The unveiling of a new play by Edward Albee at an American professional theatre is a rare event, but it will happen this fall at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. Lee Blessing is working on his second world premiere at the theatre in as many years. A new Eric Overmyer piece is expected to be on the company’s slate a year from now, and the latest unproduced Michael Weller composition just arrived in the mail. For a tiny theatre created with $200 in the summer of 1986, that is an impressive stable of writers.
But then the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati is the kind of operation that takes particular pride in accomplishing the unexpected. Simply housed in a former bank in an eclectic but troubled inner-city neighborhood named Over the Rhine, ETC appears an unlikely candidate for rapid growth and national prominence in the area of commissioning new work.
For a start, the theatre’s annual budget is under $750,000, and the full-time staff numbers only nine. No one has a proper office, and artistic director David White sits in a cubicle at the back of the auditorium, shielded only by flimsy screens from the current performance. There is hardly any budget for advertising, so the theatre relies almost entirely on free media coverage and direct-mail campaigns. The company operates on a Small Professional Theatre agreement with Actors’ Equity Association and has never auditioned outside its home city, casting all its shows from its own company of local actors.
Beating the odds
Worries about the neighborhood oblige the theatre to hire a security guard to watch cars. Just a couple of miles away sits a grand competitor, the Cincinnati Playhouse-in-the-Park, a long-established theatre with a comparatively hefty budget, impressive physical plant, solid reputation for new plays, and an idyllic setting removed from urban blight. Furthermore, this is Cincinnati, Ohio, a city notorious in artistic circles for the Mapplethorpe trial and pervasive conservatism.
Whatever the odds against success, ETC managing director John Vissman recounts figures that would be the envy of many larger regional houses. Subscriptions have increased by 264 percent over the past three years; the budget and single-ticket sales have tripled. The theatre is currently adding to its 134-seat capacity, due to many shows attracting far more people than there are seats to fill. The final production of last season, an original adaptation of Zorro, broke box-office records and was extended several times. Virtually singlehandedly, ETC has created a strong pool of Equity actors in a city that used to be a union wasteland. And all this growth has been achieved by devoting three-quarters of each season to original work-33 of the 46 plays produced during the theatre’s first seven years have been world premieres.
“We’ve carved out a niche in Cincinnati,” says artistic director White. “Most of the other arts organizations have been around here for a long time. Our audience is younger.” Box-office income has swelled each Christmas with ETC’s annual production of a rambunctious English pantomime, a popular and original family choice in a city where there are already five versions of A Christmas Carol within a 50-mile radius. Familiar television faces have also piqued audience interest: WKRP’s Gary Sandy played Stanley in Streetcar a few years back, and Rosanne star Sara Gilbert made her stage debut in Gary Stewart’s Downwinder Dance. White also hired Rebecca Miller to direct her father’s After the Fall last season, ensuring that Arthur Miller would show up to chat with delighted subscribers.
By pooling resources with the University of Cincinnati and offering opportunities to teach, ETC was able to persuade (and finance) Albee to direct two of his own plays – Everything in the Garden in 1990 and Seascape last fall. That developing relationship led Albee to agree to write a new play, Fragments, with ETC specifically in mind. The Blessing premiere next March will be a co-production with the Theatre in the Square of Marietta, Ga.; the show will feature a cast and design team staffed – and funded – by members of both theatres.
A dear playwright’ letter
White has succeeded in making his theatre an attractive place for both established and local playwrights to develop their work. How? “I sent a letter to the 12 playwrights I admired most,” he recounts. “I told them about our facility, our finances and our company. I wanted to see what their response would be.”
Lee Blessing remembers White calling him out of the blue to offer a commission, and he was impressed with the offer. Using money from Richard and Lois Rosenthal, a wealthy local couple known for sponsoring a new play contest each year at the Cincinnati Playhouse, White offered Blessing a sizable fee. But Blessing’s decision to accept (and ultimately write a dark but well-received drama called Lake Street Extension) had more to do with the flexibility he was offered. First, White was willing to allow Blessing to work with his preferred director, Jeanne Blake, who is also his wife. “Some theatres can accommodate that more easily than others,” observes Blessing. “Often artistic directors insist on directing the play themselves.” White also offered the author free choice in determining the nature of the commissioned play. “Many times a theatre will try to commission a play with the subject matter already in mind,” notes Blessing. “That’s not a way of working that I usually can accept . ETC just asked me to tell them once I knew what it would be about.”
The one non-negotiable area is that the plays must be cast from the local ensemble. “We had no problem doing that,” Blessing states. “They have a lot of good, competent actors who have done enough work with well-known people that none of that fazes them.”
Offering writers maximum flexibility often means ETC must be willing to take risks that might worry larger theatres. Albee has visited Cincinnati and already cast Fragments with four men and four women. But long after the show had been announced, no one at ETC had seen a script. And other than a vague idea that the play would be concerned with contemporary romantic relationships, ETC seemed not to have the slightest idea what form the play would take. White seemed unconcerned, explaining: “We give playwrights free reign without any constraints.”
ETC knows that Blessing’s new play, The Rights, will be a comedy with a cast of six, probably some sort of farcical exploration of the nature of greed and power. But the script remains incomplete and Blessing is reluctant to offer details, in case everything should suddenly change.
Despite the star names, ETC remains committed to local playwrights, offering them a commissioning fee and one or two mainstage productions each year. Local scribe Joe Smith, whose play Freemen and Lunatics premiered this summer, says he enjoys the theatre’s “supportive family atmosphere” as well as the chance to workshop a work-in-progress with company members. Much of the new work from local playwrights has come from an informal playwriting workshop that meets weekly at the theatre.
Like any resident theatre, ETC has its problems. Grants from the Ohio Arts Council and other funding agencies have been drastically cut back. There’s a small deficit to worry about, as well as the problem of funding enough large-cast projects to give a company of 27 hungry actors enough work to keep them in town. Still, the city of Cincinnati is talking informally to the theatre about taking up residence in the new downtown performing arts center currently under construction, and the upcoming season should bring national visibility. Plans are also underway to expand office space, and build a second, cabaret-style theatre.
At the center of what White likes to term a “theatre with protein” lies the playwright and new work. White justifiably looks forward to next spring when Fragments should have moved to New York’s Signature Theatre, The Rights will be playing in Marietta, and a new drama by local author E. K. Bowles will be opening in Cincinnati. That will make three simultaneous productions in three different cities, all having begun in Ohio and all featuring actors from the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati.