This week, one of Cincinnati’s most established theaters takes on a whole new look. “New” is a relative term for Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. As a “premiere” theater, it traffics mostly in new plays — works not previously staged locally. Some productions are also, in fact, world premieres. But ETC has made its home for most of its three-decade existence in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, Over-the-Rhine, starting in 1988 at a north-of-downtown address that was far from trendy at the time.
The decision to stay put in its stately 1904 bank building at 1127 Vine St., where it moved in 1990, and look optimistically to the future paid off as urban redevelopment built momentum and brought visibility to Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers’ particular brand of thoughtful and impeccably staged dramas, musicals and comedies. But it’s been a long, slow build.
Optimism and can-do attitudes are the feisty, passionate Meyers’ stock in trade. She’s been ETC’s artistic director since 1995, starting as an interim leader whose task originally was to shut down the struggling institution. Instead, she resuscitated the theater and has kept it going — thriving, really — for 22 years.
This week her steadfast belief in the neighborhood and the potential for good things there is made fully visible as ETC opens its expanded, renovated facility.
“It’s fascinating to have a contemporary theater in historic properties,” Meyers says. “It not only embraces the theater’s legacy but also the city’s legacy. That really keeps us on point so we don’t forget who we are and where we are. It’s great to have neighbors, but we also remember that for years Ensemble was alone on this block. Now, it’s nice to own and occupy 40 percent of it.”
The new ETC, opening its first production this week — Steven Dietz’s This Random World — has expanded its established footprint at 1127 Vine by repurposing two adjacent buildings and a parking lot. Fans of ETC began visiting last weekend when Over-the-Rhine was hopping with people exploring the renovated Music Hall and Cincinnati Shakespeare’s new theater nearby.
Among ETC’s new features is a spacious lobby with a dedicated bar and concessions area, finished in warm earth tones, and significantly expanded restrooms. An elevator in a new three-story atrium provides increased access to the theater, which has 182 comfortable new seats. Some 8,200 square feet of additional space has created room for classes and programs, especially a flexible space where as many as 100 people can attend readings, rehearsals and talkbacks. Always busy, ETC will ramp up even more with this larger, diversely designed facility. Greater efficiency, thanks to adjacent tech facilities for building and installing sets, has enabled Meyers to add a week of performances for every production. The 2016-17 season had 174 performances with total attendance of 24,366. That number could approach 30,000 this season.
There’s already obvious enthusiasm for ETC’s new theater and the 2017-18 season. “Our subscriptions are at their highest level in history,” Meyers says, even before This Random World opens.
She carefully chose this play by Dietz, ETC’s most frequently produced playwright. It’s the eighth production of one of Dietz’s scripts — a funny, bittersweet and heartbreaking story about the power of chance, exploring how our lives are often shaped by improbably coincidences. It had its world premiere in 2016 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
“I’m a regional theater boy,” said Dietz at the 2016 premiere. “That’s my bread and butter. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate.”
He’s been teaching playwriting at the University of Texas in Austin for a decade, but frequently travels to other regional theaters, especially in Seattle, to write and direct.
He says This Random World came together unexpectedly. Traveling to a writers’ retreat in Indiana with a scene in mind about a break-up in a diner, he began to develop scenes and characters. Then he had an epiphany: “What if I subverted this? What if that was a list of scenes that cannot be in the play? I realized that all these people were going to just miss each other.”
He initially envisioned a neat, expected ending, but then worried about what would happen if the play came together and the people didn’t? What started out as a fundamentally comedic structure got very serious and sad. It has a lot of ache. An audience watching This Random World will see the missed connections in other people’s lives that we never see in our own.
“It surprised me,” Dietz says. “It’s a play I haven’t written before.”
That’s a revelation from a playwright with 40 titles to his credit, but he’s never had a New York hit. He says that has allowed him to explore more theaters and write different kinds of plays.
“Steven Dietz’s work is honest, complex and beautiful,” Meyers says. “This Random World is about missed connections and what-ifs in our lives.”
It’s the kind of play that she knows ETC audiences appreciate.
Dietz is immensely pleased to have This Random World onstage in Cincinnati. (His adaptation of Dracula is Cincinnati Shakespeare’s next production.) “Lynn jumped on this one very soon, and I was just delighted,” he says. “I hope there will be more productions; it’s certainly a play that taught me a lot. I’m actually holding off on publishing it. I asked my publishers to let me see if there are any little tweaks from Lynn’s production that I wanted to use before it’s published.”
This Random World is about what-ifs, but there’s nothing uncertain about ETC’s future: It’s a sure thing.
THIS RANDOM WORLD is onstage through Nov. 4 at Ensemble Theatre, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine. Tickets/more info: ensemblecincinnati.org.