Gems of the Neighborhood

Despite tough economic times, Over-the-Rhine's theater companies continue to breathe life into the neighborhood's bricks and mortar

Our current economic downturn springs from many interconnected sources and has far-reaching consequences. So does the rebirth of a neighborhood.

There’s no single cause for renewed interest in Over-the-Rhine and no single reason why more people are living, working, going to school, shopping and spending free time there. After countless studies and false starts, progress is finally taking hold in the neighborhood.

The Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) has bought up and rehabbed dozens of residential properties and hopes to make Washington Park a safe community gathering place again, supporting Music Hall across the street. The massive new School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) rises across a different street from the park.

The Gateway Quarter has attracted locally-owned independent businesses around 12th and Vine streets, an area anchored by the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Each business feeds off of and depends on the others.

The city of Cincinnati pursues a streetcar line that literally and figuratively could tie everything together. Under the plan, the Gateway Quarter, SCPA, Music Hall and Washington Park would be connected to the riverfront and stadiums to the south and Findlay Market, UC and Clifton to the north.

And throughout this process, as corporate and government interests rub up against the neighborhood’s nonprofit social services, the buzz has been about “mixed incomes.” Meaning that everyone with a role to play in the neighborhood seemingly has agreed that cooperation — instead of go-it-alone efforts — will make Over-the-Rhine a thriving community again. Seemingly.

After all, apartment buildings, storefronts and restaurant spaces are just brick shells until someone moves in and fills the place with life. Life is what turns a collection of buildings, sidewalks and streets into a neighborhood; it gives the place soul, a purpose, meaning.

When Over-the-Rhine was first established, the neighborhood was salted with cultural institutions like Music Hall and small theaters. When the area struggled to find its purpose and meaning, these arts organizations provided the soul. And as Over-the-Rhine strives to rehab historic buildings and fill them with life, its arts organizations continue to spark the revival.

The neighborhood’s professional theater companies — Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC), Know Theatre of Cincinnati and New Stage Collective — had a thrilling year artistically in 2008. They offered shows that spoke to issues of the day, and they brought tens of thousands of visitors to Over-the-Rhine, most of them the young professional types city leaders seem to covet.

And yet, as the economy tumbled, the nonprofit theaters struggled along with the rest of us. Know cut a production from its season, and both Know and ETC slowed down capital campaigns and expansions. Staff positions were eliminated or went unfilled.

These theater companies are the breath of life for Over-the-Rhine’s collection of new condos and shops, the CPR that keeps the brick and mortar beating. They form an amazing roster of arts organizations situated in the neighborhood along with the Symphony, Opera and May Festival companies at Music Hall, the Art Academy, SCPA and art galleries on and around Main Street.

Thankfully, in a tough economy that shrinks the margin of error for running a nonprofit arts organization to almost nothing, leaders of these theaters remained focused on serving their artistic mission and their community.

Jason Bruffy, Know’s artistic director, oversaw another successful Cincy Fringe Festival in June and has made the festival a cornerstone of the local arts scene in just five years. Alan Patrick Kenny, artistic director of New Stage Collective, staged one of the year’s most controversial shows, Jerry Springer: The Opera, which won Best Local Premiere at the 2008 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. And just this week D. Lynn Meyers, ETC’s producing artistic director, opens Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson, whom she calls “one of the best African-American writers who ever lived.”

For their long track record of serving Over-the-Rhine (ETC has been there for 23 years, Know for 12), their dedication to thought-provoking artistic work and their perseverance in face of economic difficulties and general apathy from the powers-that-be, CityBeat names Bruffy, Kenny and Meyers our 2008 Persons of the Year.

I recently interviewed them about their experiences in 2008 — Bruffy and Meyers in person, Kenny by e-mail — and how they’re approaching the new year and beyond.

[See related editorial "Performances of a Lifetime" here.] 

[See Rick Pender's preview of ETC's Gem of the Ocean here, his preview of New Stage's Dead City here and his review of Know's I Love You Because here.]

CityBeat: How has the economic downturn impacted your theater companies?

Jason Bruffy: It’s a challenging time because people are hanging on to their expendable cash on both the contributed side and the ticket-buying side. For organizations with large endowments, it’s kind of a tough time but not a detrimental time. If you look around the country, any company that’s carried any kind of debt is going down very quickly. And major institutions.

Alan Patrick Kenny: The downturn’s most immediate effect is the fact that even people whose personal employment or income situation haven’t changed are nonetheless cutting back on their discretionary spending. It’s true that art and theater are absolute necessities, especially in dark political and economic times, but individuals have reacted to troubling economic forecasts by cutting perceived luxuries from personal budgets.

Lynn Meyers: Where we’ve seen it is much more on the donor side. We don’t have an endowment. ETC has been here 23 years, and I don’t have anything to back up. The attendance has been really strong this season, and that’s good, because you always want to get your earned income portion up so you don’t have to rely on the kindness of strangers. But it’s going to be a harder environment in this second half of the season because you just feel that people are pulling in with their money.

I believe our audiences really value us and genuinely put us as a priority and we are part of what they budget their expenditures to be. They’ve been very, very loyal. But no nonprofit organization can survive strictly on through-the-door ticket income.

Bruffy: Most of us are balancing anywhere between 40 and 60 percent of the budget on contributed dollars. Hopefully closer to 40 but sometimes it’s 60. When you split it that way, contributed dollars become dramatically important.

Kenny: We feel very strongly the impact of decreasing contributed revenue. Funders are giving less — and less often — to many nonprofits, and we’re no exception. We’ve been extremely grateful for the generous support of foundations and individuals who believe in our mission. Without their support, we couldn’t sustain the Collective when ticket sales fall.

CB: Given the importance of sponsorships and donations to your budgets, how has the economic downturn impacted this area?

Bruffy: It’s interesting that the nature of this city is that financial support for the arts doesn’t come from the corporate leaders and doesn’t come from the city itself, especially now. Although we have a wealth of arts and quality that’s comparable on a per capita basis to cities much larger, yet the city never claims us. Not the city itself or the corporate leaders. It’s the private institutions that support us, like the Fine Arts Fund, and it’s these people like Otto Budig, the Rosenthals and David Herriman who believe that the city needs to have these cultural institutions to be up to its potential.

Meyers: You hope you build a donor base from your subscriber base and your patron base, and that’s a gradual process. It almost feels like it’s skipped a generation. We do get some donations from our subscribers who renew, $25, $50, $100. Sometimes they’ll round up their subscription fees. That’s a really cool donor. That’s someone who, when they make more money and reach their fifties and sixties or whatever, those dollars will probably get more zeroes at the end.

But in the meantime there’s that generation that’s kind of passing out of the giving process and the younger generation coming up that’s just starting to invest, but there’s a kind of void in the middle. Now seems to be the hardest time ever for those givers because those middle people, the Boomers, were taught to invest in the stock market and funds and rely on their 401k plans and all these things that have gone belly up. It’s a very hard, weird climate for giving to the arts. It’s a climate I certainly never saw before.

CB: How do you balance artistic vision with the reality of a down economy?

Bruffy: Part of the concern now is next season. This is the time of year you start to recommit your sponsors and donors for next season. Many of the people who already committed aren’t in the same place financially they were last year when they committed. We haven’t had anyone pull necessarily, but we have had people say that going into next season it’s going to be a different game for them.

Meyers: Going into this season, people were already saying, “Well, I can do this amount this season, but I don’t know about next year.” You try to ask for two- or three-year commitments. There are very, very few of those multi-year commitments now.

Kenny: As a theater company with audacious ambitions and a very small budget, we really don’t have any room to make significant cuts. At the same time we can’t afford to cut artistic corners. I say this because the artistic product is paramount, and offering high quality theater to Cincinnati is our one goal.

Meyers: I’ll be honest and say we’re also show-to-show in that you depend on the attendance numbers to stay up and depend on the sponsorship dollars for each production to stay up and you have to spend money ahead for the next show so you have to have the cash flow constantly coming in. As people get more and more cautious, they might not send something they sent in the past and might not buy a six-ticket Flex Pass but instead buy tickets show to show. They still come, but you don’t have that money in the hand from the advance sale.

Bruffy: You might not be converting people from a small-dollar donor to a larger donor or getting single-ticket buyers to become subscribers.

Kenny: We rely on volunteer support for administrative duties. We conduct an astonishing amount of marketing design, artist hospitality and front-of-house accommodations in a do-it-yourself fashion. We won’t compromise on the integrity of the work we choose or on paying artists, actors and directors. So we rely on the generosity and dedication of our volunteers, friends, donors and the community to sustain the company as long as possible.

Meyers: Isn’t it ironic that in a time when organizations like ETC, Know and New Stage that have believed in this neighborhood and have stood our ground through some really rough times, what, now the economy is going to punch us? Excuse me?

CB: How is the latest “rebirth of Over-the-Rhine” helping your situations?

Meyers: You wanted a place to eat around here? OK, now there are places to eat. There are places to drink. You can even drink right at Know Theatre. It’s just like this big sucker punch. Someone said to me years ago when I first got down here at ETC on Vine Street, “What, are you going to change the neighborhood?” And I was like, “Yeah, because if we stay we will. If we stay open and strong, we will.” And then other people came in and they were great partners and stayed.

Bruffy: There was an article recently in another newspaper in this town that had something to do with Over-the-Rhine (The Enquirer’s Jan. 25 package “A Rare Chance to Remake Over-the-Rhine”), and they didn’t mention the arts except for the new SCPA. I look at ETC, and they’ve been a major anchor in this neighborhood for a long time and have survived and have been dedicated to helping improve this neighborhood.

Meyers: We weren’t even on the map. The Emery Theatre isn’t open, and it was on the map. It does get a little old.

CB: Do those of you who have been in Over-the-Rhine for a while feel a real sense of community?

Meyers: Talking about the new, wonderful people who are in Over-the-Rhine is great. God bless them, and we need them. But between ETC and Know, we have 35 years in Over-the-Rhine. And if you add in the few years that New Stage has been on Main Street and you add in, I don’t consider Cincinnati Shakespeare to be removed from this area, but they’ve been downtown for 15 years. And it’s these theaters that are keeping the parking garages and the surface lots and Lavomatic and all these places full on a nightly basis.

Bruffy: The new business owners, shop owners, restaurant owners, the people who are investing their own money and time on Vine Street are insanely helpful and supportive. We work together well, because they recognize our mutual need for each other. They need us as much as we need them, and together we create a healthy environment. Marilyn and Martin Wade (owners of Lavomatic) are gracious and generous and recognize the mutual relationships. We needed a restaurant down here desperately, and now we have a beautiful one.

Meyers: It would be great to have two or three more restaurants, and they’re coming. The folks at Metronation and Park and Vine and other spots are always selling the fact that you can go here for a show, and they often coordinate their hours to coincide with our show schedules.

I would say it’s a stronger sense of community than it’s ever been. I always hear about the old days in Over-the-Rhine, way way back, about what a tight community it was, what a melting pot it was. It certainly feels that way now. It’s cool to be able to go next door and buy salt from the plant store, and it was great to be able to have organic chocolate on Valentine’s Day from Park and Vine. That part of the puzzle in Over-the-Rhine is really good. And there’s a lot of well-intentioned collaborative spirit among arts groups here. None of think that if one succeeds the rest of us won’t. That’s just silly.

CB: What about your relationships with the developers in Over-the-Rhine?

Bruffy: We know who the key people are who are working to develop the area, we see them around. But I’ve never seen Steve Leeper (of 3CDC) at one of my shows.

Meyers: No, I’ve never seen him in my building. I’ve seen him at Coffee Emporium. We sit in on those merchants meetings, we need to, so we hear things. But no direct contact from anyone from anyone at 3CDC.

Bruffy: The guys who have been investing in the neighborhood for long periods of time before the whole 3CDC project got off the ground, like Rick Kimbler and Bill Baum, they’ve always recognized our contributions. Beyond that, no.

You see what the powers-that-be think. They don’t even put us on their maps. But you look at other major cities, if they had two theaters within a block of each other, that would be a major selling point of trying to sell these lofts and condos. You go to Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Atlanta, you see how they sell their arts.

Meyers: You would hope that when the streetcar line happens here, right up from us (on 12th Street), our theaters would be a really cool stop along the route.

But it’s like Death of a Salesman, you know, “Attention must be paid!” You just want to be recognized for being part of the change. I think the public does, the patrons do. Patrons are far more willing now to journey out and see other theaters and art galleries and explore this neighborhood.

Bruffy: I’ll be on the phone talking to someone new who’s never been to Know Theatre and I’ll ask them, “Well, do you know where Ensemble Theatre is?” and they’ll say, “Yeah.” I’ll say, “We’re just a block over,” and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s a fine neighborhood. It’s OK.”

Meyers: A lot of times people will come in and they actually want to be at Know, and we’ll say, “They’re just over on the other side of that parking garage.” I understand that a lot of the push from the corporate leaders and 3CDC has been about putting bodies in Over-the-Rhine via condos and fixing up the storefronts, and I think that’s really really important. It’s just that it’s nice to be acknowledged for what we contribute.

CB: Acknowledgment would be nice, but more importantly the city continues to miss opportunities to promote the arts scene in Over-the-Rhine.

Bruffy: When you look around the country at the successful cities — Portland, San Francisco, Seattle — it’s the mixed income areas that are thriving the most. If you can work to keep the community that’s already existed and add to that with new development to bring us all up, that’s where it’s worked. I assume the city planners here are paying attention to those success stories. The diversity is what makes those cities beautiful and why everyone wants to live there.

Meyers: At the core of all of that are thriving arts. Every one of those cities has a thriving, vital, eclectic arts scene. They embrace their arts scenes.

I’ve gotten the same email that’s going around about Obama’s inauguration, a lifetime event, a phenomenal event no matter what your political beliefs are. And what was part of that event? Music, poetry, singing, cello and violin. And so if the arts aren’t important to the fiber of our country, then why on one of the biggest days in our history were they in the forefront? Yeah, that’s America. If the arts weren’t important, they would have just not done them and saved some time and made more speeches. But that’s what a community does. When you have a party or a festival, there’s always music and there’s dancing.

Bruffy: Well, that’s how we define ourselves, by our cultural identity. Cincinnati is always sending people to other cities to find out how they got it right, how they created such a strong cultural identity for their specific city. But we have everything we need right here.

CB: How does being right here in Over-the-Rhine affect your artistic vision?

Bruffy: I think we all recognize that the success of this neighborhood is based on the mixed backgrounds, the mixed incomes, the mixed demographics. The diversity of everything that Cincinnati stands for happens right here in Over-the-Rhine.

Meyers: I think our audiences look like a snapshot of Cincinnati. You come into our houses any night, and I think you see a really cool mixed group of people that maybe wouldn’t come together on another occasion for another reason, and that’s special.

How absurd is it to be in a city that’s almost 50 percent African American and not celebrate one of the best African-American writers who ever lived? You have a responsibility. And it’s not easy. Gem of the Ocean isn’t a toe-tapper sing-along for the middle of winter. It’s brilliant writing.

But you have a responsibility to talk with your community. Know and New Stage do shows dealing with war and urban issues, and you have to realize you’re in the middle of these issues and this neighborhood. And then you change shows as you think ahead to what people are going to be dealing with.

Kenny: We need art now to comfort us and to disquiet us. I hope as a society we can afford to remember the simple truth that art is necessary for understanding our humanity, that art must endure. Even uncertain times can’t change the certain truth that art is who we are.

CB: How does the news of the day — from the financial meltdown to Barack Obama’s election — inform your artistic choices?

Bruffy: We looked at our season and how the times were developing, and of course we changed a few things to ensure the rest of our schedule more possible to accomplish, but we decided not to change our focus. The biggest thing we’re looking for right now — and I think the biggest thing the general community is looking for — is some idea of hope. I don’t think audiences are afraid of challenging work or intense work or emotional work as long as you leave them in a place of hope. It sounds cliche that after Obama’s presidential platform of hope and after the great movie Milk, with his “You gotta give them hope” slogan, but that concept is so important right now.

It’s one of the reasons I stuck with Eurydice and Vigils (for later this season), because they’ll take you on an emotional rollercoaster but in the end there’s a sense of hope the audience is left with. Our company, which is still a young company, has finally begun to mature into the realization that it’s something you have to give over to your audience when they ask for it.

Meyers: The season isn’t ever really about what I want or what someone wants to do here. It’s about what the community needs. Themes have always been really important to why we do a season, and planning those themes is critical.

Sometimes a powerful dramatic show can be as much of a cathartic hopeful release for an audience as some fluffy piece. We’re not too fluffy. When I look at Gem of the Ocean I didn’t know last year when we picked it that Obama would be president when it’s running. Those are the kinds of things you get ecstatic about. But you get ecstatic knowing you chose it because it was the right thing to do for the community.

Kenny: Art carries even more gravity of meaning during these times. It’s about the world we’re living in, the fears we share, the hopes we all work to realize. Art is fantasy and reality. It reflects and interprets our culture.

Art isn’t just entertainment — it’s enlightenment and understanding. It’s cultural currency, the stuff of our collective contemporary intellect and heart. It’s our society’s IQ.

Meyers: Speaking just for me, I can’t select shows because I’m sure they’ll bring bucks in the door from ticket sales. I couldn’t have been more surprised at some of the shows that sold well and some things that haven’t.

I think a regional theater’s mission is to address its region, and our region starts with Over-the-Rhine and then goes outward. There is a difference in being in Over-the-Rhine. Because we’re such a slice of all that’s cool about Cincinnati, I think we can be pretty brave and have an acceptance factor that maybe we wouldn’t have in another neighborhood. I believe that.

Where we are has certainly dictated what we’ve done on stage. If we’d been in a different location, there are probably plays I would have done and plays I wouldn’t have done.

CB: You’ve talked about how the neighborhood impacts your theater. How do you impact Over-the-Rhine?

Meyers: We’re not indentured servants. We don’t have to live our lives here. We chose Cincinnati and chose to be part of the arts in Cincinnati. Those are choices. It’s not because we didn’t have other intelligent options.

Bruffy: It’s because of the opportunities that were here. It’s the opportunity to do what we do and be successful at it, which means we’re embraced by the people of Cincinnati. Success to us is having lots of people come through our doors to see what we’re doing.

Meyers: And know the effect our sustainability has had on the neighborhood. Even if it’s not talked about, we know it. We know that a major reason the Art Academy came down to Over-the-Rhine was because it would be near us. We know that SCPA looking at that block on Central Parkway represents a phenomenal investment in Over-the-Rhine. They could have taken that school somewhere else.

It’s a good moment when your audiences who have stuck with you all those years through the rough times now get to come down to a nicer neighborhood. It’s just hard sometimes when the news stories are like, “Wow, this is a ‘discovered country,’ ” when you’ve sort of been squatters in that country for a long time. We discovered Over-the-Rhine a long time ago.

CB: How do you attract new audiences and new financial support?

Meyers: The people interested in the arts are here. We just have to reach them. I’ve had audience members say to me, “Well, first you have to invite me. How do I know you’re there if you don’t invite me?” One of the main things that city leaders can do for us is to celebrate and include the thriving organizations that were in Over-the-Rhine before 3CDC arrived and acknowledge that we’re still here and still trying.

In a time when funds are being put into new and interesting and fabulously important development, it would be nice to feel support too. And we need that support, not because we’ve done anything wrong or bad. But if you want to keep things flourishing and keep people coming into the neighborhood, then you would think that on any given night among these three theaters there are 300 or more people coming into the area because there’s a destination for them. I would just like to see that celebrated.

No one asked us to set up shop here, and no one made us have theaters here. And I don’t think a lot of the activity and shops would be popping up around here if we hadn’t already proven that people would come here to see our shows.

CB: The mainstream media, including that recent Enquirer article, note that crime is down in Over-the-Rhine. Obviously that fact must help your companies.

Meyers: We used to hire two or three police officers every night for our shows to make our patrons feel safe. Now we have just one. Our officer says he used to always know watching people walk down the street who was an ETC or a Know person. He says, “I used to be able to tell who was coming to our show. Now I don’t know any more.” And that’s great.

It’s because there are more people on the street doing different things. I used to say to him, as we were ready to start a show, “Are there any more people coming?” And he could tell me there were people coming down the street headed to the theater. Now I ask and he says, “Well, there are people outside, but I don’t know where they’re going.” Now he can’t spot the stray theater-goer on the street any more, because there are more people going to more places. That’s a clear sign of growth.

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