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When Northeast Ohio’s theaters collaborate, audiences benefit

By Bob Abelman

Theater is often described as a collaborative art – a joining of talents on stage and behind it. But collaboration most often takes place within producing theater companies and not between them.

Standing in the way of cooperative companies and creative partnerships is the significant competition that exists for rears to fill the tiers.

And because ticket sales to season subscribers and walk-in audiences account for less than 50 percent of the cost of doing business, local theater companies are also in competition for community and government resources, foundation support, corporate underwriting and the contributions of individual philanthropists to subsidize their work.

In short, collaboration is the equivalent of sleeping with the enemy.   

And yet we have seen an influx of theater partnerships in recent years. Some are fairly innocuous, such as when a consortium of local theaters comes together to host a joint audition for an upcoming season. Others reflect a temporary coming together that serves to support the arts in a community, such as when theater companies cross-promote or offer discounted tickets to each other’s work in playbills and on social media.

But, increasingly, there are companies willing to pool resources in order to share the financial costs associated with artistic risk-taking and innovation. Many theaters are seeing collaboration as a way to fill the creative gaps between what they must do to survive, what they can do, and what they would like to do. And there are partnerships motivated by the desire to give emerging artists at one venue a larger or more diverse platform at others.

We see all this happening in major cities with vibrant theater communities. Just recently, in a show of support for new plays, the Second Stage Theater in New York and the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles agreed to commission a series of world premiere works by American writers that will be staged first in California and then on Broadway.

Here in Cleveland, we also see collaboration. And we asked the artistic and managing directors of partnering professional theaters about the costs and benefits – for the respective companies and for their audiences – of having such strange bedfellows.    

A May-December romance:

Beck Center for the Arts and Baldwin Wallace University

Since 1999, under artistic director Scott Spence’s guidance, Lakewood’s Beck Center for the Arts has systematically worked toward professionalizing its theater offerings, including the provision of Equity contracts for actors. It is now recognized as one of the stronger, year-round professional theaters that produce musicals.   

For the past six years, Beck Center’s annual production schedule has included one musical infused with young talent found due south on the small Berea campus of Baldwin Wallace University. There, in its conservatory of music, is a musical theater program under Victoria Bussert’s direction that ranks high among the elite programs in the country. Within the program resides a pool of talented undergraduates who, upon graduation or sooner, have been landing agents and lead roles on Broadway and London’s West End.

As the musical theater program grew over the years, the on-campus stage facilities shared with BW’s opera and theater programs proved limiting in size and availability. Having worked at the Beck Center as a freelance director, Bussert worked out a formal partnership with Spence’s theater, where the students and the faculty design team are hired on as professionals. Mainstage collaborations have included “Carrie,” “In the Heights,” and most recently, “Bring It On.” Canvas recently spoke to Bussert and Spence, who describe the partnership:

Bussert: Scott and I have been able to choose projects that are attractive to the Beck Center audiences and accommodate the nature of our young casting population and our educational mission. Everything we do at BW has to have an educational element, so I am always looking for performance opportunities that teach the kids new skill sets.

Spence: This partnership gives us a greater opportunity to seek out those shows that have appeal to younger audiences and require a cast of younger actors. Every theater has an obligation to its older subscriber base, but it must also vary its product in order to invest in tomorrow’s audiences.

Bussert: Remember, these are college students who all have choir commitments up to their junior year, a full academic and performance skills course load, workshops and workouts at ballet boot camp, auditions and rehearsals for other projects.   

Spence: Once we were able to work out a scheduling formula, this partnership has been nothing but fantastic.

Bussert:  The 20-minute drive from Berea gives the students’ brains time to shift into “I’m leaving as a student and arriving as a professional.” And their experience at Beck – the shorter rehearsal time on stage and the longer production schedule, the working with professionals who do not operate the same way their teachers do, the audiences who are paying customers and not just supportive colleagues – offers valuable insight into the life of a working professional actor.

Spence: Just recently, I went to Columbus to do a Congressional tour and meet with the Ohio Arts Council. The council had taken notice of this partnership between the Beck Center and BW, to the point where it said it wanted to work with us to not only form a statewide model for academic and professional collaborations but a national model as well. We are pretty jazzed about this.

A long-distance affair:

Great Lakes Theater/Idaho Shakespeare Festival/Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival

Charles Fee, Great Lakes Theater producing artistic director, and Victoria Bussert, Baldwin Wallace University musical theater program director, at Hanna Theatre, home of Great Lakes Theater, in downtown Cleveland.

Charles Fee, Great Lakes Theater producing artistic director, and Victoria Bussert, Baldwin Wallace University musical theater program director, at Hanna Theatre, home of Great Lakes Theater, in downtown Cleveland. Photo by Roger Mastrioianni

Charles Fee holds a unique position in the American theater scene. He is the producing artistic director of three independently operated, professional theater companies – Idaho Shakespeare Festival in Boise, Idaho (which he joined in 1991), Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland (starting in 2002), and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in Lake Tahoe, Nevada (since 2010) – that have created an innovative production-sharing alliance.

Prior to the partnership, each theater was in a state of creative and financial duress. “We were all spreading our resources so thin that no one’s actually creating real work at real wages for anyone,” says Fee in a 2011 interview during the early stages of this alliance.

“Unlike co-producing models, our collaboration creates year-round opportunities for our artists and our production staffs by extending contracts across all three cities,” Fee says. “In other words, we create all of the work seen in our three cities.” And because ideas and information about marketing and other logistic considerations are shared between companies, each respective staff operates with greater speed and efficiency.

The first show Fee staged upon his arrival at Great Lakes Theater was the “Much Ado About Nothing” production he had just orchestrated at Boise.

After Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival joined the alliance, its production of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” had previously played in Boise, where several weeks before, the sets, costumes, props and performers were trucked 2,000 miles from Cleveland, where the show had been built and premiered.

More than 60 productions have been shared since Cleveland joined the alliance. 

“Because our strategic alliance’s business model affords extended work opportunities for artists and production personnel,” notes Fee, “we are able to attract and retain a truly extraordinarily creative team that has found a remarkable chemistry over time. We’re not starting from scratch with a new collection of people with each production. We’re working with a core group of artists that have collaborated together for many years. This level of collaboration enables us to deepen our work as a company. And I think audiences benefit immensely as a result.”

From flirtation to fling:

Dobama Theater and Karamu House

From left, Nathan Motta, Dobama Theatre’s artistic director; Tony Sias, Karamu House president and CEO; and Scott Spence, Beck Center for the Arts artistic director on stage at the Beck Center in Lakewood.

From left, Nathan Motta, Dobama Theatre’s artistic director; Tony Sias, Karamu House president and CEO; and Scott Spence, Beck Center for the Arts artistic
director on stage at the Beck Center in Lakewood. Photo by AJ Abelman

In 1915, a pair of Oberlin graduates opened a settlement house where people of different races and religions could come together. They soon discovered that the arts provided the perfect common ground. The Playhouse Settlement, renamed Karamu – a Swahili word meaning “place of enjoyment” – in 1941, quickly became a magnet and forum for some of the best African-American artists of the day.

During a “getting to know you” meeting in 2016 at which Tony Sias was introduced as Karamu’s new president and CEO, Dobama Theatre’s artistic director Nathan Motta shared a few ideas about a potential partnership intended to enrich their respective theater making. Motta had been appointed as Dobama’s fifth artistic director in 2013, which spurred the theater’s move to become the region’s newest full-time Equity House (along with the Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater).

These two theaters have occasionally flirted with each other in the years since Dobama was founded in 1959. Most recently, after leaving its long-time residence on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights in 2005 but before finding its current home on Lee Road, the company launched a highly successful co-production with Karamu of the musical “Caroline or Change.” But now they are in the early stages of what could very well be a long term, comprehensive partnership. Canvas recently spoke to Motta and Sias, who discussed their collaboration:

Motta: This season, we did an artist exchange where our Ben Needham did the scenic design for “Rasheeda Speaking” at Karamu, and their production manager, Richard H. Morris Jr., designed “An Octoroon” at Dobama. Company members learning and communicating about how each of us have dealt with creative challenges and where we’ve succeeded and failed can help us all grow stronger.

Sias: That exchange went exceptionally well and set the tone for future creative collaborations. Dobama will also be leasing a rehearsal room, storage space and a break room at Karamu. Just recently, our artists (in “Sister Act”) rehearsed next door to theirs (in “Peter and the Starcatcher”), so people are getting to know each other and understand the culture of our respective institutions.

Motta: By encouraging artists we work with to work – and see work – at other places, they learn new ways of doing things and experience other artists’ approaches to theater making. We are also working toward making the creation of theater more cost effective, while increasing the quality of the artistic product. This is nothing but a good thing for our audiences.

Sias: The Karamu/Dobama partnership will also be a catalyst for community outreach, engagement and education. We’re launching a new joint program called Theatre Artists for Social Change (TASC) that will mount organized artistic responses to current news events that concern social justice. This way, our theaters can be responsive and proactive, and our art can play a bigger role in creating awareness and change.

Cleveland Play House’s promiscuity

Laura Kepley, Cleveland Play House artistic director, and Donald Carrier, interim director of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA acting program, inside the Allen Theatre lobby in downtown Cleveland.

Laura Kepley, Cleveland Play House artistic director, and Donald Carrier, interim director of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA acting program, inside the Allen Theatre lobby in downtown Cleveland. Photo by Michael C. Butz

Cleveland Play House, founded in 1915 and the recipient of the 2015 Regional Theatre Tony Award, has produced more than 100 world or American premieres, and during its long history, more than 12 million people have attended more than 1,600 productions. 

The CPH balances several collaborations at once to help maintain this level of productivity. One is an artistic and financial co-production partnership with a variety of sister theater companies across the country. The CPH and partnering theaters collaborate on show selection and artistic staffing, and share the costs of building, casting, rehearsing and staging the shows. 

In the 2016-17 season, “Baskerville” was built and opened in Cleveland and then went to Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. “How I Learned to Drive” went to Syracuse Stage after its opening run at the CPH. “Disney’s Freaky Friday” was built and opened at La Jolla Playhouse and moved to the Alley Theatre in Houston after spending a few weeks at the CPH.

According to Kevin Moore, who became managing director of Cleveland Play House in 2007, “we are extremely selective about how many of these partnerships originate elsewhere. ‘Freaky Friday’ is our first received co-production in two years because a received co-pro means less work is available for our CPH production teams.” But co-productions allow for large and elaborate shows to be staged here that could not otherwise be afforded because of the production rights, the prominent directors and designers brought in, and the large number of cast members they require. (“Freaky Friday” has a cast of 17 and a nine-member band.)

The CPH has also done collaborative cross-disciplinary projects with the world-class Cleveland Orchestra, including the most recent commissioned world premiere of Quiara Alegria Hudes’s play for actor-and-orchestra, “The Good Peaches.” 

“These are landmark opportunities,” says Moore, “where audiences get to see work that would not otherwise be done by two venerable institutions. Financially, sharing costs allow both arts organizations to keep operating and innovating.” Suggests Laura Kepley, CPH artistic director, “The logistical challenges of this partnership are really artistic possibilities. For each group to get to expose its core audience to an adjacent art form is really exciting.”

Another collaboration is the jointly administered Case Western Reserve University/ Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts in Acting Program, which began in 1996. Students are not only taught by industry professionals from CWRU, they also receive training from CPH artists and internationally renowned guest artists. A third-year residency at CPH provides students with on-stage performance experience in CPH productions, such as last season’s “The Crucible.”

A 2009 partnership with Cleveland State University and the Playhouse Square Foundation helped finance the flexible 300-seat Outcalt Theatre and the 150-seat Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre, which are shared by CPH, Playhouse Square, CSU and the CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program. 

These are just a few of the partnerships taking place in the local arts community.  “The spirit of collaboration in Cleveland,” notes Kepley, “is the most generous and robust of any city I have ever worked in.” CV