Callers to the Cleveland Play House hear a recorded message welcoming them to "America's first professional theater." Founded in 1915 in a spirit of urban progressiveness that also created the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Orchestra, the Play House has been as influential in theatrical circles as those institutions are in theirs. Unlike the internationally renowned museum and orchestra, however, the Play House's sphere of influence appears to have shrunk in recent decades.
That's not necessarily the Play House's fault. It was once a unique entity: a professional theater outside of New York City. During the '60s, it lost that distinction, as theaters began cropping up across the country. In addition, audiences started turning to other forms of entertainment, and philanthropic money that might have gone to the Play House began drying up. Now the 87-year-old institution finds itself with a $3.5 million debt.
The Play House's response to these challenges has not pleased everyone. Some critics charge that the theater is playing it too safe with its artistic choices, thereby alienating its most loyal fans.
Sheldon Wigod is passionate about theater. "It's my life," says the Tri-C literature and film professor, who is known to travel to New York City just to see a revival of an Edward Albee play. Yet, out of the 25 or so productions he sees each year, maybe one or two are at the Play House. "The plays that they do are not interesting to me," he says.
That wasn't always the case. In the early '70s, he attended productions that remain etched in his memory: Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, the 17th-century comedy The Country Wife, the 1920s farce The Showoff, Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke. "It was the best Summer and Smoke I've ever seen," says Wigod, who admits an obsession with Williams's work.
He can't pinpoint what changed or went wrong. But somewhere along the line, those exciting theatrical experiences morphed into safer, more predictable fare, such as the upcoming season's Proof and On Golden Pond. Wigod calls the latter "tired, standard stuff."
Others in Cleveland theater concur that the 2002-'03 season isn't what it ought to be. The fact that On Golden Pond is scheduled at all supports one critic's contention that "the Play House has become incredibly dull."
Says another: "It's an insipid season, it really is. No one is doing Dirty Blonde anywhere else, because it isn't that good." Both contend that artistic vision has given way to concern over the bottom line.
Of course, no one with any stake in local theater will go on the record with complaints. In this insular world, critiques are delivered with the archness of a Noël Coward witticism, but they remain anonymous quibbles. Better to snipe softly than suffer repercussions.
The Play House may be the biggest theater venue in town, but it's not the best, critics maintain. Some prefer the way the smaller, community-based Beck Center in Lakewood has pushed the envelope of adventurous programming, with productions that range from The Rocky Horror Show to the Cleveland premiere of Stephen Sondheim's Saturday Night to Ibsen's A Doll's House. And Tony Kushner's controversial Angels in America had its Cleveland premiere not at the Play House, but at Dobama, a basement theater on Coventry.
One local actor points out that the Play House has never won a Tony Award, despite being the granddaddy of regional theaters. And its heyday, he suggests, has long since disappeared from the rearview mirror. "Up until the 1970s, the artistic directors were celebrities, the actors of the Play House were stars. The '60s were the last golden era of that cachet. [After that], everybody who was anybody had left."
Regional theaters that have won the Tony tend to have specific missions. Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater, last year's winner, does nothing but new plays. This year's winner, Williamstown (Massachusetts) Theatre Festival, regularly moves plays to Broadway. The Utah Shakespeare Festival won in 2000. "They're doing quality Shakespeare -- in Utah," the actor says. "We can't do better than that?"
The Play House, on the other hand, tries to offer something for everyone. Fred Gloor, co-chair of the Cleveland Theater Collective, thinks the Play House comes under fire because people expect so much of it. "It's the Sistine Chapel of culture" in Cleveland theater circles, he says. "We expect them to never make a mistake."
Management dismisses any notion that the theater has lost ground artistically. "Over 100 plays have premiered here," artistic director Peter Hackett says, "and every decade, one goes to Broadway. The Play House is better known outside the city than in."
Every not-for-profit arts organization tries to strike a balance between high art and paying the bills. Given the theater's debt load, there has been speculation as to how well the Play House is achieving that balance. But both Hackett and managing director Dean Gladden point out that their theater is in better shape than most of its brethren. "We own our building. We can borrow money when we need it," says Hackett. "We're a lot better off than other organizations."
Plus, says Gladden, "There is $7 million in the endowment. Most theaters don't even have endowments."
Hackett bristles at criticism that the Play House is all too willing to cater to public tastes. "I don't think popular is a bad word," he says. "On Golden Pond is popular, but it also fits the Play House's mission. It's a Pulitzer Prize-winning play considered an American classic, on par with works like Death of a Salesman.
"The mission never was: Go out and do unpopular plays," he says. "Dinner With Friends [the final production of the 2001-'02 season] is a popular play as well as an important American play. Just because it's popular, and an HBO movie was made of it, and people enjoy it, doesn't mean we shouldn't do it."
Shrugging off artistic critiques is one thing. Hackett finds it more frustrating when the theater's accomplishments go unnoticed. Two recent productions have made the gigantic leap to New York, one successfully and one less so. Love, Janis, premiered in 1998, is still playing off-Broadway. The Smell of the Kill, developed in the Play House's Next Stage Festival of new plays, premiered in 1999. It ran on Broadway for a month this spring, to universally negative reviews.
For good or ill, it's a big deal in the theater world when a play makes it to Broadway, and it speaks to the caliber of the Play House, says Hackett. Unfortunately, "People in the community aren't aware of the treasure they have."
Theater lovers like Sheldon Wigod just want that treasure to have a little more sparkle.
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