Learning Experiences: Cincy Shakes and Xavier Theater Collaborate

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is partnering with the theater program at Xavier University to stage Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. (Oct. 25- Nov. 3; tickets are $15-$30; 513-745-3939.) This came about because Stephen Skiles, who heads XU’s theater

Oct 16, 2013 at 8:22 am
click to enlarge 'The Crucible' at Xavier University
'The Crucible' at Xavier University

It’s been a long time since I graduated from Oberlin, but I vividly remember performing in a college production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. It was my last time onstage (I discovered my limitations early). As Baptista, I was the hapless father of strong-willed Katherine, played by Julie Taymor, then 17, who went on to greater things, including creating the Broadway hit musical The Lion King. That was memorable, to be sure (at least in retrospect), but perhaps the best part of the experience for me and other young actors was that the director hired a professional to play Petruchio. His name was Richard Fancy. (Decades later he was Mr. Lippman on Seinfeld, Elaine Benes’ first publisher.) Working with Fancy was an eye-opening experience; one that gave all of us a deeper appreciation of what it takes to make a living as a performer.

I’ve been reminded of this recently because Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is partnering with the theater program at Xavier University to stage Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. (Oct. 25- Nov. 3; tickets are $15-$30; 513-745-3939.) This came about because Stephen Skiles, who heads XU’s theater program, is friends with Brian Isaac Phillips, CSC’s artistic director. Skiles was an acting intern at the Cincinnati Playhouse 16 years ago when Phillips was recruited to fill out a cast. (He was an intern then, too, working at Ensemble Theatre.) Now that they’re both running theater programs, they’ve been eager to explore collaboration.

“Stephen wanted to get his students more involved in Cincinnati’s professional theater scene,” Phillips told me recently. CSC produces classic works, but some simply don’t fit comfortably in the company’s small Race Street space; XU’s Gallagher Student Center Theatre seats 350, almost twice as many, and it offers an expansive proscenium stage. “I’ve been hoping to stage The Crucible for years, but it requires a big cast,” Phillips adds. “Filling roles with professionals and students was a great solution.” Coincidentally, CSC’s current production, Of Mice and Men, didn’t need several of the company’s female actors, so they were available for Miller’s female-heavy cast. Additionally, because XU’s students required an evening rehearsal schedule, that opened up availability to several area professional actors, including Bruce Cromer, who teaches acting at Wright State University.

Cromer, seen regularly at the Cincinnati Playhouse as Ebenezer Scrooge, will be Thomas Danforth, the strict judge at the Salem Witch Trials. The cast includes Cincinnati Entertainment Awards Hall of Fame actress Dale Hodges as Rebecca Nurse, and ETC regulars Michael Bath and Torie Wiggins as Francis Nurse and Tituba. Phillips has engaged four members of his CSC acting company: Sara Clark as the vindictive teenager Abigail Williams; Brent Vimtrup and Kelly Mengelkoch will be John Proctor and his virtuous wife Elizabeth, the victims of Abigail’s accusations; Billy Chace is Giles Corey. Phillips is directing, and he convinced Skiles to play the self-centered minister, Rev. Samuel Parris. 

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Phillips says. “It’s fascinating to watch the students rising to the challenge of working onstage with professionals. They get to see what it takes to make a career as an actor: running lines, doing vocal warm-ups, preparing for a scene. They can see how this is a challenging occupation.” He also mentioned that the CSC actors have had to adjust to a larger theater with different acoustics, so it’s been a learning experience for them, too.

It’s worth noting that the drama program at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music produced The Crucible earlier this month, but with an all-student cast. That presents a different kind of challenge and experience. The XU production will feature a cast of age-appropriate performers, an experience that collegiate productions can only infrequently offer to actors in training.

Phillips himself is bringing a different perspective to the work. He has not staged Miller’s show previously, but he’s seen numerous productions. “Coming to it later in life, I’m realizing how John Proctor is challenged to teach his children to walk in the world,” he says. Phillips, now the father of two, says this gives him insights that he would not have had earlier in his career.

Phillips and Skiles are taking a cautious first-step with The Crucible. They negotiated a contract with Actors’ Equity Association, the professional union, to pay actors fairly but not exorbitantly. Their expectations for attendance are modest. I suspect this will be a well-received production, both educationally and aesthetically, and I hope it succeeds. It’s enough to make me want to be back in college.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]