The executive artist

Raymond Bobgan • executive artistic director, Cleveland Public Theatre

By Bob Abelman

When Raymond Bobgan, now 52, took the reins at Cleveland Public Theatre in 2006, after years of it serving as his artistic home, he inherited an organization rooted in the urban-revitalization vision and social justice mission of James Levin. Levin, who returned from New York City in 1981, was determined to form an experimental, risk-taking, community-rooted theater group similar to Off-Broadway’s Cafe La MaMa, where he worked as an actor and director.

But Bobgan also inherited an organization riddled with debt and located in a rough Detroit–Shoreway neighborhood on the West Side of Cleveland, with no viable plan for fiscal or creative survival, least of all success. And so he went to work.

“For a while,” he recalls, “I was executive director and technical director of the theater.” He was also a grant writer, applying for and winning financial support from the state of Ohio and a range of foundations, as well as the overseer of the continuing renovation of CPT’s 1912 home, the Gordon Square Theatre, which is the oldest operating venue in the city.

But Bobgan, who lives a short bike ride from his theater, is also a passionate artist who has been pushing the boundaries of conventional theater for decades, starting as a student at the University of California at Irvine, where he studied under experimental theater giant Jerzy Grotowski. It was his artistic vision, sense of innovation and bold creativity that led to the theater’s metamorphosis and its current state of success. 

“We may be near collapse, but let’s stop trying to compete with the LORT houses in town – the Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater,” he told his colleagues, referring to the League of Resident Theatres, a professional theater association. “Let’s be good at what we do … work that nobody else in Cleveland is going to try. And I want to create an environment for artists, for creators, that feels safe and challenging at the same time.”

So, rather than Bobgan-the-executive-director pulling programming as a logical cost-saving effort, Bobgan-the-artist initiated even more and even riskier theater to solidify the CPT brand.

He sought to reinforce the word “public” in the theater’s name by expanding artistic collaborations, launching Teatro Público de Cleveland –
a 35-member ensemble of Cleveland’s Latino theater artists – and escalating community engagement that connects the Arabic and Asian-Indian communities to theater. As a result, CPT is one of the few non-culturally specific professional theaters in the country that regularly produces seasons with 50% or more representation of women and 50% or more representation of artists of color.

Raymond Bobgan and Cleveland Core Ensemble, plus other performers, in rehearsal for “Red Ash Mosaic.” / Photo by Steve Wagner

He has produced new scripts by local playwrights that were deemed outside the comfort zone of other theaters in town, such as Jen Silverman’s “Akarui” (2012), a sprawling tale of sexual identity, and Eric Coble’s “My Barking Dog” (2011), a wonderfully bizarre piece of storytelling, physical comedy and inventive wordsmithing about the ramifications of civilization’s continuing encroachment on the wild. And he has staged his own work in partnership with other artists, including “Red Ash Mosaic” (2017), an inventive piece inspired by ancient texts such as “The Egyptian Book of the Dead,” as well as the works of the mystical Persian poet Hafiz.  

Bobgan recently affiliated his theater with the National New Play Network, an alliance of professional theaters that collaborate in innovative ways to develop, produce and extend the life of new plays. In 2018, he was appointed president of its board of directors.

His efforts have generated many honors, including the 2017 Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio, for which he was singled out for his “sustained, impactful and visionary leadership.” The Cleveland Foundation presented him with its 2018 Homer C. Wadsworth Award, which is given annually to a local leader who has “demonstrated creativity, innovation, risk-taking and good humor in a civic, volunteer, nonprofit or public sector role.”

“For the first eight years, I kept thinking that running the theater would get easier when we grew to a certain size, achieved some notoriety and stopped worrying about the roof leaking or the electricity being turned off,” admits
Bobgan. “But some things are harder. It’s the art that makes it all worthwhile.” CV

On stage

Cleveland Public Theatre world premiere of “Masks of Flight,” a visceral and dynamic meditation on humanity’s desire for freedom and love amid our incessant tendency to control and manipulate. Created by Cleveland Core Ensemble (Raymond Bobgan, Faye Hargate, Holly Holsinger and Darius J. Stubbs) and directed by Raymond Bobgan, the production will be staged from May 29 to June 13, 2020, at 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland.

Lead image: Photo by Robert Muller

Meet the Scene Stealers.