When Raymond Bobgan took over as executive artistic director at Cleveland Public Theatre in 2006, he inherited an organization rooted in the urban revitalization vision and social justice mission of James Levin. Levin, who returned to Cleveland from New York City in 1981, was determined to form an experimental, risk-taking, community-rooted theater group similar to Off-Broadway’s Cafe La MaMa, where he worked as an actor and director.
Raymond was also a passionate artist who has been pushing the boundaries of conventional theater for decades. He told his colleagues, “Let’s stop trying to compete with the LORT [League of Resident Theatres] houses in town – the Cleveland Play House, Great Lakes Theater – and let’s be good at what we do… work that nobody else in Cleveland is going to try. I want to create an environment for artists, for creators, that feels safe and challenging at the same time.” And, says Raymond, “A critical component of what we do facilitates a sense of community gathering."
It is this mission that is getting the CPT through the pandemic.
Cancelled are two plays in production – an all-Spanish language production of José Rivera’s Marisol and the world premiere of Nikkole Salter’s Breakout Session – as well as the upcoming production of India Nicole Burton’s Panther Women, which has been in development for over a year.
Also cancelled is a showcase of world premiere works by Northeast Ohio dance companies and choreographers called DanceWorks, Nina Domingue’s solo piece, The Absolutely Amazing and True Adventures of Ms. Joan Southgate, and Raymond’s own Candlelight Hypothesis.
Cancelled is Station Hope, the annual community event that celebrates through theater, music, storytelling, and dance Cleveland's social justice history and explores contemporary struggles for freedom and equity. The theater’s educational partnership with Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) at community centers for youth and families who live in public housing has been cancelled as well.
But moving forward, the CPT is trying to figure out how to navigate in the internet world and still create that sense of audience intimacy and make work that continues to be experimental, risk-taking and community-rooted.
“And we are adamant,” adds Raymond, “about keeping everything live rather than recorded.”
Among the new initiatives is a virtual sharing of the pieces and parts of Candlelight Hypothesis, which is being performed by Raymond and fellow artists Holly Holsinger and Faye Hargate. These performances are raw and are being showcased on Zoom so audience members are able to see each other’s reactions and discuss the work after it is completed. “And a silver lining in all of this is that it is forcing me to revisit the work in a new platform and, perhaps, discover what this piece was really meant to be.”
Another silver lining is that “now more than ever there is a need for what we do, which is to gather people and share an experience that will provoke and engage. And there is a greater sense of gratitude from audiences who appreciate what we do as well as from artists who appreciate that their work is being chosen from the many online alternatives available during this difficult time.”
A more personal silver lining, admits Raymond, is that his parents – who are in their 80s and have not been able to watch him perform in years – can now see his work and interact with other appreciative audience members online.
“While we can't be together physically,” states a posting on the CPT website, “we're excited to connect with you in new ways and look forward to seeing you soon.”
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