[Ed Stern and Buzz Ward were the 2004 CEA Theater Hall of Fame inductees. This profile article originally ran in CityBeat on Nov. 17, 2004.]
Early last May, Ed Stern, producing artistic director at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, had an early morning call from an actor in New York congratulating him on winning the Regional Theatre Tony Award. Stern almost didn't believe him. But he went to the official Tony Web site, and there it was in black and white.
Despite the Playhouse's ongoing success with Cincinnati audiences, Stern had concluded that the annual award would probably go to a theater in a larger city, as had been the case for several years. But this time he was wrong.
A dozen years after Stern's arrival in Cincinnati, the Playhouse was finally being recognized for fostering new plays, building a subscriber base envied by theaters in larger cities and reaching out to several hundred thousand young people annually — the audiences of the future.
Stern is quick to deflect praise from himself to those he works with and to the community the Playhouse serves. But he's played a leading role in tandem with Playhouse Executive Director Buzz Ward, and their contributions were cited earlier this fall by the League of Cincinnati Theatres, which bestowed on them the Award for Continuing Excellence. As a result of that recognition, the pair will be inducted into the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards Hall of Fame on Monday.
But Stern refuses to upstage everyone else involved.
"The best thing for me with the Tony was how this community received it," he says. "It wasn't about congratulating Ed Stern. It was, 'Isn't it great what we did?' The community embraced it."
Ward extends the thought: "That's why we did the celebration with so many people passing the Tony!"
In a ceremony the day after the New York City festivities, Stern and Ward brought the small trophy back and arranged to have it passed down a long line of individuals who have been Playhouse supporters, participants and advocates.
"It really took all of us," Ward points out, "everyone working in the same direction, to even get to the level of consideration."
But when he and Stern arrived at the Playhouse in 1992, they weren't thinking about Tony Awards. They were taking over to a theater that needed help, after several years of administrative challenges and erratic artistic leadership.
Stern had a good track record: He had founded the successful Indiana Repertory Theater in 1972 and ran it for eight years before heading back to the East Coast where he taught in New Jersey and New York City and guest directed on many stages around the U.S. Many of his friends wondered how long he'd last in Cincinnati, which had earned a reputation for intolerance after the debacle over the Contemporary Arts Center's 1990 exhibition of photography by Robert Mapplethorpe.
Stern saw the potential for the Eden Park theater but knew he needed a good financial manager to get the Playhouse healthy again. Through Ben Mordecai, another Indiana Rep founder who had moved on to teach and run a theater at Yale University, Stern met Ward, then general manager of the Yale School of Drama/Yale Repertory Theatre and an instructor of theater administration.
The two clicked immediately, started work on the same June day in 1992 and to this day have a relationship peppered with the comic timing of Abbott and Costello. They finish each other's sentences and throw metaphoric elbows as they try to top each other's corny jokes. It's clear they love working together as the yin and yang of the Cincinnati Playhouse.
Stern jests, "Always take over theaters that aren't going well! If you're just so-so, you're going to look great."
"You can be mediocre," Ward chimes in, "and thought of as a god."
Of course, they've been neither so-so nor mediocre.
"I talked to a few people," Stern remembers of his search for an executive director. "There are some bean counters who really have no interest, idea or conception about theater and art — they're just going to be purely bottom-line conscious. That isn't Buzz. He's said time and time again, 'If we're not doing good theater, it doesn't matter if everything looks great on paper. It has to be great onstage.' Not everyone believes that."
Ward says, "We both believed philosophically that fiscal responsibility and artistic excellence must go hand in hand. The other theaters where I was interviewing, that was not necessarily the case, so it was going to be more of a battle than a partnership."
Ward suggests their strengths and weaknesses are complementary. (Stern looks at him with mock astonishment: "Weaknesses? I have weaknesses? We'll have to talk about this," he says, before bursting into his characteristic cackle.)
"The finances," Ward persists, "are clearly not Ed's strong suit, and they are a strength of mine. His strength is in picking a season, in casting, in getting the right people. Those are terrific strengths that I don't have."
Stern and Ward have a formula for sucess that's actually the studious avoidance of formula. Each year when Stern fills me in on his new season, he takes pride in the fact that it doesn't follow any discernible pattern. He typically avoids a lot of safe choices. Last season, when the Playhouse scored its Tony, three of 10 shows were world premieres — not the course taken by many theaters in lean financial times when pleasing audiences frequently means taking fewer chances.
In fact, Stern says, winning the Tony has proved to be a double-edged sword. Some subscribers and board members have said to him, " 'You got the Tony Award — obviously you have arrived, don't change!' No! We wouldn't have gotten the Tony Award if we'd just sort of settled in on something, on a formula. A theater is a living, breathing organism, and you have to evolve."
Stern and Ward have also supported the city's larger theater community, nurturing the scene by lending both their staff and their personal expertise whenever needed, and encouraging the establishment of the League of Cincinnati Theatres.
A healthy theater scene, Stern maintains, keeps everyone honest.
"When you're a solitary institution in a city, you can get lazy," he says. "It's not good for the artists, not good for the audiences."
He applauds Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival for staging Arthur Miller's All My Sons during the Playhouse's run of The Crucible, and recalls that when the Playhouse premiered Carter Lewis's Men on the Take, Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati staged the local premiere of a the writer's bookended play, Women Who Steal. Two seasons ago while the Playhouse produced the award-winning Proof, Stern guest-directed a production of another top-notch script, Copenhagen, at ETC.
"It's great to have this way of connecting with other theaters," Stern says, "reinforcing this notion that you don't have to go to theater just five or 10 times a year — you can go 15, 20, even 25 times a year. It should be exciting. If it's not as good elsewhere, let's figure out how to make a healthy scene for everyone."
Stern and Ward like to laugh. ETC Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers dubbed them the "macaroni and cheese" of Cincinnati theater when they were recognized at LCT's Curtain Up season kick-off in September. But they're dead serious about the importance of theater.
"Theater is a place where community comes together," Ward points out. "In the age of the Internet and everything else, there are fewer and fewer places where people come together: The theater is one of those. It's a live experience, with the actor on the stage. This is a more serious coming together, (meeting) a real need for our country and society to come together. People feel comfortable doing that at the theater."
Stern, an outspoken liberal, takes it even further.
"I've never seen our country more torn apart than it is right now, post-election," he says. "There is a deafness on everybody's part, conservatives and liberals. People do not want to listen. Theaters are inherently in the business of dialogue. And dialogue demands not only speaking but listening. Listening to everything. Theater is needed now, so audiences can come together and listen and then decide for themselves."
At the 2004 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, Stern and Ward will join the ranks of previous inductees into the theater wing of the CEA Hall of Fame: actresses Pam Myers and Dale Hodges, designer Paul Shortt and director Michael Burnham. As with this esteemed group, Ward and Stern have enhanced theater in the Cincinnati area. It's a reason to celebrate.