incinnati Shakespeare Company has announced plans for a new $17-million theater at the intersection of 12th and Elm streets in Over-the-Rhine, across from the southeast corner of Washington Park. This new facility will add heft to a neighborhood already ripe with culture — just south of historic Memorial Hall and Music Hall and east of the School for Creative and Performing Arts, where young artistic talent is trained and nurtured. Now the district will be enhanced in 2017 with the arrival of Cincinnati’s classical theater company.
In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare wrote, “Be not afraid of greatness.” He added, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” Cincy Shakes has perhaps done all three. The “thrust” of this new project will mean better experiences for both audiences and actors.
What’s known today as Cincinnati Shakespeare Company began in 1993 as the Fahrenheit Theatre Company. A group of Ensemble Theatre interns and some college friends founded it. They offered new and classic works, particularly plays by Shakespeare. The group’s first season at Gabriel’s Corner, a church basement at Liberty and Sycamore in OTR, included productions of Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar. Fahrenheit subsequently performed in Covington in the rundown theater at The Carnegie before it was renovated. In 1996, the company landed in downtown Cincinnati in the Fifth Third Bank Theater at the new Aronoff Center.
In short order, Fahrenheit narrowed its focus to classic works, changed its name to Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival and, in 1998, moved to 719 Race St., the one-time home of The Movies Repertory Cinema. The name was changed to Cincinnati Shakespeare Company in 2006. In two decades, it performed every one of Shakespeare’s 38 plays, a feat accomplished by just five theaters in the United States. So they have indeed achieved greatness.
Now it seems Cincy Shakes will have greatness “thrust upon them” with a new building on a corner in OTR once inhabited by the Drop Inn Center. (It relocated its facilities for the homeless to Queensgate in September 2015.) “Thrust” is again the operative word, especially since the new theater’s centerpiece will be a 244-seat thrust stage (up from 150 seats in the Race Street location).
Executive director Jay Woffington says this move is something they’ve contemplated for several years. “We’ve been at operational capacity for quite a while,” he says. “We use our existing space 350 days per year. There’s always something happening — an acting class, an educational matinee, an evening performance or a rehearsal.” Approximately two-thirds of the company’s recent performances have sold out. “We played to 90 percent of our capacity last season,” Woffington says.
The company’s rented space, designed for movies, has numerous structural drawbacks for live performances. “Limited height, width and no real backstage,” says Producing Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips, who’s worked there for 13 years. “It’s hard to be ‘epic’ with such limited space. Race Street has forced us to be creative, but we’ve had to work within limitations.”
After considering three-dozen locations, Woffington, Phillips and a committee of board and community members identified the OTR location as ideal. The former Teamsters Headquarters on 12th Street (which was part of the Drop Inn Center) will be converted into offices, costume and scene shops, dressing rooms and so on. The building on the corner of Elm and 12th streets will be demolished to make way for a two-story structure with glass facades offering views of Washington Park. The city’s Historic Review board approved the design on Nov. 9 by a 4-1 vote.
Inside will be a theater inspired by classical stages elsewhere. Woffington says sustaining the Race Street theater’s intimacy in the new space is a priority. “Instead of the 14 rows we have now, there will be just six, wrapping around the thrust stage,” he says. “The rear wall will be just 20 feet from the stage, rather than 46.” The configuration of seats will still permit action in the aisles, and the space’s 30-foot width means patrons can see each other across the thrust.
“We’ll expand our total footprint from 17,000 to 28,000 square feet, and almost double our seating capacity,” Woffington continues. More space means greater flexibility: Instead of offering related shows in sequence — for instance, this season’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra — they could be staged in rep, moving scenery on and off the stage on alternating nights. At Race Street, Phillips jokes, “There’s no room for Egypt backstage.” The stage will have a full trap room, enabling sunken areas or the grave scene in Hamlet. The theater will have a single-row balcony (seating approximately 40) with acting locations for shows such as Romeo and Juliet.
Phillips is excited about the opportunities to collaborate with other arts organizations. He mentions the newly established Diogenes Theatre Company, for which he has directed and which has provided more opportunities for the company’s full-time actors. “This could be a place where start-ups gravitate, and rentals will be possible, especially for our second-floor rehearsal and educational space,” he says.
At first, Phillips imagines productions will still be presented Thursday through Sunday, with 90 more seats to sell per evening than at Race Street. Eventually shows could be added earlier in the week as demand grows.
Construction will begin in April and take 14 months, finished in time to launch a new season in September 2017, around the same time Music Hall reopens after its extensive renovation.
New Market tax credits managed by the Cincinnati Development Fund provided significant funds for this project. “This fits perfectly with our vision to realize an arts district around Washington Park,” says President and CEO Jeanne Golliher. “We understand the positive impact the arts have in building community. We believe Cincinnati Shakespeare is the perfect organization to welcome into the OTR Arts District — they are a regional destination, and they make important contributions to the community through education and outreach.”
CINCINNATI SHAKESPEARE COMPANY’s new theater is expected to open for the 2017-2018 season. For more information about the company’s current productions, visit cincyshakes.com.