Cincinnati Theaters Look to Life After Coronavirus

“The show must go on” is a theater truism. And it will. But our theaters need our support, morally and financially, during this challenging time.

click to enlarge L to R: Jay Wade (Omari) and Sharrell D. Luckett (Nya) in "Pipeline" at Ensemble Theatre - Photo: Ryan Kurtz
Photo: Ryan Kurtz
L to R: Jay Wade (Omari) and Sharrell D. Luckett (Nya) in "Pipeline" at Ensemble Theatre

On March 11, I attended opening night of Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. It’s an important story about the tragic phenomenon by which young black men act out and end up incarcerated. As luck would have it, that fine performance was also closing night. The next day, D. Lynn Meyers, ETC’s producing artistic director, decided that coronavirus news was dire enough to cause audiences to stay away, so she voluntarily shut down the show.

That same day Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the shutdown of theaters and other venues to limit the spread of the virus.

Three actors in Pipeline at Ensemble were from elsewhere: Columbus, Louisville and Atlanta. They were willing to stick around, but as things got worse, it became apparent there would be a long wait. Meyers fully paid out their contracts, as if they had performed the show’s entire run through April 4.

“It was the right thing to do,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “This wasn’t their fault.”

But ETC could not afford to house them without ticket revenue.

Meyers hopes things can return to normal sooner rather than later, making it possible to reopen Pipeline in mid-May. That would mean moving the next show, Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 (scheduled for April 22-May 16), to a later date. The story of a woman who played a role in discovering the double-helix structure of DNA was already cast. But it’s still a guess as to whether Pipeline or Photograph 51 will be onstage at ETC.

Meyers has indefinitely postponed the show she intended as the season finale, 20th Century Blues (planned for June 3-27). To produce it over the summer would interfere with preparations for the 2020-2021 season, opening in September.

Meyers planned to announce that next season on March 18. Seventy-five percent of ETC’s subscribers have already renewed, and Meyers feels she owes them her best efforts.

“When that many people trust me, I can’t let them down,” she says.

click to enlarge D. Lynn Meyers - Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
D. Lynn Meyers

She’s already assembled a fine lineup of the shows, including a world premiere and a recent Pulitzer Prize winner.

“But I have to figure out how this season’s finances will impact the next season. This changes everything,” she says.

Two previously announced shows are set: in October she’ll stage Jeffrey Hatcher’s Three Viewings (which ETC produced in 1997; Hatcher is updating the script for Meyers); for the holidays, she plans the fifth iteration of one of ETC’s family-oriented fairy tale musicals, Sleeping Beauty. Until the dust settles, Meyers feels it would be premature to announce productions that might not be feasible.

Meyers has a more immediate concern: sustaining ETC’s professional team. On March 18, she told the staff to stay home unless absolutely necessary. Three-quarters of them turned up the next day.

“It reaffirms their love for the job and their devotion to the organization,” she says. “But now we’ve turned off the heat and locked the doors.”

The staff continues to be paid and benefits covered, but that can’t go on forever.

“We are in this together,” she says, “but a furlough might be necessary. We’re working to keep health insurance and such.”

It’s a draining time for theaters everywhere, as she has learned from communications with other theaters, locally and nationally, and professional organizations. “We’re all going through the same thing,” she says. She adds wistfully, “It’s hard to be called non-essential when we know we are essential.”

Theater is about connections and when “social distancing” is the norm, that’s not possible. To keep ETC top of mind, Meyers is considering posting online videos of several 10-minute plays by local playwrights around the theme of “justice” that the theater produced to a sold-out audience back in February. She’s mapping out another set of scripts on the theme of “courage,” works written specifically for the theater’s young apprentice actors.

Elsewhere, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park has canceled its production of Anna Ziegler’s Actually. Dates for Murder on the Orient Express and Becoming Dr. Ruth are now TBD. Artistic Director Blake Robison has announced that local playwrights — Caroline Stine, Trey Tatum, Paul Strickland, Torie Wiggins, Joseph McDonough, Jennifer Joplin and Darnell Pierre Benjamin — are writing short monologues on the theme of “hope” to be posted online weekly.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company canceled the balance of its season: Hamlet (April 10-May 9) and Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will (May 22-June 14) will not be staged.

Know Theatre canceled its season-ending production of Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth and is focused on online offerings, “Know To Go.” The theater briefly made available (for $15) a video of Audrey Cefaly’s Alabaster, its production cut short by the health crisis. Response was surprisingly strong.

Next, Know is rolling out videos of two past productions for $10 rentals: Andy’s House of [blank] (2015), a time-traveling musical by Fringe favorites Paul Strickland and Trey Tatum, and Darkest Night at the Gnarly Stump (2016), an Appalachian ghost-story folk musical by Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, with original songs by Strickland. Check for details.

No word yet from Know about the 2020 Cincinnati Fringe, but if you’re eager for the kind of material that happens annually in June, check out an online offering of shows from top Fringe talent — 10 acts, each about an hour for $29.95. (Individual acts can be rented for $7.99 each.) Ninety percent of proceeds go back to performers.

One of pieces is Will Carlisle’s There Ain’t No More, seen here in Cincinnati during the 2019 Fringe. It’s about an old Folk singer confronting his troubled past, his legacy and death itself. Carlisle plays five instruments, uses square-dance calling and tells a few dirty jokes. It won “Best Show” awards at recent Orlando and Edmonton fringe festivals.

“The show must go on” is a theater truism. And it will. But our theaters need our support, morally and financially, during this challenging time. 

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