This coming September, Cleveland Play House will kick off its adventurous 2011 season in the freshly renovated and expanded Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare. Season highlights will include Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo,” a play about faith and reason, and Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play),” which depicts a 19th-century gynecologist’s unusual treatment for his patients. They arrive with symptoms of hysteria and leave feeling, well, happy.
While CPH’s boundary-pushing season is nothing new — formed in 1915, the nonprofit theatre has stayed true to its roots as an artistic alternative to commercial fare — these bold, artistic choices are possible because of its impressive new home in downtown Cleveland. The $32-million Allen project unites CPH, Cleveland State University’s Dramatic Arts Program and PlayhouseSquare under one roof.
“We’ve created a 500-seat contemporary theatre that ‘lives’ inside the historic shell of the Allen, plus two new theatres, and that’s allowed us to tackle interesting projects we’d left on the table before now,” says CPH Managing Director Kevin Moore, who coordinated CPH’s move from its longstanding home at 8500 Euclid Avenue. “Plus we’re downtown now, which is an exciting place where people want to be.”
“Anyone interested in theatre now comes to PlayhouseSquare,” adds Art Falco, President and CEO of PlayhouseSquare Foundation. “We’ve become a leader in area redevelopment; we’re building a 24/7 neighborhood.”
CSU’s theatre department is also slated to move to PlayhouseSquare in September. Theatre majors have long been relegated to the dilapidated Factory Theatre on the edge of campus, yet they’ll soon have a chance to work with CPH professionals while staging larger productions of their own. In a related project, the Middough building on East 13th Street is being renovated for office space and classrooms.
Act I: They Meet
Today, PlayhouseSquare comprises the second-largest performing arts complex in the country, behind New York’s Lincoln Center. Yet 40 years ago, the Palace, State, Ohio, Hanna and Allen theatres, which were built over the course of just 19 months in the 1920s, were thought to be beyond saving. Fortunately, civic leaders launched a successful grassroots campaign to restore them. More recently, PlayhouseSquare has earned national praise for its innovative approach to arts and economic development.
The Allen Theatre was built in 1921 as a 3,000-seat movie palace. After being spared from the wrecking ball in the 1970s, and undergoing a $15-million renovation, it reopened in 1998 as a venue for large Broadway musicals.
A few years later, however, the industry changed dramatically. Three out of four top Broadway producers went bankrupt, left for smaller projects or fled the biz entirely. In 2000, Cleveland San Jose Ballet folded and Opera Cleveland scaled back operations. By the mid-2000s, the Allen was only being used for about 80 events per year.
Meanwhile, 70 blocks to the east, Cleveland Play House also was wrestling with harsh economic realities as the cost of owning and managing real estate was sucking the life out of its artistic mission. As Moore puts it, “Our building was killing us, and we wanted to focus on the art.”
And so the courtship began. “We approached Cleveland Play House about reconfiguring the Allen,” says Falco. “At the same time, we knew that CSU was in need of upgraded facilities, so we started talking to them about coming to PlayhouseSquare.”
Act II: They Fall in Love
Cleveland Play House projected it could save half a million dollars per year by moving to PlayhouseSquare. Yet it wasn’t merely the costs of ownership that spurred CPH’s move, says Moore. It was also the desire to be in a more vibrant, central location.
“We were isolated, and we wanted a dynamic, multigenerational theatre space that’s reflective of the community,” he says. “We wanted to be part of downtown.”
As PlayhouseSquare wooed CPH, the theatre department at CSU was growing steadily under the leadership of Michael Mauldin, a former Broadway actor hired in 2006 to revive it. “In five years, we’ve grown the number of majors from 21 to 85,” he says. “But our facilities are very limited, and we’re bursting at the seams.”
Mauldin saw an opportunity to take CSU’s budding program to the next level by moving to better, larger digs at PlayhouseSquare. “I knew the success of our program has a lot to do with our connection to professional theatres, which are so vibrant here.”
In late 2009, Cleveland Play House put their building on the market and found a buyer in the land-hungry Cleveland Clinic, which bought it for $13 million and set the countdown ticking for CPH’s move to PlayhouseSquare.
Act III: They Get Married
Last year, PlayhouseSquare, CPH and CSU joined forces to undertake an ambitious $32 million fundraising campaign to renovate and expand the Allen Theatre. Since then, CSU and CPH have worked out an elaborate schedule to share the complex.
“It’s complicated, yes, but it works,” says Mauldin. “For an undergraduate theatre program to partner with the oldest regional theatre in the U.S. housed in the second largest performing arts center… it’s absolutely unparalleled.”
The theatre’s renovations themselves, designed by the Cleveland firm of Westlake Reed Leskosky, are dramatic works of art that will change downtown theatergoers’ experience. Gone is the “gerbil tube” that funneled visitors into theatres from the main parking garage. It is being replaced by an elegant 51-foot “inner streetscape.” And the two new theatres, which Moore calls the “second stage” and “lab theatre,” are sure to wow patrons with their sleek, sophisticated architecture.
To the north, patrons will enter a grand lobby that’s been expanded by absorbing some of the historic Allen. After admiring the ornate plasterwork that’s been preserved on the ceilings, they’ll enter a plush, intimate theatre boasting great sight lines from every seat.
Each of the three new theatres is being wired for the latest technology and multimedia. New acoustic baffles will improve the sound quality, while state-of-the-art equipment installed for big musicals during an earlier renovation will now be applied to new works. The 350-seat second stage will be flexible enough to accommodate four different seating arrangements, including theatre in the round.
Moore is excited about the new entrances, which he says set the stage for great work. “You enter from the top and look down. Everything about the world of the play is right in front of you.”
Thanks to the early efforts of the Playhouse Square Association, Cleveland not only saved its classical theatres, it restored them to their early 20th-century glory. Now, with the Allen’s bold renovation, the future of PlayhouseSquare has never looked brighter. This most recent expansion will add an estimated 125,000 patrons to PlayhouseSquare’s already impressive million-plus annual audience.
PlayhouseSquare’s Art Falco understandably is bullish on the theater district’s ability to keep the momentum moving.
“Cleveland Play House and CSU’s theatre program add another dimension to PlayhouseSquare,” he says. “With plays ranging from Broadway to modern, we’re building new audiences.”
Fresh Water Cleveland, 6/23/11