When the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati raises the curtain on the spring production of Disney’s Peter Pan Jr., the boy who wouldn’t grow up will play second fiddle to the man who made it all possible. Jack Louiso, Children’s Theatre’s artistic director, is retiring this spring. And though he’s never put himself in the spotlight, his gleeful, graceful ability to bring out the best in young performers has made him a star for the better part of 40 years.
Louiso, a 1953 Withrow High graduate and Silverton native, started dancing young. As the first artistic director of the School for Creative and Performing Arts, he helped give the city’s flagship magnet school a national profile. When he and his wife, Susie, took the reins at Children’s Theatre in 1993, they transformed a sleepy program into a powerhouse. Recently he took a break from rehearsals to talk about children, the arts, and the benefits of Glee-mania.
I always assume artistic kids come from artistic families. Did you?
Yeah, Mom would drag us to the symphony and everything. I started dancing when I was 8. My mother and father were championship waltzers—Audrey and Bob Louiso. I had two brothers, and our mother taught the three of us how to dance the jitterbug, the Charleston, the waltz. Then my mom decided we were all going to take tap dancing.
Were there a lot of performance outlets for kids in Cincinnati back then?
Most schools had great music programs—vocal music and bands. That’s one of the things that has to turn around in schools.
How did you become the first artistic director at the School for Creative and Performing Arts?
In the 1970s, Robert McSpadden, head of music in all the city’s public schools, [was one of the people] who came up with the idea of having a performing arts school. I had studied vocal music with Bob. When I came on board, first thing I directed was a production of The Music Man. And I made the worst mistake of my life: I did not cast Sarah Jessica Parker. In auditioning, there was a panel of teachers and myself. I listened to the teachers; I should have listened to myself. Maybe that was the catalyst that told her to leave [Cincinnati] and become Annie on Broadway. I hope that’s it.
When you came to The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati, what was your goal; what needed to happen here?
My goal was to revitalize it. Kids see the best things on television; kids’ expectations of production values have changed. When we took it over we put on shows that were produced well, costumed well. It has grown from an audience of 22,000 to two or three years ago, when we reached a quarter million.
Have student performers changed over the years? Especially now, when some schools have cut their arts programs?
We’ve got so many talented kids in this town. I’ve always found that talented children who are lucky enough to have parents who recognize that it’s OK to be an artist are very self-motivated. They search out opportunities to perform or get better.
When you’re working with a child, is there a point where you can say, “OK, this kid has the potential to go somewhere”?
When somebody auditions for me, I look in their eyes and I know if they’ve got it; it’s an honesty. One of my biggest success stories is Rocky Carroll. Rocky I’ve known since he was 11. He’s on NCIS, just got a three-year contract extension. We just went out [to California] to visit him on the set. And over walks Mark Harmon, and he says to Susie, “I’ve heard a lot about you.” And she says, “Same here!”
Your son Todd is in the film industry as an actor and a director. Has there ever been a time when you thought, “Oh, I wish he had decided to do something else”?
No. He’s had opportunities. He came out of college and [in 1993] got an audition for a sitcom. They flew him to California and he was sitting there reading with Judith Light, and Judith Light says, “Where are you going to live when you move out here?” Todd says, “Well, I’m just auditioning.” She says, “No, we’re doing 15 weeks.“ He’s never left.
What’s the view of show business that you convey to young people now? Has it changed over the years?
I’ve always told them, “Don’t do it, it’s too hard!” Then, “If you’re going to do it, get a degree in teaching or something else.” You really have to be tough. You have to have the connections to get there and the talent to stay.
Has the popularity of something like—
Glee? Glee has been a shot in the arm for music in schools, and I just hope educators wake up and say, “Oh, this is important!” Schools have to put art back in. I love this town. I just wish they’d get it together to put money into arts and not a trolley.