Rick Pender has been writing about Cincinnati’s live theater scene for almost 30 years now, starting with a magazine called The Entertainer in the ’80s and then EveryBody’s News, moving over to CityBeat when we debuted in 1994. His eight-year run as full-time Arts & Entertainment Editor here included introduction of the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards for Theater, presented for many years with the Music CEAs and then in a separate event, and chairmanship of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Many people credit Pender’s feature stories and reviews with nurturing the local theater scene, particularly the smaller, emerging companies that would grow into Ensemble Theatre, Cincinnati Shakespeare, Know Theatre, Covedale Center and several others.
Three college friends from Virginia decided to open a Shakespeare-focused theater troupe in Cincinnati in 1994 after one of them, Jasson Minadakis, interned at Ensemble Theatre the year before. They called themselves Fahrenheit Theatre and performed mostly at Gabriel’s Corner, a converted Over-the-Rhine church.
In 1997 Pender broke the news that the company was changing its name to Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, beginning an education outreach program in local schools, paying actors and technical staff a small salary, and performing exclusively at the Aronoff Center. It was a bold move for an underfunded and underappreciated arts group — neither The Enquirer nor The Post regularly reviewed Fahrenheit’s plays — but indicative of a “Fuck it, let’s go” attitude that would push Cincinnati (and CityBeat) to grow and change over the years.
“When Minadakis explained to his actors the ambitious new direction the troupe would pursue, he was greeted with squeals of ‘You mean we’ll get paid to do this?’ It’s truly amazing how these young performers have carved a niche in the Cincinnati arts scene in less than three seasons. …
“ ‘We want to be a place where young actors compete for a chance to do Shakespeare,’ Minadakis says. ‘If you want to do Shakespeare in America, you’ll come to the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival for at least a two-year commitment. We’ll pay a livable wage, and you’ll get great chances to play important roles.’ ”
Now called Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, the group celebrated its 20th anniversary season by “completing the canon,” becoming one of only five theaters in the U.S. to produce all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays. They’re in the midst of a nine-show season in their own performance space on Race Street and are pursuing design and financing options for a new downtown headquarters.
Cincinnati’s theater scene today is as robust as any similar-sized American city’s. Playhouse in the Park has won two Tony Awards, including Best Regional Theatre. Ensemble recently marked 25 years at its Over-the-Rhine home, 18 of them under D. Lynn Meyers’ leadership. Know has its own theater space in Over-the-Rhine and has hosted 11 annual Cincy Fringe Festivals. The Covedale group is building a second location, Incline Theater, that opens next summer in Price Hill.
CCM continues to be one of the leading U.S. theater schools, sending grads to New York City every year. NKU and Xavier have growing theater programs. The Broadway Series still brings blockbusters to the Aronoff Center. And more than 25 community theater organizations perform across the region. It all keeps Rick Pender plenty busy.
As for the Fahrenheit founders, Minadakis today is artistic director of the Marin Theatre Company near San Francisco; Marni Penning is an actress, playwright and Shakespeare coach in Washington, D.C.; and Nick Rose is one of Cincinnati’s best-known actors, regularly starring in Cincinnati Shakespeare productions.