Sad news from Cincinnati’s theater world today: Ed Stern, who led the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park from 1992 to 2013, died yesterday, April 2, at age 72. His artistic direction for 20 seasons constituted almost a third of the Playhouse’s history, which is all the more remarkable because when he arrived there were significant problems — both financially and artistically. He righted the ship quickly and steered it with a steady artistic hand, spearheading remarkably varied works — from classics and musicals to newly commissioned plays — that meant every season had something for every kind of theatergoer.
On his watch, Stern saw the Playhouse rise to national prominence when it won the 2004 Regional Theater Tony Award. (I had the pleasure to be part of that recognition which is recommended by the American Theatre Critics Association.) Three years later the Playhouse was back at the Tonys to accept a second award: the 2007 Best Revival of a Musical, a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, staged by Tony Award-winning director John Doyle (who Stern personally recruited) that originated on the mainstage in Eden Park.
But Stern was more than a theater guy: He was an arts aficionado, and he was always a booster of the local arts, speaking frequently on behalf of the entire arts community. He continued to live in Cincinnati after his retirement while he continued to battle pancreatic cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 2011 and beat back for longer than any medical professional could have imagined. He put up a valiant fight that ended this week.
Stern also had a tremendous sense of humor and a boisterous laugh to support the jokes he loved to make. It’s entirely fitting that his final Cincinnati production was Noises Off, a backstage farce for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. It’s a show that requires precise timing and an unparalleled discipline to make the humor work: That’s what Stern delivered time after time. Since retiring, he guest-directed in Cincinnati and beyond: He staged several productions that mingled student and professional actors and at Xavier University.
He was always available for interviews and to make recommendations of theater elsewhere. Last summer he pointed me to several fine productions to see during my visit to London. I will miss him as a leader and champion of the arts, but even more as a friend.
This Friday evening at 8 p.m. WVXU (91.7 FM) will air an expanded version of Around Cincinnati’s tribute to Ed Stern that was broadcast when he retired in May 2012. I hosted the program and Lee Hay was its producer.