Hail to the Bard

Important stages in the career of William Shakespeare:

1564: Shakespeare is born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. He goes on to become the greatest playwright in the English language and perhaps the most admired dramatist the world has ever known. His 38 plays continue to be staged with incredible frequency, and numerous theater companies are focused on his classic works.

1993: Fahrenheit Theatre Company presents its first season in Cincinnati, offering both classic plays and contemporary works. The company renames itself the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival in 1997, with a sharper commitment to the classics. In 1998, it moves to 719 Race St., taking over space previously occupied by The Movies repertory cinema. The year 2006 brings another name change, to Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, reflecting its year-round status. 

2014: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company completes the entire canon of Shakespeare’s 38 plays, one of the youngest classic theater companies ever to do so. (Only four other companies in North America have achieved this feat, and none this quickly.) But it’s bursting at the seams on Race Street.

2017: The company fulfills its vision, announced in 2015, of creating a new $17 million theater facility at 1195 Elm St. in Over-the-Rhine: The Otto M. Budig Theater. It’s specifically designed for more sophisticated production of classic plays for larger audiences. It will open on Sept. 8 with a production of Shakespeare’s popular comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

The Need for a New Home

Cincy Shakes’ old home for 19 of its 23 seasons, at 719 Race St., had numerous limitations. The small space, never intended for performances, had no fly space or wing space for scenery. No grid to hang lights. Limited office space. Sets had to be built off-site and brought into a theater space lacking a loading door. To leave the stage and re-enter behind the audience, actors had to leave the building and run down a side alley. 

On a low visibility downtown street, the theater was not on many Cincinnatians’ radar. Even worse, when people walked in, some said, “This isn’t a theater where I want to spend an evening.” 

Nevertheless, those who stuck around for performances became a devoted following. Executive Director Jay Woffington says they told the company, “We love the intimacy. We love being spit on and getting blood on our clothes.” 

Cincinnati Shakespeare’s new theater affords the latest in theater design and technology, with more intimacy for everyone. 

“Our plans have actually increased that aspect,” Woffington points out, “despite doubling our audience capacity.” Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips is over the moon about the new theater’s potential. “Now we’ve got a fantastic building, and we’ve removed as many obstacles as possible. Now the audience can come closer.”

Enjoying a production at Cincinnati Shakespeare’s new theater will be up close and personal for everyone. With six rows of seats horseshoed around a thrust stage, plus a single row of 47 seats on the balcony, the theater can accommodate 244 patrons with no person more than 20 feet from the stage. (Race Street’s audience capacity was 150, with nearly half of the seats 30-40 feet from performers.) The new stage can be lowered for more seating when the stage is used as a traditional proscenium.

The new theater, situated in Over-the-Rhine’s “arts corridor,” is close to Music Hall, Memorial Hall and the School for Creative and Performing Arts. Its glass-walled lobby will be highly visible on performance nights. Actors working in the second-floor rehearsal room, the Bridgeland Performance Studio, can be seen from Washington Park. That space can also host public and private events and receptions and be a venue for other performing organizations. The theater was designed with a particular eye to accessibility. Elevators connect the street level to the balcony and rehearsal area, and ramps allow easy entrance to the main floor seating areas. 

Phillips is still discovering how the space will work as he rehearses his actors for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He mentions a recent conversation with Know Theatre’s Andrew Hungerford. “I was showing him around, and we were in the trap underneath the stage. He asked if it could be a Fringe venue. 

I said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe!’ ”

The More-than-Just-Shakespeare Company

The thing Phillips most wants people to know about Cincinnati Shakespeare is that it’s not all Shakespeare all the time. “We are Shakespeare and the classics. Yes, it’s the works of William Shakespeare, and we’ve done the complete canon of his plays, some of them four or five times. But we also present contemporary classics, American classics, literary adaptations.”

The debut season at the company’s new theater offers two plays by Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Phillips is directing, and Othello. But it also includes stage adaptations of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. An American classic by Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is on the docket, as is Michael Frayn’s hysterical 1982 backstage comedy Noises Off.

“Our work with Shakespeare helps us to better produce these other plays,” Phillips points out, “because of how textually savvy our performers can get. If it scares you off that we’re only Shakespeare, then this is absolutely the right season to try us out.” 

The new facility also enables the company to expand education and outreach. “The Bridgeland studio will have space for student performances while there’s something happening on the main stage,” Phillips says. “We have space for classes and summer camps, too, in the adjacent building where our offices and dressing rooms are.”

The company’s programs for young theater enthusiasts have been wildly successful. “Those kids come in the summer and love it, and they’re our best fans ever. Emily Sullivan, an actor in this year’s Young Company, was in our Groundlings program when she was in fifth grade.” 

Sullivan has toured regional parks this summer for “Free Shakespeare” productions, and she will travel to area schools throughout the season. The Young Company’s focus on off-site productions opens up more opportunities for community actors and guest artists in mainstage shows. 

“Even though this is Season 24, we’re talking about it as Year One,” Woffington says. “It’s a fresh look at everything. It’s zero-base, a chance to plan exactly what we can do. It’s all unique — designers, casting and show selections. It wasn’t just, oh, yeah, one more season. This is the first!” 

The Leadership

Phillips became the company’s artistic leader in 2003, a role he has fulfilled for almost 15 years. In 2012, Woffington, a six-year board member with the theater, became its executive director. He is focused on the business end of operations. In particular, Woffington spearheaded the design, construction and fundraising for the company’s new home. He had sold Bridge Worldwide, the ad agency he built and grew in downtown Cincinnati. 

“I was looking for something to keep me out of trouble,” Woffington says. “Brian asked what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to be closer to things that I’m passionate about. I saw that the company had a lot of the pieces, but pouring a little rocket fuel in was what it needed. Some say I’m a kind of rocket fuel. But the truth is, the staff really hasn’t changed that much. All the pieces were here. We just had to stitch them together and tell a compelling story of what the company could achieve.”

When Woffington was on the company’s board, Phillips outlined his ambitious vision. Today, he kids Woffington, saying, “Didn’t you tell me ‘Hell, no’ at one point when I said it (a new home) at a board meeting 10 years ago?’ A new facility had always been the dream. We used to call it ‘the mansion on the river,’ thinking about London’s National Theatre. How could we get something like that?”

Phillips continues, “When I joined the company, I had fallen in love with live classical theater at Canada’s Stratford Festival. I always believed we could be that type of an institution for Cincinnati, for Ohio and the region. There was the potential here to build something special.”

Benchmarking trips to London, New York, Chicago and elsewhere provided detailed inspiration regarding the theater’s shape, stage and amenities. The quickest consensus was for the thrust stage, projecting into the audience. “That was the way to create the closeness that our stakeholders loved,” Woffington explains. 

First Stages

Beginning as Fahrenheit Theatre Company in 1993 with a production of The Taming of the Shrew, the fledgling organization’s first shows were at Gabriel’s Corner (an Over-the-Rhine church basement) and then at The Carnegie in Covington (long before its renovation). Its founders were interns at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati in 1992-93: Jasson Minadakis (who served as artistic director), Jason McCune, Chris Reeder, Joanna Parson, Brian Griffin and Erin Cowan. Marni Penning and Nick Rose, college friends of Minadakis at James Madison University in Virginia, arrived soon. (Rose is still an acting company member.) 

Others during the company’s early days were Sharon Polcyn McCune, C. Charles Scheeren (another James Madison grad), Stephen Skiles (now heading Xavier University’s theater program), Stan Ginn, Angela Warden, Nicholas Korn, Richard L. Arthur, Glenn Becker, Khris Lewin and Jim Stump (now artistic director of New Edgecliff Theatre). 

The close-knit, hard-working band did everything: acting, promotion, design and maintenance. They developed a small but faithful following with two seasons (1996-1998) at the new Aronoff Center’s Fifth Third Bank Theater. 

Phillips, who joined the company in 1999 after interning as an actor at Ensemble Theatre, became its artistic director in 2003 when Minadakis left for a theater job in Atlanta. Corinne Mohlenhoff, another actor, joined the company in 1999. They expected to work in Cincinnati for a year and then move on to greener pastures. “But it turned into, ‘No, we’re going to stay here because it’s something special,’ ” Phillips says. Today he and Mohlenhoff are married with two children, firmly settled in the Queen City. 

The Next Stage(s)

What does the future hold as Cincinnati Shakespeare begins to inhabit its new theater? “It’s not just toys,” Woffington says. “It’s the intentionality of the design, every little piece. Early on we faced a lot of challenges from donors and public officials who said, ‘Yeah, but just for you? A single space?’ Once we explained that we do 350 performances annually, people got over the idea that we had to share. That allowed us to design single-use space very intentionally. 

“We’re already talking to Cincinnati Opera for a performance they want to do on our stage,” Woffington continues. “SCPA is very interested in some things here, too. But the value to our company is that every piece of it has been designed for what we do.” 

The new theater will enable some unprecedented international exposure for Cincinnati Shakespeare and the city early next year when the Shakespeare Theatre Association comes to town for a weeklong conference (Jan. 17-20, 2018). Attendees will include representatives from Shakespeare companies in Oregon, Utah, Orlando, New Jersey, Washington, D.C. and Chicago. The Globe from London and Canada’s legendary Stratford Festival will be here, as will representatives from two theaters from Australia, one from Brazil and one from Prague, the host of the association’s 2019 conference. 

“They’re all going to be here in Cincinnati,” Phillips says. “We’ll bring guests to the theater for workshops and morning warm-ups. We’ll be trading secrets, sharing troubles, anything that we have in common as producers of Shakespeare. There will be ‘tracks’ (sets of sessions) for artistic staff, management, educators and board members.

“We’re planning a fantastic conference, a chance to show off this new building and tell the story of how this happened,” Phillips says. 

Woffington chimes in, “And show off the city!” 

It will be another important stage — perhaps a debut on the world stage? — for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. ©

More Shakespeare Around Town

After more than four centuries, William Shakespeare still sits atop the theater world. American Theatre magazine annually publishes a list of the most-produced playwrights 

on American stages; Shakespeare is omitted because he would always lead the list. 

He is the world’s most frequently staged playwright.

Besides having his A Midsummer’s Night Dream produced as the first play in the first season at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s new theater in Over-the-Rhine, he’s also the subject of Cincinnati Playhouse’s season-opening production: Shakespeare in Love (previews begin Sept. 2; opening is Sept. 7; runs through Sept. 30). It’s Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of the 1998 Academy Award-winning movie screenplay by Marc Norman and venerable playwright Tom Stoppard. It was a major hit in London in 2014 and played to sold-out audiences during the 2016 Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada.

Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison says, “A big epic production like this is what the Playhouse does best. Though the stage version sticks closely to the original screenplay, this is a story that belongs on the stage.”

The show’s speculative premise is that young William Shakespeare has writer’s block and a deadline for a new play. He meets and falls in love with Viola de Lesseps, who aspires to an onstage career — despite the Elizabethan convention allowing only men to be actors. Their forbidden romance inspires him to create Romeo and Juliet. The show is full of allusions to other classic works and populated with historical figures including Queen Elizabeth I. 

Robison calls it a production for everyone. “It’s a wonderful way to dip your toe into this vast ocean of Shakespeare’s world,” Robison says. “There are snippets of Romeo and Juliet played out before you in verse, but most of the action is in everyday language that is accessible and understandable to everyone.”

For more of Shakespeare’s world, stop by the Cincinnati Museum Center for Shakespeare and the Queen City, currently on view through Oct. 29. The exhibition’s focal point is a copy of the “First Folio,” first published in 1623. There are 234 surviving copies of this collection of Shakespeare’s plays, preserving 36 of the 38 works attributed to him today. Many plays in this volume were unpublished during his lifetime; Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and The Tempest might have been lost without it. The exhibition examines how Shakespeare’s stories and characters have resonated, evolved and been adapted over time, including their influence on Cincinnati. A stage area at the Museum Center will be programmed by several partner organizations with performances. It’s also an opportunity to select scenery and props and try out a scene from Shakespearean plays. 

On Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, there will be a panel discussion, Shakespeare Across the Arts. Featured speakers include the Playhouse’s Robison, Cincinnati Shakespeare’s Brian Phillips, Whitney Owens from the Museum Center, Cincinnati Ballet’s Victoria Morgan (the Ballet stages Romeo and Juliet Oct. 26-29 at Cincinnati Music Hall) and Ensemble Theatre’s D. Lynn Meyers (ETC presents Red Velvet March 6-31, 2018, a new play about the first African-American actor to portray Othello). The program is free and open to the public, but reservations are necessary: 513-421-3888.

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Hail to the Bard
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Hail to the Bard
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Hail to the Bard
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Hail to the Bard
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Hail to the Bard
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Hail to the Bard
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Hail to the Bard
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Hail to the Bard
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Hail to the Bard
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Hail to the Bard