(L-R) Elisabeth A. Yancey,Peggy Roeder, Nisi Sturgis, Tina Stafford and Courtney Stennett from the 2019 CPH production of Into the Breeches. Photo: Roger Mastroianni
Playwright George Brant’s comedy Into the Breeches! takes place during World War II and is inspired by how the Cleveland Play House refused to discontinue production so to keep the theater up and running. How ironic that George’s wife Laura Kepley, who is the artistic director for the Tony Award-winning theater, is working hard to do the same in the face of the current crisis.
“On Thursday, March 12,” she recalls, “the senior staff and I sat in the conference room and watched on television as the governor announced the closing of the schools – we have a staff of 25 full time theater educators who work in 16 different schools – and then the banning of public gatherings. It was the most surreal, unsettling, gut-wrenching time of my professional career.”
The CPH was just ending its second week of rehearsals for Antigone in its Outcalt Theatre, which involved local actors and those from all around the country. The set was built and loaded into the theater space and the costumes were half-completed. The show was cancelled.
The Case Western Reserve University/CPH MFA first-year student production of Middletown was five days away from opening in the Allen Theater, to be followed by a production of A Doll’s House, Part Two, which was ready to rehearse in two weeks. Both productions were cancelled, as was the theater’s annual New Ground Theatre Festival, which provides the opportunity for playwrights to develop and showcase their new work.
“Within the span of four days,” recalls Laura, “66 contracted artists learned that they would not be performing and 25 seasonal production staff members and 10 full time staff were laid off. It was devastating on every level and it happened so quickly.”
Several things have proven to be the theater’s salvation. Over 80% of the theater’s loyal subscribers have refused a refund for the season. The theater’s team of educators immediately pivoted its instruction to online learning without missing a beat. And the CPH has been active in staying in contact with theatergoers and theater artists through its e-newsletters, by offering webinars featuring performers from its cancelled productions, and offering one-on-one web conversations between Laura and local actors and designers.
Just like the artistic director in Into the Breeches! Laura has been mining the talent and dedication of the local community – which includes the theater’s dedicated Board of Directors and Executive Committee members – to keep the theater up and running during troubling times.
Laura Kepley, Artistic Director, Cleveland Play House
Bob Abelman is a syndicated theater critic and entertainment feature writer in Cleveland, Ohio. He is also a professional actor who, as a younger man, appeared on and off-Broadway. A professor emeritus at Cleveland State University, Bob is the author of 12 scholarly books and hundreds of articles in academic journals and popular magazines. Coming soon is ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE FRIGHT, a fictional memoir of a clandestine theater critic who embeds himself in a professional production of the comedy As You Like It, to overcome a debilitating fear of Shakespeare and turn in a decent performance. A quick laugh-out-loud novel, ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE FRIGHT is written for those who love theater and need Shakespeare's gorgeous words now more than ever.