” Any high school that has invested in a decent theater in the past five years—including Over-the-Rhine’s School for Creative and Performing Arts—probably has as much. But this is what CSC lacks, and it’s the first big step to world-class, Phillips insists. “We can’t get there until we have a space we can invite the world into.”

Chicago Shakespeare is an ideal illustration of where Phillips would like his company to be someday. It’s the leading producer of international work in Chicago and has toured plays to Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe. The company represented North America at the Globe to Globe festival as part of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad and has a Regional Theatre Tony Award.

“They were where we are,” Phillips argues passionately. “Chicago started out as a storefront theater. The city helped them transform.” That transformation hinged on a move in 1999 to a seven-story facility that anchors Navy Pier.

“The things that make us not perfect could be achieved if we had more support from the community,” Phillips believes. “We’re creative in a shoebox. We amaze people with what can happen in that room.” But to attract the best and brightest, including guest directors, those artists have to want to work in the space.

Tecklenburg is more hesitant. What must be improved are rehearsal time and space and bolstering the creative support staff. “It’s not impossible we could end up staying [at 719 Race Street],” he says, before allowing, “we probably won’t be staying here.” He’s got his reasons for being cagey. Ever the accounting prof, Tecklenburg points out “the economy is recovering but not recovered” and suggests “CSC is not far enough along in the process” to meet a 2017 opening. Until the study is completed, he adds, “We don’t know it’s what we can financially do.”

It doesn’t help that the field of cultural organizations looking for money for major improvements is crowded right now. Music Hall is still fund-raising in the millions. Ensemble Theatre, which soldiered on through years of hard times before OTR’s gentrification kicked into high gear, has paid its dues. Ensemble, which like Cincinnati Shakespeare is playing to capacity, began its capital campaign several years ago, yet it still has a sizeable amount to raise to reach a goal that will release $1.2 million in waiting state dollars before it can begin work on its own renovation.

CSC brings a lot to the table—200 performance nights a year and a far-reaching education program that has been amped up this season through a collaboration with Xavier University’s new theater degree program (they worked together on The Crucible), and a new partnership with area high schools. That partnership—it’s called Project 38—will debut April 23 (Shakespeare’s birthday) at the company’s 20th anniversary gala at Memorial Hall. Thirty-eight students representing different schools will present a performance piece celebrating the completion of the canon. By next year CSC hopes to grow it into a festival.

Less quantifiable but invaluable is the steady stream of young theater artists who have come to the city over the last two decades, reaching hundreds of thousands of students, populating stages beyond their CSC base, and developing new work and new ideas. Cincinnati Fringe Festival—that annual pile-up of edgy, outrageous theatricality—was born at Cincinnati Shakespeare.

Looking ahead to the release of the feasibility study, Phillips acknowledges, “I guess the answer could be no.” Clearly he’d be disappointed. But he’ll be thinking alternatives—things can’t stay as they are. Phillips is adamant. CSC has to move forward.

“The thing we have to do,” Tecklenburg says, “is help the community understand what a great resource we are.”

When Phillips imagines a perfect future, it’s built on what he’s hoping for today. Twenty years on, say, CSC would be playing to capacity at eight performances a week instead of four. With two stages, there would be a core acting company of more than 25 and they’d have longer contracts. And in the commodious lobby there would be a Regional Theatre Tony Award with pride of place, just like Playhouse in the Park.

He doesn’t see CSC becoming a massive operation. If his company were to get the theater it needs, “CSC would not need to expand again,” he says firmly.

But it’s easy to imagine that, if Phillips has his way, two decades from now there will be a conference where some young, eager theatrical upstart jealously eyes the success of Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and dreams of accomplishing as much.

That’s what happens when you’re sitting at the adult table.

Illustration by Randy Mora
Originally published in the April 2014 issue.

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