Todd Almond has a history with Cincinnati. The current chapter culminates this weekend with a production of The Earth Is Flat, a play he wrote with acting students at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music in mind. Almond is a 1999 CCM grad. After graduating, he had memorable engagements playing the title role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati in 2001 and 2003.
And, coming into Cincinnati ahead of The Earth Is Flat to work with singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked on a new project, he announced at a Wednesday night performance of their new work at ETC that he will be back in June, 2018 to reprise his role as Hedwig. ETC is staging a revival from June 5 to July 1. "I'm doing it," he said to crowd cheers.
Almond has worked in New York City for many years now, expanding his multi-faceted career as a writer, musician and performer. But he never lost touch with Cincinnati. In 2016, his play Girlfriend, featuring songs by Matthew Sweet, had a well-received run at Know Theatre.
CCM drama professor Brant Russell invited him to participate in a new playwriting seminar that would put an experienced writer together with aspiring writers. “He asked if I’d be the seminar’s first playwright in 2016, and I thought that sounded great,” Almond says. “The only requirement was that it had to be a play that CCM students could act in.”
Almond thought back to his own days at UC. “I got excited about specific memories and feelings I have. This play is not autobiographical, but I plucked little things from my experience that interested me and worked them into the story. I tried to trust my emotional memories of being a student and what that felt like. It’s autobiographical emotionally but not factually.”
The play focuses on the awkwardness that permeates the college experience when young adults are searching for identity without knowing where they’re headed. He calls the story of purple-haired Ethan’s first tentative steps toward self-knowledge an “unexpected comedy.”
Ethan tells Derek, his new roommate, that his bold hair color was his sister’s idea. “That’s kind of Ethan’s way through college,” Almond says. “He gets talked into different personalities while he’s trying to figure out his own.” A tragedy back home pulls him out of college shortly after he arrives and we learn more about his background. Returning to campus he meets a young filmmaker whose conspiracy theories are played out in YouTube videos. In particular, she’s a “Flat Earther,” convinced that we’ve all been lied to our entire lives.
That’s the source of the play’s title. Ethan and Derek talk about what it would mean if the earth really were flat. Almond says these conversations focus on “what it would mean and how it would change our entire view of ourselves and each other and why we’re here. It gave me something to talk about as a metaphor for what the truth means and how it’s not a thing you can actually grasp.”
As a working theater professional in New York City, Almond has focused more on his writing and music arranging for a decade or so. But he is thinking seriously about some performing opportunities. He’s been writing plays with director Lear deBessonet at the Public Theater, musical adaptations of classic stories including Shakespeare’s The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale and Homer’s The Odyssey for presentation in the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in New York’s Central Park.
But he stays in touch with CCM and often meets theater students whenever he’s back in Cincinnati or they’re in New York. He’s especially pleased to be working again with Richard Hess, the head of CCM’s acting program who directed Almond in a central role in a 1998-99 production of Angels in America during his student days.
Almond mentions a recent email exchange with Hess about whether The Earth Is Flat might benefit from an intermission. “I thought how great that I’m having this artistic discussion with a director that I admire so much and who happens to be the head of the drama department.”
Being connected with Cincinnati continues to be an important aspect of Almond’s artistic life.
The Earth Is Flat, presented by CCM Acting at the University of Cincinnati, will be performed Thursday through Saturday. Admission is free; reservations required. More info: ccm.uc.edu. For tickets to see Almond and Michelle Shocked at Ensemble Theatre on Wednesday night (Nov. 1), visit ensemblecincinnati.org.