Sunday, April 18, 2004

Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival turns 10

Past present future

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Representing the past, present, and future of Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival are Nick Rose (left), founding company member and guest artist next year, Jeremy Dubin, ensemble member, Corinne Mohlenhoff, ensemble member, and Brian Isaac Phillips, artistic director.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/BRANDI STAFFORD
Ten years ago, tiny Fahrenheit Theatre Company was born on $8,000 and a vision that melded classical texts and exuberant and messy young energy.

Recent college grads Jasson Minadakis, Marni Penning, Nick Rose and Chris Reeder came to Cincinnati and laid the foundation for what would become Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival.

The troupe will use the occasion of William Shakespeare's 440th birthday (April 23) to celebrate its first decade with a five-performance revival of its 1999 premiere, The Wars of the Roses, Thursday through next Sunday at 719 Race St., the theater's home.

"The past is prologue," quotes artistic director Brian Isaac Phillips, who has held the post for not quite six months. Phillips is ready to lay the festival's first 10 years to rest as a foundation on which to build the future, and no one who's been watching can blame him.

It's been a decade of thrill ride rocketing highs and plummeting lows for Cincinnati's only resident ensemble theater company and the fans who have discovered the city's best young acting talent.

Phillips is showing some signs of the strain of getting back on course - there's a little less hair above his noble brow and a little more heft to his lanky frame than just a couple of years ago.

What: The Wars of the Roses
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. next Sunday
Where: Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, 719 Race St., downtown
Tickets: $35. 381-2273
Big 10 Bash: Cincinnati Shakespeare's 10th anniversary celebration will culminate 6-9 p.m. next Sunday at Sycamore Place at St. Xavier Park (634 Sycamore St.). Admission is $20 and includes live jazz, light appetizers, cash bar and a chance to rub elbows with company members then and now.
Less than 18 months ago, it looked like the end for CSF. The threat was backstage turmoil (emotional and financial) centered on gifted and mercurial founding artistic director Minadakis, small in stature but huge in ambition.

By 2001-02, Minadakis was producing or collaborating on a dozen projects - unbelievable for a storefront company. For all the drama behind the scenes, what the festival's meager audiences saw that year was Cincinnati's most exciting theater season.

Minadakis departed suddenly as the theater teetered near oblivion in November 2002. He was replaced by Rose (assisted by Phillips) for most of 2003; in a suitably dramatic turnaround, the level-headed new management team of Phillips and managing director Rebecca Bowman (who joined the company in 1999) and business manager Greg Davis (who arrived in 2001) triumphed with a steady climb back to stability.

Phillips believes long-term "we will be the No. 1 destination in Cincinnati for theater professionals and patrons alike."

Big dreams? Why dream any other way? "Why else would I be here?" he asks rhetorically.

Young fan base

Marking 10 years isn't about looking back over a laundry list of productions, which have been uneven, particularly since the departure of Minadakis' strong hand.

More importantly, it's about taking the measure of a small arts company's impact on its community.

"They have always been marked by being a young company," says Playhouse in the Park producing artistic director Ed Stern, who saw the company's first show, Taming of the Shrew, and remembers its "let's put on a show verve."

Stern adds, "They attract and welcome a young audience, which sees itself reflected on stage and responds to that" and the festival's "groundlings" prove Stern is right by packing the onstage bleachers.

"Our audience is getting younger," says Stern, "and some of that is probably attributable to Cincinnati Shakespeare."

The importance of a young resident company living in a city can be enormous. It fits snugly into Cincinnati leadership's thinking about moving the best and brightest into downtown.

"It creates critical mass," observes Marc Rubin, chairman of the board's strategic planning committee.

"Some stay and deepen the (artistic) resources of a community. The Fringe is a perfect example. Jason Bruffy (who is producing the first Cincinnati Fringe Festival in May) came to work here; he had an idea. This year we gave him a safety net," Rubin says. (The first Fringe will be under the umbrella of CSF's Cinergy-sponsored Studio Series.)

"None of us know what's going to happen. God willing and good weather, it will be successful and sustaining."

In 1996, Cincinnati Shakespeare paved the way to the new Aronoff Center's Fifth Third Bank Theater. Nobody believed that a small, unknown and untried company could draw audiences to Main and Seventh, but CSF did for two years.

A flurry of small new companies was born by the next year, eager to try their luck in the space. It turned out not to be a friendly environment for most. Some have moved on, more simply ended their runs, but the brief excitement of a lively small theater scene is easily traced to the festival's bold pioneering.

Cincinnati Shakespeare moved two blocks to a more affordable old movie house, and has been a neighborhood anchor at Race and Garfield Place since 1998, surviving through civil unrest, the long economic boycott, the aftermath of 9-11, the nation's economic downturn, all of which contributed to box office trouble for the city's small theater companies.

Even the revolving door of artistic and administrative leadership hasn't brought them down.

"I'm not so arrogant to believe that we make a difference throughout the city," says Rubin. "But because we're here, it's not a dark old movie theater on a dead corner downtown."

The artistic path has been unsteady. The company's strength throughout its life has been contemporary rather than the work of its namesake, reaching dazzling heights in 1999 with Waiting for Godot and 2002 with the world premiere of Chagrin Falls.

With Minadakis left, the festival re-committed to the classics.

Short-term and long-term, Phillips says, the company goal is to work toward creating the quality of a Stratford Festival of Canada on an intimate scale. The degree of intimacy - not even 200 seats, some on stage in bleachers - will remain an unbreakable pact between the theater and its audience.

Phillips doesn't think in terms of possible but probable. "For the first five years it was a gypsy company."

Laundry list of needs

The festival is midway through a planning process and everyone is clear on what CSF needs to get from where they are to where they want to be.

"We need to strengthen the ensemble," says Rubin. "We need additional artistic resources, we need the budget for more guest directors, outside training."

"We need guest designers," inserts Phillips.

"We need another costuming intern," adds Bowman, "so that we have more than two people working 20 hours a day."

That all adds up to doubling next season's $650,000 budget over the next 10 years.

And, says Phillips, "We need to stop living in the past. There's a new artistic director and a new vision and a new decade.

"Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival is the blood, sweat, tears and talent of a decade of artists. We're thanking the past. We couldn't be here to move forward if they hadn't been here before."

And forward is the direction that Phillips is choosing.


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