By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The first inkling that something extraordinary was happening at Playhouse in the Park came in 1997.
Staff of Playhouse in the Park takes the stage in Eden Park.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/BRANDI STAFFORD
The Rosenthal New Play Prize went to In Walks Ed, Keith Glover's swaggering urban fantasy that gave an Old West, lone-gunman flavor to a giddy, blues-toned gangsta tale.
It was the year that capped an $8.1 million capital campaign that included an upgrade for the Playhouse's smaller Shelterhouse stage. That fall, the doors burst open with Nixon's Nixon, a two-man show that played like a fireworks-loaded prizefight between Tricky Dick and his bÍte noir, Henry Kissinger.
There was magic on that stage, and over the next six years, the Playhouse production (directed by Charles Towers and starring Tim Donoghue and Keith Jochim) won acclaim on four continents, including two London runs.
Producing artistic director Ed Stern and executive director Buzz Ward were five years into their jobs, and within a year they would retire the crushing $1 million-plus debt they'd inherited on taking the theater's leadership in 1992.
Banishing that red ink made it possible to dream bigger dreams, which will receive national recognition tonight, when the Playhouse in the Park is presented with this year's Tony Award for Regional Theatre, the first time an Ohio theater has won the annual honor.
Stern calls the Tony "a great affirmation. It's not saying 'change,' it's saying 'build and sustain.' It tells people in the community, 'Don't take the Playhouse for granted' and people outside are saying 'Playhouse is enriching all of American theater.' "
The Playhouse has had many milestones since its founding in 1960: it was among the first large regional theaters to hire an African-American artistic director; it was first to stage a co-production with another regional theater; and it has sent many plays premiered here to New York and beyond.
But it's the last few years that have positioned it on the national scene, thanks to Stern's vision of what a resident theater for Cincinnati should be: A theater that can hold its own against resident theater anywhere.
"He's found a way to challenge and lead his audiences while not breaking faith and trust that he is doing work that works for Cincinnati," says Steve Woolf, producing artistic director at St. Louis Rep. He's known Stern for more than 25 years and the two theaters are longtime producing partners.
"He's producing for the audience in the town he's living in. That connection is critical."
That connection meant more collaborations with playwright Glover, who found a creative home here. Since 1997, audiences have seen his transcendent blues-man musical Thunder Knocking on the Door and the eye-popping, mind-blowing vampire Western Dark Paradise. Love 'em or hate 'em, there was nothing like them.
That understanding also meant launching Alteractive, a sometimes in-your-face alternative performance series in 2001.
Tim Miller, gay, political and a longtime arts activist, has headlined in the series twice.
"I don't know of a regional theater which more boldly embraces the whole variety of theater and performance," Miller says.
"The commitment to the joy, the risks and challenge that theater brings to people is what has drawn me again and again up the hill to Playhouse."
The American Theatre Critics Association votes for the Regional Theatre Tony, and recommends it to the American Theatre Wing, which awards the Tony.
Critics make the case for the best theaters in their region. (The nomination for Playhouse was written by the Enquirer's Jackie Demaline and City Beat's Rick Pender.)
Michael Barnes, ATCA chairman and theater critic at the Austin American-Statesman, says that when he's casting his vote he looks "for theaters that have established a consistently high quality, that have generated new styles or new scripts and have participated in the larger world of American and international theater. I also tend to prefer theaters that engage their communities rather than just pander to them."
Productions like 2003's Metamorphoses - Greek myths staged in a swimming pool - make an impact, so does a commitment to an annual new play award.
Playhouse earned fans among the nation's critics last year when Carson Kreitzer's The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer was named runner-up for its national ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award.
A pinnacle of the 15 years of the Rosenthal New Play Prize contest - which was discontinued in 2003 - Oppenheimer was a speculation and a reverie about science, religion, ethics, love, lust, conscience, war and the atomic bomb, a device that changed the world forever.
"The production certainly pushed the envelope in various ways," says Kreitzer. "Rigging the Shelterhouse with live video and eight hanging TV screens, and most of all politically.
"I will never forget sitting in dress rehearsal of a play about the advent of nuclear weapons ... as the first bombs fell on Iraq. It felt like a dangerous time to be doing this play. But the audiences in Cincinnati were not afraid. Ed Stern challenges his audience, which means he trusts and respects them. And that is a beautiful thing for a community to have."
One of the theater's most remarkable accomplishments is its ability to attract national and international artists to a midsized city in the Midwest.
Broadway lighting designer Paul Gallo says that Playhouse in the Park is "the greatest regional theater in the country."
Oppenheimer director Mark Wing-Davey is a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company and New York's Shakespeare in Central Park. He says he would "work at Cincinnati again in a shot if the project were right."
He calls Stern "enabling."
"He always gave the impression that the artistic needs of the piece were there to be served. He's spectacular of the people I've met around the regional theater scene in the States."
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