Finding a Niche in Local Theater — and Seeking More

In recent columns I surveyed Cincinnati theater companies that came and went during the past 20 years. Some stumbled because their founders had more passion than management expertise; others simply lacked the focus to keep audiences coming back. The trut

In recent columns I surveyed Cincinnati theater companies that came and went during the past 20 years. Some stumbled because their founders had more passion than management expertise; others simply lacked the focus to keep audiences coming back. The truth is it’s hard to identify a niche and settle into it. Too often, start-up theaters provide opportunities for ambitious founders to present shows they love but who fail to establish a concept that keeps audiences on the hook. They often market show-by-show rather than establishing a trusted reputation that tells audiences what to expect. 

The Cincinnati Playhouse has a solid history, more than a half-century of productions and affirmation with a 2004 Tony Award as an outstanding regional theater. With two stages and a multimillion-dollar budget, the Playhouse can offer well-produced shows, comedies and dramas, tried-and-true musicals and brand new works. But beyond Mount Adams, which theaters have made things work?

I’d cite Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, which began in 1986 to provide work for local professional actors. It had early success, but its offerings were uneven and audiences tended to buy tickets for shows rather than seasons. With the arrival in 1996 of Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers (who began her career at the Playhouse), the company began positioning itself as “Your Premiere Theatre,” the place to go for plays not previously staged locally.

Meyers doggedly pursues rights to present new works, often making ETC one of the first companies in the nation to present award-winners from New York, from Warren Leight’s Side Man (1999), the offbeat musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, 2003), Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife (2005) to the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical next to normal (2011-2012). 

ETC has had a remarkable run of well-received seasons, typically perceived as the theater serving audiences who want shows representing the best in contemporary theater. In fact, ETC subscribers faithfully renew annually, long before Meyers announces her full season of shows, a true vote of confidence.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, established in 1994, earns its vote of confidence from the other direction, relying on well-known classics, especially the works of Shakespeare. (With its staging of Two Noble Kinsmen next May, CSC will “complete the canon,” presenting all 38 of the Bard’s plays during its two decades, a feat achieved by only five other companies in the U.S.) 

But CSC wobbled seriously as its first decade concluded, offering contemporary works such as David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers (2001) and Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (2002) that didn’t interest its core audience. Beginning in 2004, under Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips (who was an ETC intern in 1998), the company began to mix Shakespearean productions with other classics, including works by American playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. That expansion took on even more range with the more recent inclusion of stage adaptations of classic works of British and American literature, such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, all of which proved to be box-office hits. The coming season launches with adaptations of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (September) and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (October).

So what niches do I yearn for? I’d like to see a professional company dedicated to minority artists. Know Theatre offers such plays occasionally, as does the non-professional Cincinnati Black Theatre Company. A company presenting works by the likes of Lorraine Hansberry, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Ntozake Shange, George C. Wolfe and August Wilson would find audiences, I believe. (A theater presenting works exclusively by female playwrights and exploring themes that are uniquely from that perspective might also find an audience, although local companies have not ignored women writers.)

I’d be interested in a company focused on recent and experimental musicals from earlier years. (Know Theater has brought such material forward with some frequency, but that’s not the company’s focus.) A series reviving “forgotten musicals” (check out the Facebook page by that name) would be of interest — although perhaps too expensive. I enjoyed the “Musicals Redux” productions in the studio series at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, but those offerings have been sporadic. Covington’s Carnegie has offered “lightly staged” musicals, mostly by Rodgers and Hammerstein, for several years. (They just announced that The Sound of Music for January 2014.) But wouldn’t it be great to see a regular series featuring shows like Working, Side Show, Li’l Abner, Of Thee I Sing and more? I’ll keep dreaming. How about you?

CONTACT RICK PENDER : [email protected]

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