Ed Stern, who served as producing artistic director of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park from 1992 to 2012, died on April 2 at the age of 72.
Ed Stern and I knew and worked with each other for more than 35 years. It was a special kind of brotherhood—not quite the Lunts of the field, but I’d say we were pretty close. Over the course of those three-plus decades and at various theatres, we celebrated the life theatrical in many ways. His loss is incalculable to me and so many others. Not to have him available for immediate conversation and friendship leaves a great emptiness. But what will endure in memory are the various adventures we had.
A little background: Ed was in my town of St. Louis directing a show when he was approached about applying for the a.d. job in Cincinnati. Asked for a résumé, which he did not have, he and I sat at a typewriter (at a time when there was no internet) outside my office to create his résumé—which clearly did the trick!
Ed directed 28 shows for us at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. When the Stern caravan rolled into town, we were ready. The first thing was to make sure we had a ready supply of cigars. There was no show he did for us that did not have someone—the someone’s gender wasn’t really important—with a cigar in hand at some point. Sometimes they were even briefly lit. I think this started with our production of M. Butterfly, in which he insisted that one of the characters enter smoking a cigar. I really hated the idea, mainly because of the smell and how it might bother the audience. I didn’t get much sympathy for my point of view. And that began the “tradition” of a cigar showing up in every one of his shows. It brought him great glee to figure out how he was going to sneak a cigar into the action, especially because it drove me nuts.
One sojourn that kind of replicated our university days was what we referred to as our country & western/rock ’n’ roll summer in 1989. We were going to open The Rep’s season with The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas, an unwieldy take on the work of the Bard redone as a musical written by the Red Clay Ramblers and John Haber. The show needed a fair amount of work, but the only way to get the focused attention of the Ramblers was to talk to them before, or usually after, a concert. So Ed and I spent part of a summer following the band around, going to concerts in many parks, riding in the back of vans. He and I would work on the show along the way, and then we’d have script/song conferences with the band, usually late at night and sometimes early mornings. We had great fun, I have to say. Touring around the Northeast with the band was one of those very joyful moments (though the back of the vans weren’t all that comfortable). The show turned out to be a great romp, and I’m sure it was part of our summer being roadies for the Ramblers the made the show so exuberant. (Who gets to live these kind of adventures anymore?)
Working on a show with Ed was always a special kind of experience. The day started with a recap of the theatrical news from The New York Times or things we had heard from our friends around the country. We then moved onto politics on all fronts—international, U.S., and local. We were going to solve everything! Often there were discussions of books we were reading, and, of course, the current movie selections. Ed was a little bit more adventuresome/artistic in his tastes than I was; I believe he never let me forget that I enjoyed Titanic more than he did. It was years of never-ending torture from him about that film. If we weren’t in the same city, we had phone conversations about many things, and ultimately we would explore ideas for shows, and problems with shows, as much as we talked about who had seen what in New York or London.
When Ed was in St. Louis, he faithfully went to visit the grave of Tennessee Williams. He always took some flowers out to this grave site, which was far out from the city’s center. And then he was off to find great barbecue. One of Ed’s other traditions was to hide a six-pack of beer somewhere on the set of the show he was working on. Whoever found it could claim it. He would spend days scouting the set looking for the most obscure place to hide it. Once in a while the beer did get found, but usually it remained hidden until the end of a run.
To those who will never get the chance to work with Ed, all any of us can say is that experience was fantastic. His sensitivity to story and language was part of the process. His humanity was always evident in his approach to character and also to the actors he was working with. We had been working for many months on The Play That Goes Wrong. He’d call almost daily to discuss an issue he found in the show and how we were going to solve it. I knew that with his sense of humor, and his cleverness in staging, plus his enjoyment of working on old show-business gags, he was going to have a special time. We cast the show months before rehearsal and he was thrilled with the company.
When we realized that he couldn’t come to do the show, he had gracious conversations with Melissa Rain Anderson, who picked up the directing assignment less than a week before rehearsals were scheduled to start. And we knew from the beginning of that process that our casting decisions were spot on. It has been a swell collaboration and we made sure he knew how sharp the company was. Our set designers, Margery and Peter Spack, included several portraits of Ed on the set. Those pictures of him, watching the show every performance, acknowledged his presence at every moment of this fully sold-out show.
Look, we were a team. We had a very special partnership. And for 35 years we were able to celebrate and maybe to elevate the work of the American theatre. I miss him greatly and just revel in the time we had together. Now, where are those cigars? I’m sure they have been worked into the celestial curtain call he is staging.
Steve Woolf has been artistic director of Repertory Theatre of St. Louis since 1986; his tenure will end in 2019.