Raymond Bobgan grew up in a financially comfortable home of Christian fundamentalists in sunny Southern California. Now, as executive artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre—a 31-year-old company located in a once-blighted neighborhood of what is still one of the poorest cities in America—Bobgan is working what folks back in his home town might call miracles. Practical, down-to-earth miracles, to be sure, but transformative ones nonetheless.
Here’s what Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, had to say to Bobgan about his work at CPT during a visit to the city earlier this year: “What we’ve been talking about since my first day on the job two years ago is how artists can change the places in which they work. We’re talking about it—you’re doing it.”
Cleveland Public Theatre has long been a place of artistic collaboration that earns the right to use the word “public” in its name. The cutting-edge theatre has led the metamorphosis of a rough inner-city neighborhood, where once crack dens and motorcycle bars set the tone, into a burgeoning and lively arts district populated with some of Cleveland’s best restaurants and nightclubs.
Bobgan, who took over the reins at CPT in 2006, inherited an organization imbued with the urban-revitalization vision of James Levin, who cut his teeth on ensemble work at New York City’s La MaMa ETC and founded the Cleveland organization in 1981. After Levin left in 2004, HERE Arts Center alumnus Randy Rollison led a one-and-a-half-year transition during which CPT reached a new level of consistent professionalism. But Bobgan, now 45, also inherited an organization riddled with debt and with no financial plan to stop the bleeding and ensure its future. Here lies Bobgan’s main miracle.
He turned CPT’s fiscal and creative situation around, despite all the financial risks of doing theatre in a slow economy, not by pulling back but by programming even more theatre, and a riskier kind of theatre to boot. With a relatively modest $1.2-million annual operating budget, CPT does the kind of nontraditional, discipline-bridging theatre—and has had the kind of success with it—that even the city’s two far-larger LORT theatres have been obliged to marvel at.
Bobgan, with his long, braided ponytail and his own brand of movement- and text-centric working process, is an artist first. He has created original work based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Blue Sky Transmission, 2002), explored the works of Irish poet W.B. Yeats (Open Mind Firmament, 2010), and used a Greek myth and haunting video clips to examine a woman’s harrowing experience of sexual violence (Cut to Pieces, 2009). He stages new scripts by young playwrights too adventuresome in form and content for any other theatre in town to produce, most recently a spring 2012 production of Akarui, Jen Silverman’s sprawling tale of sexual identity and mis-identity. And he has done radical reinterpretations of classics. His revelatory Our Town (2007) had no narrator; instead, the Stage Manager’s famous lines were spoken by the other characters. His remarkable Summer and Smoke (2001) took the opposite tack by adding a narrator; the new character’s lines came from Tennessee Williams’s magnificently descriptive stage directions.
But in his six years at the helm of CPT, Bobgan the artist has worn many other hats. Among his different roles, Bobgan is:
• A financial wizard of sorts. In 2006, CPT had $450,000 of past-due payables and unmanaged (and expensive) debt. Now CPT holds only $220,000 in debt, all of it secured by mortgage. Meanwhile, with the help of the theatre’s finance committee, Bobgan has built a $135,000 strategic operating reserve, a cushion for risk-taking.
• A grantsman whose financial stewardship has drawn the attention of funders locally and nationwide. Most recently, Bobgan and CPT development director Judith Ross won the theatre a $1-million grant from the Kresge Foundation and $1.25 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, through the state of Ohio. The Shubert Foundation is also on board with CPT support.
• A producer responsible for nearly 20 world premieres, including work by Eric Coble, Ozen Yula, Matthew Earnest, Michael Tisdale and Sean Christopher Lewis.
• An overseer, along with CPT general manager Denis Griesmer, for the continuing renovation of CPT’s 1912 home, the Gordon Square Theatre, the oldest operating venue in a city rich with theatre heritage. CPT is now well past the halfway point in a $7.1-million restoration project, which is phase one of a larger infrastructure improvement initiative. And he is a key player in an even larger, $30-million effort to expand the Gordon Square Arts District, where the theatre is located.
• A beneficent landlord who regularly turns his facilities over to dancers, performance artists, directors, designers, playwrights and actors, who use CPT as a home for the creation and development of new works.
• An educator whose annual programs include Brick City Theatre, in which public-housing kids aged 5 to 14 make plays in their own community centers; STEP, in which 35 low-income teens devise an ensemble-based creation every summer and perform it in 12 parks; and the Y-Haven Theatre Project, in which homeless men in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction work to create and perform a new play about their experiences. He shares credit for these programs with CPT education director Chris Seibert.
His California origins notwithstanding, Bobgan evinces a strong and open-hearted connection to Cleveland, an attitude he shares with his wife, Holly Holsinger, a local actor, director and educator, with whom he has an 11-year-old son, Raziel. But despite his obvious successes at CPT, he remains a realist who isn’t afraid to own up to an occasional doubt about his own ability to chart the best path for the company. “Where is this theatre going from here? Can we continue this momentum, now that we’re not motivated by the sheer need to survive? These are two questions I ask myself,” Bobgan allows. “And the annual budget process terrifies me every year, because theatre can be such unpredictable environment.”
His own misgivings aside, Bobgan’s accomplishments at CPT seem to inspire confidence in those around him. He has hosted visits to his theatre from the likes of U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown and from Landesman, the country’s de facto leading authority on artistic best practices. But perhaps the most moving tribute to Bobgan’s agenda comes from a former heroin addict named J.R. Easterly. After participating for several years in CPT’s Y-Haven Theatre Project, Easterly kicked his habit and now works backstage at the theatre, a changed man. Easterly embodies Bobgan’s frequently articulated, baseline idea that theatre can and should transform people’s lives.
So just who is Raymond Bobgan, and how is he managing to pull all this off? That’s what we aimed to discover during an extensive interview at CPT headquarters. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
TONY BROWN: What is theatre?
RAYMOND BOBGAN:Theatre can exist only on a spectrum, say from Chekhov to Cirque du Soleil, from South Pacific to Neil LaBute. Which kind of theatre do I aspire to? I’ve been told I’m earnest, and I suppose that’s true. Where do I want to fit in that spectrum? I want to fit into that place where the connection with the community meets theatre and becomes life-changing. When audiences come to the theatre, something should happen to them—something that goes beyond the two hours in the theatre, something that creates new worlds and new meanings. That’s why CPT is such an exciting place to work: It brings together this very adventurous kind of theatre that breaks molds but seeks to engage the community. It can’t just be artists talking to artists; it has to be artists talking with the audience.
You were trained in the techniques of Jerzy Grotowski back in his 1980s “objective drama” days at the University of California-Irvine. His assistant, James Slowiak, brought you to the University of Akron and the New World Performance Laboratory. To what extent do you adhere to that vision?
When you encounter a specific teaching like that of Grotowski, you learn as much from what you reject as what you accept. There was a culture that surrounded him, a guru culture that bred its own kind of hierarchy, a sense of right and wrong, of how directors should work with actors. It created a religion, a religious culture. It eventually became a set of values that had little or nothing to do with art or the craft of art. I’m not interested in working in that kind of environment—I want to be in an environment rich enough that actors are my equals and peers, even as I fulfill the responsibilities of being a leader. With Grotowski, it was only a couple of people who had the “inner knowledge.” On the flip side, what excited me, and still excites me, about Grotowski is the sense that the actor or performer is the center of the theatre experience—that actors can and should create personal material for themselves, that you can take a montage of all these meaningful things and create a new meaningful thing.
When I first came to University of California’s Objective Drama Program—“the Barn,” where Grotowski was working—I was very excited by the way in which a director could create performance in collaboration with actors, working as a “montaging” playwright. The physicality of the work and the reverence for the human voice really spoke to me. I also appreciated the sense of super-commitment to the work. But I don’t think Grotowski was ultimately interested in the audience. He was deep, but narrow. I’m not interested in creating the most popular kind of theatre, but I do want to connect with my audience.
When you say connect, do you mean with everyone?
You can’t connect with everybody, but there has to be a sense that you’re there for the audience. Grotowski talked about conventional theatre as being a brothel, and the actor using himself or herself as a prostitute to make the audience laugh or cry. Grotowski wanted to create a theatre monastery. That’s just masturbation, some people might say. Working solely for the artist, or working only for the audience—that’s a ridiculously false dichotomy. There is a kind of theatre that can do both. Great theatre is like great sex. I want the audience to have an experience, and I want to have an experience as well. If you’re both satisfied, no one is a prostitute and no one is living in a monastery.
Now, to get back to your question, you can’t connect with everybody, because I have my own kinks, and individuals in the audience have their own kinks. I am constantly seeking language and form that can connect with audiences and performers at the same time—but I recognize that some will say, “That’s not kinky enough for me,” and others will say, “Wow, that’s kinky!” But I am interested in narrative, and that can go a long way in engaging the audience.
What is your creative process with your original work?
First of all, the creation experience is incredibly intimate for me, and I want to create an environment for artists, for creators, that feels safe and challenging at the same time. My process is to work on core elements, core acting, movement and singing. You create things that you fall in love with, then elaborate. In Open Mind Firmament, the play we did on the works of Yeats, I took all that raw literary material and put it on the shelf. It’s there, influencing me, but it’s on the shelf. We started doing physical work, singing together, improvising. I asked the artists to repeat the improvisations. Each time is a little different, but a pattern evolves. We used the structure of the poems, and we had this original work the actors were creating, and it became a question of how we bring these things together. I want them not to necessarily illustrate each other but to create a new resonance with each other, amplify each other, bring out nuance, create a harmonic.
Does your work with the classics use any of those techniques?
You have to have table work when you’re working with a script, asking the usual questions, like, “What is this character’s problem?” But we’re also still creating a physical structure and songs to underpin these works—trying to discover something that’s not evident in the in the script already.
Talk about your decision not to use a narrator in Our Town.
I was dissatisfied with the character of the Stage Manager. During a read-through, it started making sense that we take the Stage Manager’s lines and assign them to the other characters. I have this sense that Our Town is an American version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The first time I read it, I thought it was a silly, meaningless play about living in small-town America. Years later, I realized this is a play about life and death, something important that goes to the core of being an American, passing from this world into the next. It became a matter of how to make this play a way of recollecting ourselves. And it came to me that the Stage Manager can become the town, the characters reminding each other and themselves what it was like in the physical world.
How about adding a narrator to Summer and Smoke?
I just thought, “My God, these are beautiful stage directions,” and they’re so pronounced in the play. I was not interested in recreating this town in the South—I wanted to engage the audience in imagining it. And the way to do that was to share the stage directions with them.
Your parents are Christian fundamentalists. How did that influence you, and how does it continue to?
They’re religious, but artistic. They are unlike many fundamentalists—they’re real thinkers, skeptics in their own way. They met in a ballet studio at the University of Minnesota. They were very, very supportive of my life in the theatre. They believe that the Bible is literally the word of God, but they also believe no one can judge whether anyone is saved. They will say there is certainly strong evidence of evolution, that the world is millions and millions of years old, but they believe in the miracle of creation. They believe that faith is a miracle.
How does that influence me? I think there’s a very strong strain of spirituality in my work, sometimes so much so that I want to hide it. Every show I do is a leaving of the world of theatre and going into a kind of personal transformation that’s a little like the story of Christ—someone who comes along and completely turns the world upside down, transforms the world. I don’t literally believe that story, but the narrative of transformation certainly informs my work.
In 2006 you suddenly became executive artistic director of a great but very sick organization. What was that transition like?
This had been my artistic home, and we were in deep shit. I didn’t like the proposals that were being offered by the board, that the theatre should become more mainstream. But something had to be done. It was a toxic environment, under financial duress; people were not getting paid. I thought, “The board is never going to listen to me, and there’s this huge tragedy happening.” But then this opportunity opened for me, and I was determined that if the ship was going to go down, I deserved from my previous work here to be the one to go down with it—doing its core mission, doing daring work. It wasn’t that people weren’t trying to do the right thing—it was the wrong combination of things. I determined that I would go to every finance meeting because I was starting to worry about my own reputation and I needed to know what was going on at the financial level, not just the artistic level.
I wasn’t thinking: “I’m going to do this executive director thing.” I was thinking, “This is a place with an awesome vision, and a great history so far, and it’s in deep, deep trouble.” I put together a financial plan that was reasonable, went to foundations to get over the worst of it, let some staff go. For a while there, I was executive artistic director and technical director of the theatre. I went to everyone connected with the theatre and said we were going to have to change the ways we do shows; I got an overwhelming response from the actors and artists. We had an amazing core staff in place, with development director Judith Ross, general manager Denis Griesmer and education director Chris Seibert. And we had this amazing history. We may have been near collapse, but we had a board committed to doing it right. They interviewed me four times, and I said: Let’s stop trying to compete with the LORT houses in town—the Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theatre Festival. Let’s be good at what we do: investigative work, work that nobody else in Cleveland is going to try.
What were your core assets and what did you do with them?
If your best core assets are your artists and the audience that you’ve built, that’s what you invest in. New, adventurous work, empowering artists and engaging the audience—to me, from a business viewpoint, those were our greatest assets. If CPT was not going to do its niche work, then what were we contributing?
You took over a founder-driven theatre. How do you fill the shoes of James Levin, a pioneer who built CPT from the ground up?
Shortly after I started, I read the book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. It looks at corporations that have lasted for more than 15 years, and talks about the founders, the visionaries and the leaders who come after them. I came to believe not that I’m going to have to be more like Jim Levin, and try to fulfill his role as a Lee Iacocca of theatre in Cleveland. Leaders who take over great organizations are behind the scenes, pushing others to the forefront, staying in the corner and being a leader among equals. You count on having an amazing staff; you think of yourself as a servant to the organization. I could never do what Jim Levin did. But I can come in and support his vision, serve it, and work with great people.
You’re a theatre educator as well as director.
The men of Y-Haven, who are homeless and working on addiction problems, have made a conscious choice to change their lives—and their lives depend on it. It’s incredible to be connected with that. It makes me a better artist. You can’t use words like, “What is your objective?” You have to break it down, and that’s a good exercise for the artist.
What do you want to tell the readers of American Theatre?
We have some of the best audiences in the world in Cleveland. They have a visceral connection to the arts and are incredibly direct. I feel privileged that my work gets to go in front of that audience.
The second thing is: CPT didn’t come out of the fire because of me, but because of the incredible people here. They’re passionate, committed, and they go above and beyond the call of duty. They are the driving force that led to this theatre’s continuing success.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer and consultant.