Thursday, March 30, 2000

Group works to bring outdoor drama to area

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        About the time the plans for a downtown Cincinnati performing arts center were announced almost a decade ago, Chuck Wente started dreaming the dream that in 1996 became Downtown Theatre Classics. He has since backed away into a largely inactive role on the theater's board. Now he's taking on someone else's dream.

        In April, North Star Productions will launch a three-year, $4.5 million capital campaign that will, if it works, bring Greater Cincinnati its first outdoor drama. Themed to the Underground Railroad, it would play on a hilltop 3 miles west of Augusta, Ky. beginning in late June 2003. Mr. Wente is executive director.

        “The time is now,” Mr. Wente told outdoor drama-loving Shirley Mohrfield, who gets credit for the North Star dream. Mrs. Mohrfield, of Pleasant Plain, Ohio, and Mr. Wente have been friends since they were dancing partners in a long-ago Loveland Stage Company production of Sugar.

        He invited her to join the Downtown Theatre Classics board. That's when she told him about the idea she'd been toying with for almost 15 years: founding an outdoor drama. @subhed:"Gut feeling' @body:DTC started moving in its own direction about the time Cincinnati's Underground Railroad Freedom Center was announced.

        “I had a gut feeling,” Mr. Wente says, as the new not-for-profit is poised to try its luck in the entertainment arena.

        Mr. Wente is applying the “gazillion” things he learned “to do and not do” from his five years as founder of Downtown Theatre Classics. He defines his DTC experience as “bittersweet. So much blood and money went into it,” including personal savings.

        “I don't mind a little pressure,” says Mr. Wente, sighing, but a problem would come up, the phone would ring at 10:30 p.m. “I'd take the nitroglycerin pill, I'd drink the coffee, I'd stay up all night” and somehow the under-financed theater, even at its shakiest, would keep the doors open.

        The experience taught him “it's critically important to build a rock-solid foundation and allow a lot of time to build a substantial board.”

        For North Star, Nina Clooney, longtime arts booster, is on board as capital campaign chairperson. Leon Boothe, president emeritus of Northern Kentucky University, will serve as liaison with the Freedom Center. NKU theater department chair Joe Conger is consulting artistic director.

        The board includes representatives from Northern Kentucky African American Heritage Task Force (Joyce Coleman), NKU's Institute for Freedom Studies (Prince Brown), Bracken County Historical Society (Gregory Schell), Summerfair (Kevin Reynolds), Northern Kentucky Restaurant Association (Chip Smith).

        A 165-page feasibility study by the Institute of Outdoor Drama at University of North Carolina has given North Star a big thumbs-up. The study projects $11 million in economic impact and 55,000 visitors to the area annually.

        The land for the project, always a hurdle, has already been provided. The 1,500-seat amphitheatre would be built on more than 100 hilltop acres contributed by Mrs. Mohrfield and her husband, Larry.

        This feels good, says Mr. Wente, who took a long time to get bitten by the theater bug, but when it got him, it got under his skin and into his blood.

        In 1986, 39-year old Mr. Wente tagged along with a friend to a community theater audition of Fiddler on the Roof. Mr. Wente was offered the lead.

        He acted, he directed, he wrote plays before he had the idea for DTC. “I love the theater, I love all elements of it, I love telling a story, having a story told to me.

        “I spent 25 years selling automation equipment, and I hated it. DTC was an avocation. This looked like an opportunity to earn a living in the theater.”

        For the next “couple of years” Mr. Wente will devote himself to building support for North Star (named for the point of light slaves followed northward from the South), facilitate fund-raising and keep the project moving.

        North Star is shopping for a playwright and hopes to choose a writer by summer with a finished script in 2001.

        Campaign goals start with $250,000 to be raised by December, with public fund-raising beginning in January with at least half the total in hand by December 2001.

        “By the end of 2001, we should have a real good idea if we can start construction,” Mr. Wente says.

        The outdoor drama will have an estimated annual $800,000 budget that would include an air-conditioned gift shop and educational facilities.

        North Star is looking for help in all areas of development. Anyone interested in participating can call Mr. Wente or Mrs. Mohrfield at 581-4561.


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