A potent group of smaller stages are growing and strengthening Northeast Ohio’s theater scene around headliner Playhouse Square
Story by Bob Abelman
Illustration by Jon Larson
Like Broadway in New York and the Loop in Chicago, downtown Cleveland’s Playhouse Square is the hub of the city’s theater scene as well as the nation’s second largest unified performing arts center.
Its original five venues – the Ohio Theatre, Palace Theatre, State Theatre, Allen Theatre and Hanna Theatre – were constructed in the early 1920s as houses for vaudeville, movies and legitimate theater.
Now fully restored after years of abandonment, fire and vandalism, the historic theaters house top-tier national Broadway tours, serve as the home to Cleveland’s classic theater company, play host to America’s first professional regional theater, and offer concerts, comedy shows and dance performances.
Yes, Playhouse Square on Euclid Avenue between East 14th and East 17th streets is thriving. But the true sign of a city’s evolving theater scene can be found on the roads less traveled. It’s there that smaller stages are producing innovative, avant-garde and contemporary plays as well as original works by local playwrights.
Every city known for its performing arts has followed this off-the-beaten path.
New York’s Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway movements began in the early 1950s as a reaction to the commercial theater that dominated the mid-town area. Located largely on the Lower East Side and the Upper West Side, away from Time Square, these indie theaters provide an outlet for each new generation of creative artists whose voices are not being heard elsewhere.
The 1960s and ’70s saw an explosion of homegrown theaters in Chicago, called “Off-Loop,” which are still performing in unorthodox and inexpensive settings away from the mainstream venues in the city’s downtown Loop area.
The 99-Seat Theater scene evolved in Los Angeles during the 1980s, when many of the larger, nonprofit professional theaters found themselves dependent on box office sales for most of their income and less likely to engage in creative risk-taking.
And now, Cleveland’s theater scene is undergoing its own version of an Off-Broadway, Off-Loop, 99-Seat Theater movement.
Located on the East Side and West Side, away from Playhouse Square, these professional playhouses welcome diverse perspectives not only in who is telling the story and what the story is about, but how the story is told. Some are venturing into the use of immersive, interactive technology for their storytelling that create virtual worlds onstage. Others are blurring the line between theater disciplines. And they are all tapping local talent with distinctive voices.
Let’s call these theaters “Outside-the-Square.” Here are a few worth visiting:
“Bat Boy: The Musical” was performed in October 2015 at Blank Canvas Theater. Photo | Andy Dudik
Blank Canvas Theatre
78th Street Studios
1305 W. 78th St., Suite 211, Cleveland
440-941-0458 or blankcanvastheatre.com
In search of an identity in Cleveland’s highly diverse performing arts marketplace, the upstart Blank Canvas Theatre has waffled between modern classics, such as “Twelve Angry Men” and “Of Mice and Men,” and cultist musical comedies that include “Debbie Does Dallas,” “Psycho Beach Party” and “Bat Boy.” The theater, in its fifth year, also provides a performance space for founder and artistic director Patrick Ciamacco’s sketch comedy troupe, The Laughter League.
This is part of Ciamacco’s master plan to lure younger audiences to the theater via offbeat offerings and then strategically introduce them to the modern classics. “Or vice versa,” he notes. “We want a typical theatre lover who would normally only see a classic to enjoy it so much they go outside their comfort zone and show up to have blood splattered on them while watching ‘The Texas Chainsaw Musical.’”
2440 Scranton Road, Cleveland
216-687-0074 or convergence-continuum.org
“Most theaters are like mirrors, reflecting the familiar,” suggests convergence-continuum mission statement. “Everything is nicely laid out for you as you view what is comfortably, safely beyond that wall, confident that you will be made, indeed are expected, to understand the experience in terms of conventional logic. Aren’t we all tired of that by now?”
con-con prides itself on taking risks and confronting conventions, and has done so under the supervision of Clyde Simon, who has served as artistic director, director, actor and set designer since the theater’s founding in 2000. The immensely intimate Liminis performance space offers an up-close-and-personal theater experience in an effort to fully engage its audiences’ senses and imaginations.
“Three Sisters” was performed in June 2015 by the Mamaí Theatre Company. Photo | Erik Johnson
Mamai Theatre Company
Cleveland Masonic Performing Arts Center
3615 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
440-394-8353 or mamaitheatreco.org
Mamaí is passionate about offering audiences canonical works from dramatic literature. They do so, according to co-founders Bernadette Clemens, Wendy Kriss, Christine McBurney and Derdriu Ring, “without filtering what might be denser, older or more rarely performed out of a fear that contemporary audiences cannot or will not engage with classical playwrights.”
Their 2013 inaugural production of “Medea” did just that. “Good classical theater need not be watered down, dumbed down or used as a rare spice to blend into a contemporary season,” says Clemens. Adds McBurney, “For me, one of the biggest returns from our first season was learning that audiences do respond to plays that do not resemble sitcoms; plays with big ideas, complexity and beautiful language.” Next season, Mamaí will move downtown into the 150-seat Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre after having established its reputation just east of the Square.
Mamaí is attempting to counter the tendency of many other theaters to make play choices that are heavily weighted toward male casts by ensuring that, for Cleveland’s professional theater community, women will have increasing opportunities to work.
397 E. 156th St., Cleveland
216-302-8856 or playwrightslocal.org
Newly formed Playwrights Local, located in the revitalized North Collinwood neighborhood, is the city’s first theater company exclusively dedicated to new plays by local playwrights.
After obtaining nonprofit status and finding a work space at Waterloo Arts, artistic director David Todd and managing director Tom Hayes created a laboratory environment where directors, actors and dramaturgs provide feedback on new work, as well as space for table readings, rehearsals and public staged readings.
In November, the company will orchestrate its second annual two-day Cleveland Playwrights Festival that will feature workshops, panel discussions and staged readings of short works by David Hansen, Lisa Beth Allen, Eric James Dahl, Craig Joseph and Luke Brett. Says Todd, “We want to raise awareness for Cleveland as a playwriting city and add another facet to what is going on in the arts.”
“Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys” was performed in October and November 2015 by Theater Ninjas. Photo | Anastasia Pantsios
440-941-1482 or theaterninjas.com
Theater Ninjas is the food truck of Cleveland theater; a nomadic company that seeks out new and challenging performance spaces such as the repurposed recording studio at 78th Street Studios. “Working in nontraditional venues gives us an opportunity to reimagine how and why we tell stories,” suggests artistic director Jeremy Paul, “and helps us to create deep, fascinating worlds for the audience to explore.”
For instance, “The Excavation” was staged at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where audience members chose their own path through different “exhibits” that used humor, science, tragedy, puppets and multiple artistic disciplines to celebrate cultural legacies, mortality and our deep curiosity about the lives of other people. “It’s the kind of show that couldn’t be done in a traditional theater or by any other company in Cleveland,” says Paul. Other productions have been staged at the Rising Star Coffee Roastery, the Canopy Collective and the Guide 2 Kulchur bookstore.
Jon Seydl, former curator at CMA, described Theater Ninjas as operating “on the end of the theater spectrum; the place where theater connects to other forms of performance.”
none too fragile
1835 Merriman Road, Akron
330-671-4563 or nonetoofragile.com
Promotional ads for none too fragile boast: “We don’t just push the envelope. We lick it.” Shock value is what this theater is known for, starting with the ritual shot of Jameson whiskey that is distributed to audience members before each performance.
The Akron-based theater company was created in 2012 by Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky after an earlier experiment by Derry, called the Bang and the Clatter Theatre, proved too adventurous and bold for downtown Cleveland denizens. This new theater picks up the mantle of providing principle-challenging, character-driven, and often funky storytelling.
“Professional indie theater” is the way managing director Jaysen Mercer describes the types of plays they produce. “I believe that we offer our audiences something very unique that may not be possible at larger venues,” suggests Derry, “and that is true, intense intimacy with the artist and his/her material.”
Several progressive theaters of note initiated the “Outside-the-Square” movement before it was fashionable. Below are two of the most prominent.
“Incendiaries” was performed in January 2016 at Cleveland Public Theatre. Photo | Steve Wagner
Cleveland Public Theatre
6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
216-631-2727 or cptonline.org
Cleveland Public Theatre’s mission is to “raise consciousness and nurture compassion through ground breaking performances.” CPT develops new, adventurous work by Northeast Ohio artists, undertakes nationally significant second and “early” productions of new scripts, and develops devised, ensemble-based theater as well as radical reinterpretations of existing work.
Located in the Gordon Square Arts District, CPT was founded in 1981 when James Levin returned from New York City and was determined to form an experimental theater group similar to Off-Broadway’s Cafe LaMama, where he worked as an actor and director.
Over the past 10 years, executive artistic director Raymond Bobgan has expanded this mission. “We want people to leave CPT feeling like they have seen something extraordinary – something that they couldn’t have witnessed anywhere else in the region.” The CPT believes that theater can be at the center of community dialogue and, notes Bobgan, “personal transformation.”
2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights
216-932-6838 or dobama.org
Founded in 1959 by Donald and Marilyn Bianchi, Barry Silverman and Mark Silverberg, Dobama Theatre has worked consistently to produce innovative plays of consequence.
The vast majority of the theater’s productions are regional, American or world premieres of the best contemporary plays by established and emerging playwrights.
“We honestly don’t go out of our way to do ‘edgy’ material, whatever that means,” says artistic director Nathan Motta. “However, if the material is something that might challenge our audiences – that is, if it’s thought-provoking, moving and relevant, with strong dialogue, layered characters and a unique or interesting premise – that work is certainly not something we’re going to shy away from.”
Since its origin, Dobama has always taken risks and, according to Motta, “asked its audiences to take the risk with us. This is an artistic decision we make knowing full well that it may prove challenging in terms of marketing, and in some cases, selling tickets.” CV