Sunday, April 18, 2004

The Bard does endure

Theater founders, funders saw the potential in this poet

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The question isn't "why a Shakespeare company in Cincinnati?" but "why did it take so long?"

It's not surprising that Jasson Minadakis, Marni Penning and Nick Rose settled on conservative Cincinnati to start a company devoted to the classics.

Shakespeare remains the most popular playwright for U.S. audiences (based on number of annual productions). Part of Shakespeare's appeal to the general public is that 500 years of production history translates to museum quality, safe, solid and maybe even educational entertainment - an enormous, if common, misperception.

There are more than 100 theater companies specializing in Shakespeare across the United States (almost a dozen in California), but although there are theater factory-sized festivals like the year-round operations in Ashland, Ore., and Montgomery, Ala., Shakespeare most often flourishes in summer festivals on campuses and city parks.

Season commitment key

While "safe" and "solid" aren't what have drawn artists to the playwright for more than 500 years, it looked good on paper to potential funders, the founders reasoned, and Cincinnati has significantly less professional theater than this size community should.

One of the measures of the founders' boldness was to commit to a full-season, September-May production schedule featuring a resident company of actors. It's one of a handful of companies in the nation that make the attempt.

Actors work on a 46-week contract. (CSF does employ guest artists who next season will include Playhouse and Ensemble veterans Bruce Cromer and Amy Warner in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

"The actors come first," says artistic director Brian Isaac Phillips. "It's not cheap. That's why hardly any other theater does it."

Shakespeare requires lots of bodies, usually at least a dozen even if they take on multiple roles.

The onstage salaries, say management, are the reason for minimal design and the slow growth of the administrative staff.

Rebecca Bowman, who recently directed Pericles, laughs as she measures progress. "We don't have to share phones anymore. My office is no longer a dressing room."

Pulling Shakespeare out from behind a museum case and into fresh air and sunlight can be a shock to the system. In 1997, a character in Romeo and Juliet made a balloon out of a condom and sent Cincinnati reeling.

Subscription growth slow

The festival has kept condoms offstage since then, but, it remains resolved to keep the work relevant to today's audiences.

"Shakespeare is still one of the most cutting-edge playwrights we have," says Bowman. "He illuminates the problems of contemporary society. He can scare you."

Phillips adds, "If we forget what came before, we're doomed to repeat our mistakes. We need that insight to live our lives."

Despite Shakespeare's popularity, festival's subscriptions stand at 850, a number the company first reached in 1999. After losing ground, CSF returned to its best number this season.

"That's not our ceiling," says Bowman, wearing her managing director hat. "That's the ceiling for a company with no administrative infrastructure. We've learned a lot in five years."

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