CLEVELAND: The historic Sixth City is finding its resurgence on the stage. With a recent $16 million-dollar theatre district renovation, a Regional Tony Award recipient and one of the largest markets for national tours, it’s show time for this Ohio powerhouse. When theatre artists from around the U.S. and the globe gather in the city this month for the Theatre Communications Group’s national theatre conference (June 18–20), attendees will get a glimpse of a theatre scene credited with boosting the city’s economy in recent years while also garnering national attention.
At the center of this revival has been Cleveland Play House, the nation’s first regional theatre, which celebrates its 100th year in continuous operation with a special Tony Award. The simultaneous honor and the momentous anniversary are a coincidence, but it’s one that Laura Kepley, the theatre’s artistic director since 2013, couldn’t be happier about.
“Bringing this recognition to Cleveland is something we are incredibly proud of,” says Kepley. “Like many legacy cities or Rust Belt cities, Cleveland has had a hard road. Right now we are really turning a corner—there is more growth, more excitement and more energy here than in a very long time.”
Cleveland Play House is part of the bustling Playhouse Square complex, a nonprofit performing arts center and real estate company that houses nine performance spaces in the downtown area. Last year, the cultural hub underwent a massive transformation, renovating the historic movie palaces and gilded theatres to become the city’s central theatre district. With gateway arches, looming marquees, digitized kiosks and the world’s largest outdoor chandelier, Cleveland has successfully resurrected its 1920s vaudevillian roots and created a dazzling home for the city’s theatre scene.
Behind the new buzz is a longstanding theatre community that has long striven to develop new work reflective of the city’s diversity. Kepley says she encourages young performers and directors to come to Cleveland to share their work with its hungry audiences. “It is a nurturing home for the artists and the art, in a community that cares passionately about their culture,” she effuses.
The passion is shared. “The theatre community is really quite cooperative,” says Raymond Bobgan, artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT). “We share a lot of the same actors, a lot of the same designers. One of the things that I’ve heard from other communities is how there is a lot of divisiveness; that doesn’t really exist in Cleveland.”
In fact, far from being divisive, CPT has been expressly inclusive; among its efforts in the community has been the creation of Teatre Publico de Cleveland, an ensemble of Latino performers. Cleveland Play House, too, brings arts education to underserved schools in the Cleveland area. Both theatres strive to program work with social import: This season CPT developed and will produce Exact Change (June 11—27), a one-woman show by noted Cleveland theatre critic Christine Howey (formerly Dick Howey) about her journey transitioning into a woman. And Cleveland Play House recently produced Eric Coble’s Fairfield, about a young teacher’s misguided yet comical attempt to teach elementary students about Black History Month.
When theatre thrives, so do nearby restaurants and bars, and accordingly, many have popped up as a result of the increasing number of curtain times in the last few years. Says Erik Piepenburg, a theatre editor for the New York Times and a Cleveland native, who will speak at the TCG conference, “The theatre is doing some really great stuff artistically, but also making sure that the area around it is energized in a way that certainly wasn’t when I was growing up there.”
The theatre district boom has also spurred new businesses and new housing developments in the downtown area. “There are a lot of small neighborhoods that are suddenly growing really quickly, and a lot of the small theatre companies are based in those neighborhoods,” says CPT’s Bobgan. In 2007, Cleveland Public Theatre founded the Gordon Square Arts District to ensure that the rise of arts and culture were helping the city’s economy; it has since become a national model for how the arts can catalyze economic growth and create jobs, helping to transform the western neighborhood of the Detroit Shoreway.
Moving forward, these Cleveland theatre leaders plan to keep the theatre and its surrounding communities on an upward trend. “For the wider community, we have one massive goal,” says Bobgan. “This November we will be going in front of the voters of Cuyahoga County for a major art tax on smoking that happened several years back and it is up for renewal. I think the tax itself has played a major role in the resurgence of theatre in our community and all the arts. So that is a big thing that we are coming together to work on together.”
In addition to the thriving theatre scene, Cleveland also has the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Perhaps less well known, Cleveland also has a beach along Lake Erie, a record number of microbreweries and a growing interest in the production of bourbon. Whether you’re coming to the TCG conference or planning a trip to Cleveland for some other reason, our sources gave us a few insiders’ tips of must-sees and must-eats while in the Sixth City.