The story of the Cleveland Play House's impending move to a cluster of new theaters three miles west on Euclid Avenue involves, as artistic director Michael Bloom points out, "brutal economics, creative synergy, and a whiff of raw sewage."
With phase one of the new Play House complex slated to debut on September 16 (yes, it will open on time, with The Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht), a question arises: Why exactly does CPH need three new theaters at Playhouse Square? After all, it seemed as if this esteemed company — America's first professional regional theater — already had plenty of available stage space at its longtime address, 8500 Euclid Avenue.
"For starters, it would have cost $20 million to renovate the existing theaters," says Bloom, CPH's artistic director since 2004. "For $35 million, which is about the going cost of building a single new free-standing theater, we're getting three theater spaces that will be unique in the country."
It's little surprise that Bloom is gung-ho for the move. But before getting acclimated with the new stages, it would be instructive to understand what drove CPH from its longtime home next to Cleveland Clinic's megalopolis.
Wrong, Wrong, Wrong
"The theaters themselves were a problem," Bloom says of the location they are leaving, his eyes involuntarily rolling. "The Bolton Theatre [the former main stage] was virtually non-functional. The sightlines were wrong, and there were no good places to mount lights, so we couldn't do musicals that demand ample illumination.
"The first time I walked in and saw the Bolton, I said, 'I'm not directing a show in here.' And I didn't. Then there's the Drury, which would have cost a fortune to renovate and maintain. Plus, in the winter, when it got cold enough, there was a distinct odor of raw sewage coming from somewhere. We had plumbing experts come in, snaking cameras through pipes, and they couldn't find the problem."
But those weren't the only challenges. "We were essentially isolated out there on Euclid. There was no walk-in, off-the-street traffic, very little synergy with the universities in the area and with young people in general. Our new home has all of that and much more."
In recent years, CPH had tried to meet its soaring maintenance costs — about $1 million per year — by renting space to other theaters. But that wasn't working for Bloom and the other honchos. "We wanted to get out of the real estate business and back into the theater business," he says.
Anything you'll miss about the old place?
"Nothing!" he quickly shoots back, before softening just a bit. "Oh, okay, the Brooks Theatre was kind of cute, with all the original bricks. But even that was not a great space. And it was totally inflexible."
Though the CPH board agreed with the move — and with selling the building and land to the Clinic — there has been significant pushback from subscribers and others in the community. Tradition, it seems, can be a powerful motivator. But Bloom sees greater tradition in what lies ahead.
"Essentially, we're moving from a non-historic building to an historic one," he says. The former building, which renowned architect Philip Johnson designed and built in 1983, had an immense rotunda in the lobby. But the rotunda at the entrance to the newly renovated Allen Theatre is much older — and to many, much more inviting.
Of course, Bloom realizes there will be holdouts. "There are some in Northeast Ohio who haven't been to the center of town in many years." But he's confident the excitement around CPH will eventually lure downtown-phobes to the new location.
An Infusion of Bodies
CPH staff will occupy office space in the Middough Building, a few steps down the street at East 13th and Euclid, along with the theater department of Cleveland State University.
CSU, Case Western Reserve University (via the CWRU/CPH Master of Fine Arts program), and CPH will share the new theaters. Between them, the three groups will stage some 228 performances during the 2011-'12 season. "Just the addition of 700 students and faculty to this area will likely reinvigorate retail businesses and restaurants," Bloom says. "And with more people walking around night and day, who knows what kind of growth and activity might ensue?"
Plus, the educational opportunities are impressive.
"This is an unprecedented partnership, and the new spaces will give our students a great advantage," says Michael Mauldin, director of dramatic arts at CSU. "We will be able to train students in three totally different, state-of-the-art theater labs. And professionals from CPH and Playhouse Square will be invited to be adjunct professors. This will definitely position Cleveland State as a theater department of choice nationally."
CPH and CSU, which began integrating rehearsal and performance schedules many months ago, will also benefit from their cheek-by-jowl proximity to the touring shows and acts that keep Playhouse Square an entertainment destination all year long.
A peek at the new space
What will strike you first about the new CPH main stage is how different it is from the formerly cavernous Allen Theatre it had been.
Beyond the existing entryway and past the original ornate rotunda and wooden bar, visitors are transported from the cozy past into a very sleek and contemporary present, with sweeping ramps and two floor-to-ceiling, glass-enclosed rooms made for pre- and post-show socializing.
The new Allen itself is startlingly intimate, with 500 seats nicely raked to provide clear sightlines. Most important: The renovation, which began exactly one year ago, now places the last row of seats where the balcony of the old Allen Theatre used to be, which means every seat is within 50 feet of the stage.
This was a critical issue for the project's designer-architects, Westlake Reed Leskosky.
"We always wanted to maintain a visual link to the historic walls of the original structure," says Matt Janiak, the firm's project director. And that is the most unique aspect of the new Allen Theatre, where we are inserting a modern aesthetic while preserving many of the traditional details and elements."
A metal scrim on both sides allows the original architecture to show through when the house lights allow, and the Italian Renaissance plasterwork (calling all cherubs!) on the ceiling can be viewed between color-coordinated acoustical panels.
The new theater retains all the renovations made to the Allen in 1998, including a massive stage and fly system that can accommodate huge productions. Indeed, the entire floor space of the stage is virtually equal to the square footage in the audience. This one-to-one correlation is almost unheard-of in modern theater construction, and means that patrons could be in for some amazing visual treats.
Complementing the main stage are two smaller, super-flexible theater spaces, the Second Stage and Black Box. Those are being constructed in the formerly open area behind the Playhouse Square complex, and will begin operation in January.
"It seems we're all in the right place at the right time," says Mauldin. "Everyone is enthusiastic and excited about merging these various theater capabilities in entirely new ways."
A few things have changed since the Allen Theatre's 1921 debut as a movie house — and especially in the last few months. The Play House has a new home that should burnish its reputation as a top-tier contemporary theater and provide a welcome jolt for the growing downtown community.