Woman in Charge: New Artistic Director Laura Kepley Holds the Whip in Hand at the Cleveland Play House

"We're bringing in a guy from out of town." That sentence has been used billions of times over the years when companies, in all sorts of industries, try to upgrade their leadership. The idea, it seems, is that some out-of-town dude is going to be a lot smarter than any of the local dummies, er, prospects readily at hand.

Happily, the Cleveland Play House has countered that familiar trend by promoting a woman already on their staff. When Laura Kepley, 42, was named artistic director of this venerable 98-year-old institution in September, the Play House sent a message to the community.

According to Kepley, that message reads: "We want the Cleveland Play House to be relevant and necessary, by presenting thrilling, provocative stories that have an immediate impact."

While some may view the Play House subscriber base as older and more conservative in their artistic tastes, Kepley doesn't entirely agree. "We have done surveys that show the most popular recent shows are the bolder ones, such as In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) and Good People. There is a desire for plays that tell interesting stories in imaginative ways."

Kepley began her career at CPH three years ago, joining the organization as associate artistic director under the now departed Michael Bloom. A native of Cincinnati, she was most recently a director at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island.

When it comes to dream jobs, Kepley asserts that her new position fills that bill. "I feel like I've been building to this for the past 10 years. I have a special affection for regional theaters, such as the Play House, where you have the feeling of being connected to something larger than yourself."

Kepley considers this particularly important as CPH approaches its centennial in 2015, a year-long celebration that will mark the birth of America's first professional regional theater. And now that the move to the new and refurbished downtown theater complex is complete, she will have time to focus on engaging actively with existing and potential audiences.

As Kepley notes, "In speaking with various community groups and individuals, it is impressive how many people express a close connection to the Cleveland Play House. There are so many subscribers who have supported this institution for decades, and it clearly means a lot to them."

In addition to her administrative duties as artistic director, Kepley will also find time to direct a show or two. To wit, she is currently helming Venus in Fur by David Ives that opened this past weekend (our review will be in next week's issue).

This production is directly in keeping with the desire to present provocative shows, since it deals with a sexy dominant/submissive relationship where the gender roles are reversed from the familiar 50 Shades of Grey man-on-top situation.

"This is a play that exposes something in all of us," says Kepley, "and that can be scary, embarrassing, and exciting. When those feelings are touched on, I think it's something we need to explore."

The two-hander sets up a steamy battle where a male director and an actress auditioning for a role begin to take on the behavioral traits of characters from the (almost) eponymous  novella written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the fellow that gave masochism its name.

Combining lots of laughs with deeper strains of gender and class power dynamics, Venus in Fur attempts to shed light on the games we all play with each other.

And for Kepley, that is exciting theater. As she notes, "the theater is a place to go where we can share a unique experience with strangers and, hopefully, come away changed in a positive manner. That is how theater can affect cultural change, and that is a thrilling possibility."