Once upon a time, popular theater was the realm of melodramas with dastardly villains, heroic champions and damsels in distress. New Edgecliff Theatre has experienced its own run of “perils” that seem to be the modern-day equivalent of the challenges faced in those long-ago productions. It’s not an exact correspondence, but in the process of staging nearly 70 shows since 1998, NET has experienced just about as many cliffhangers and rescues from the brink of disaster.
In spite of it all, the theater and its good-natured artistic director, Jim Stump, have survived. They’re presently rehearsing the final production of NET’s 17th season, Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, opening Thursday. Stump characterizes the company’s artistic offerings as “story-driven theater in intimate settings,” frequently presenting plays by 20th-century American playwrights.
Stump took on the artistic reins during NET’s 13th season (2010-2011). After hop-skipping around town since its founding by actor Michael Shooner to venues including the Aronoff Center’s Fifth Third Bank Theater and a spot called The Artery in Newport, NET landed at the Columbia Performance Center in 2003. The one-time church on Eastern Avenue in Columbia Tusculum was a comfortable space for the group’s low-budget productions that typically featured serious professional actors. Memorable works included Equus (2010), The Night of the Iguana (2010), the musical [title of show] (2011) and several holiday productions of The Santaland Diaries.
But during Stump’s second season, the owners of the facility unexpectedly decided to move in a new direction, and NET found itself homeless. They were back at the Aronoff’s black box for two seasons, but rental fees there were too expensive for it to become a permanent venue.
In 2014, Stump announced a partnership with the guys establishing the microbrewery now known as Urban Artifact. They first considered an old brewery building in Over-the-Rhine, but that didn’t work out.
The brewers then settled on an old church in Northside, St. Patrick’s (1660 Blue Rock Road), with an airy sanctuary that seemed like a good space for events, including theater. While the facility was being renovated, NET temporarily presented shows at Hoffner Lodge, an old upstairs Masonic hall in Northside (4120 Hamilton Ave.). They planned to move to Urban Artifact’s facility last fall.
But a few weeks before NET’s September 2015 production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune was to open, it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen. Not much had been done with the vacant sanctuary, including the necessary wiring for lights and sound. Stump scrambled and moved the production to a small black-box space at Essex Studios in Walnut Hills.
“Urban Artifact’s focus changed as to what they were going to do and how to do it,” Stump says. “They installed a brewpub downstairs with nightly music that could be heard in the sanctuary. They weren’t ready for us, and they wanted more one-offs, so scheduling was an issue. We decided to part ways amicably.”
As Stump and his small team pondered what would come next, the theater’s website (newedgecliff.com) was hacked. It’s been fixed and improved, but that was another obstacle to overcome. NET has now decided to make Hoffner Lodge its home for the foreseeable future, including for its upcoming production of LaBute’s show.
“We like Northside,” Stump says. “There are a lot of unique, locally operated businesses here — restaurants and shops for our patrons before and after shows. There’s plenty of parking, and the neighborhood is very walkable. We think the location is a good fit for what we do.”
The upcoming production of LaBute’s play features a quartet of excellent young local actors (Carter Bratton, Matt Krieg, Leah Strasser and Rebecca Whatley), always a strength of NET; it’s staged by Elizabeth Harris, a former artistic director. The Shape of Things is about a love affair that isn’t quite as simple as it initially seems. Publicity for the show asks, “How far would you go for love? What concessions would you make?”
Those are questions that Stump and others with NET must be asking as they consider the company’s future. The 2016-2017 season will be announced soon, and Stump says the theme he has in mind is “Fragile.” That’s an unwitting understatement, I believe, but it seems that for now New Edgecliff is on the path to a stable future.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]