CLEVELAND: Early in his newest play Fairfield—which kicks off the New Ground Theatre Festival at the Cleveland Play House this month—Cleveland-based playwright Eric Coble has his well-intended but misguided young principal make the following hilarious and biting comment about Black History Month:
“The point of this month is not belief, it’s skin color! Or rather it’s that skin color doesn’t matter, we’re all human, we’re all wonderful. It’s about ignoring skin color. By pointing it out. And celebrating it. Then moving beyond it. In March.”
The point of CPH’s festival, which runs from May 6–16, is to foster four new works in various stages of development. In addition to Coble, this year’s lineup also includes plays by Jonatha Brooke, Rebecca Gilman and Ken Ludwig. Fairfield, which will run in full production for the entire month of May, appeared in last year’s New Ground event as a reading.
Coble’s sardonic comedy is set at Fairfield Elementary, a public school located in a diverse, liberal suburb, and follows one teacher’s misguided attempts at celebrating Black History Month. Fairfield is partly inspired by Coble’s half-dozen years on a school board, watching an integrated, progressive community struggle with its ideals about enlightened race relations. Coble also saw it played out with his own children, and in the way teachers and parents discussed difficult issues with them. He’s quick to add, though, that the characters in the play are not based on actual people.
“Audience members should be prepared to be shocked,” the playwright warns. “It’s not a gentle comedy.”
Considering that the themes of other plays in this year’s festival include such conversation-starting topics as labor unions and Alzheimer’s, the Cleveland audience will have no shortage of grist for debate.
For Coble, the benefit of being part of such a smorgasbord of new plays is precisely the newness: It points a giant arrow at his play, he says, that clearly declares, “This is a new play!”
“That’s very useful for the audience, because it tells them that they are the first to get to live with this play,” he enthuses. “That’s very useful for building an audience for the play, as well as providing an understanding of what they are about to see.”
Coble relishes the chance to learn from post-show discussions, along with preshow and intermission encounters in the lobby. He’s on his home field at CPH, where he is a member of the Playwrights Unit, and where a lot of theatregoers have experienced his work over his 20-plus year career in Cleveland. In fact, it’s not unusual to see the lanky Coble leaning into animated conversations with patrons in the lobbies of theatres where his work has appeared throughout Northeast Ohio.
CPH artistic director Laura Kepley, who has worked closely with Coble on his other plays and is directing Fairfield, hopes that the New Ground Festival not only celebrates new work—long a part of the Play House’s legacy and something she has established a reputation for cultivating—but also to deepen her theatre’s relationship with playwrights. She does that, she says, by giving each writer an individualized process depending on their needs.
“We never take a cookie-cutter approach,” says Kepley, who last month collected the 2015 Regional Theatre Tony Award for CPH. “The playwrights drive the process in terms of where they want the focus of development, where they have questions and where they want to probe within their new scripts.”
Being part of the festival is enormously valuable for Ken Ludwig, whose play A Comedy of Tenors will receive a final tune-up as a reading directed by Stephen Wadsworth on May 9th before its world premiere as the opener for CPH’s centennial season (where it will run Sept. 5–Oct. 3).
“It gives me a chance to hear great actors do the play with a great director and really take a step forward in working on the piece,” he says. “I’ll be editing and changing it as we go, probably up to and beyond opening night, so it’s exactly what a new script needs.”
A Comedy of Tenors is the sequel to Ludwig’s wildly successful play Lend Me a Tenor. Featuring the same four characters, it’s set in a hotel room in Paris three years later, where the former mayor of Cleveland is planning the biggest concert of the century and calling it something he thought of in 1936: The Three Tenors. What he wasn’t counting on was the chaos that would ensue, thanks to an amorous Italian superstar and his hot-blooded wife, leading to an opening night marked by flaring tempers, mistaken identities and bedlam in the boudoir.
“It’s not a sequel in the sense that you need to know anything about the first play,” Ludwig explains. “It completely stands on its own.”
“Ken’s been part of the CPH family since the 1980s, and this is his fifth play that we’re doing and the third world premiere,” Kepley explains. This longstanding relationship is why A Comedy of Tenors is the perfect play to launch the venerable venue’s 100th, she says: “Having characters from Cleveland is an extra-special, fun component.”
Playwright Rebecca Gilman, whose new Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976 will have a Kepley-directed reading on May 16, shares Ludwig’s joy of discovery.
“I like working with different groups of actors and directors who don’t know the work but are invested in theatre to get different perspectives,” she says. “I like seeing what people bring to parts that I haven’t anticipated, and a big bonus is having an audience that’s not familiar with the work get to hear and see it.”
She laughs a little as she adds that she also likes to start by answering the basic questions about a new script, including: Does it make any sense? Does anybody care?
Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, set in Wisconsin during the ’70s, depicts a small-town in which a corporation has bought out the biggest employer, leaving the local workers to fight to save their union and their jobs. Gilman says the play was inspired in part by recent events in Wisconsin, where in recent years Governor Scott Walker has battled with the state’s unions.
“Rebecca is dealing with really complicated issues about America, the direction the country is going, and what happens when the political is deeply personal,” Kepley says.
Gilman is also the winner of CPH’s 2015 Roe Green Award, named after a local philanthropist who generously supports the New Ground Festival. CPH will also stage Gilman’s Helen Hayes Award-winning play Luna Gale next season (Feb. 27–March 20, 2016), under the direction of Austin Pendleton.
The personal was also the focus for folk rock singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke, in the full production of her one-woman play with music, My Mother Has 4 Noses (running May 14–16 at the festival under Jeremy Cohen’s direction). The autobiographical play received critical and audience acclaim when it was produced Off-Broadway last year.
Built from the content of a blog Brooke wrote as a creative outlet while acting as caretaker for her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, the play interweaves original music with her personal narrative. Recognizing the universal interest in this topic as “more adults are becoming parents to their parents,” Kepley says, she and the Cleveland Clinic approached Brooke to perform that play as part of the festival. The Clinic and the Cleveland Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association are sponsoring the show and will participate in post-show discussions.
Brooke, who had always intended to tour the show nationally, looks forward to the postshow discussions, which will give her a close look at how Cleveland audiences will receive her play.
“These discussions give amazing permission for people to talk about what they have just seen and unload their personal experiences, too,” she says. “It feels like it’s everybody’s story today. And it’s a story that needs to be told, because it allows audiences to laugh at some really tough stuff.”