“I love theater,” says Ed Stern, producing artistic director at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park for 20 seasons. He’s been responsible for more than 200 productions during his tenure, remarkably long for an arts leader. When he came to town in 1992, things were in disarray.
“The theater had financial difficulties and decreasing subscriptions, and quality was a fairly mixed bag,” Stern says.
His challenge was to raise the bar artistically.
“You either produce really high-quality work that people want to see, or they don’t come,” he says.
Working with Executive Director Buzz Ward, finances were stabilized, but even with the right leadership, there was no absolute guarantee of success. Ten years is a long run for the artistic director of a theater, and Stern, a native New Yorker, arrived in conservative Cincinnati in the wake of the Mapplethorpe controversy at the Contemporary Arts Center.
“Cincinnati had such a black eye in the cultural community,” Stern recalls. “My friends in New York took bets as to how long I would stay. After two years, everyone had lost their bet.”
And after two decades and two Tony Awards, who remembers? Stern is not profoundly philosophical about his success.
“My first principle is not rocket science,” he says. “I absolutely have to believe in a show. If I think it’s going to make a lot of money but personally I think the play is dreadful, I’ve made a major mistake.”
Shows he’s chosen are not necessarily the greatest plays ever written, an approach that would be limiting, he believes.
“A play like Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is not the greatest drama, but of its genre, it’s one of the best plays I know,” he says. “So I believe there’s a reason to do it. I liken a season to a roller-coaster ride with lots of twists and turns and loop-the-loops. I don’t ever want people to say, ‘Oh, didn’t you do that play last year?’ There are too many plays out there for us to repeat ourselves.’ ”
That led to an increasing commitment to new work as Stern’s tenure lengthened. He felt his audience was with him.
“It wasn’t me pushing people along,” he says. “I don’t think that ever really works. I need an audience wanting to go with me on a journey.”
In his 2009-2010 season, the Playhouse’s 50th anniversary year, five of the 10 the plays Stern produced were new works. “Are they all going to take root?” he says. “I don’t know. But I knew they were good, high-quality work.”
Despite this commitment to new work, Stern chose to stage a classic romantic comedy for his final directorial assignment. He wanted to conclude with a production in the Shelterhouse, the historic Cincinnati Park building where the Playhouse was born. In a nanosecond, he realized it should be Shakespeare’s As You Like It (read review here).
“I don’t know a better play about life and love,” he says. “I wanted to leave the playhouse in terms of my directing with a show that is so positive, so sweet.”
He recalls the show’s opening night last week. A couple asked if Stern wanted to know what they thought of his production. Of course he was eager to hear. She grabbed her husband and gave him a big kiss. He loved that review, and I suspect it’s one that most Cincinnatians would give to Ed Stern.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]