From Wicked Witches to Cabaret M.C.s, the Play House Celebrates 100 Years
by David C. Barnett
America’s regional theaters give playwrights and actors a place to hone their skills, away from Broadway. The Cleveland Play House is credited by many as the country’s first regional theater, and is celebrating its one hundredth birthday, this season. The Play House has weathered world wars and economic uncertainty, but they’ve always found a way to keep the lights on.
Cleveland native Joel Katz got his start at the Cleveland Play House as a member of the company’s children’s theater, known as the Curtain Pullers.
"I was the wolf in Red Riding Hood," he recalls. "It sort of presages a few villains I played, later on in life." Like the sinister MC in the 1972 film Cabaret. Today, Katz is better known as Joel Grey.
And he's is not alone. Paul Newman is another Clevelander who started at the Play House, as did Margaret Hamilton, who moved to Hollywood a few years after her 1923 stage debut and landed her most famous role as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.
A motley group of artists and social activists created the Play House in the fall of 1915, looking to present an alternative to the mainstream commercial fare on local stages. Theater historian Jeffrey Ullom says Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue Opera House, several miles away, often booked vaudeville acts and traveling melodramas.
"...where you get the person strapped to the railroad tracks --- the damsel in distress --- and the train barreling down, or the person chained to the log that’s going to get sawed in half," Ullom says.
Ullom wrote a history of the Cleveland Play House. He says, in addition to presenting more serious work, it was one of the first theaters in the country to use electric lights for effects.
"Up until this time, most theater didn’t have electricity. And so, lighting was simply functionary --- I need to see the actors, and that’s all it was. Now, they could dim the lights over the audience, now they actually have mood created."
The Play House also turned those lights on the work of modern playwrights, ranging from Luigi Pirandello and Eugene O’Neill to George Bernard Shaw. In 1939, it mounted one of the first productions of Thornton Wilder’s, “Our Town.”
The Cleveland Play House was followed by dozens of other regional theaters. The Guthrie in Minneapolis… the Alley Theater in Houston …and Arena Stage in Washington, DC --- all of them modeled on the repertory theaters of Europe, which featured resident companies of actors. Local stage director Sarah May joined the Play House company, fifty years ago, and she said young actors were hungry for the experience.
"They could be in four or five different plays within a year --- playing a villain on month and a hero the next --- doing Shakespeare, doing Albee." She smiles at the memory. "It was very exciting."
The Play House has also had some scary moments, over the years. In the early days, it moved from theater to theater, before eventually settling on a 12-acre site with three stages in 1983. But, that became a financial burden. Five years later, the Play House dismissed its resident company, in a cost-cutting move. But, historian Jeffrey Ullom says the Play House tenaciously clung to life, even in the darkest of economic times.
"They survived," he says. "There are many other regional theaters around the country that failed --- they expanded in the early 80s, and were defunct by ’87, ’88 or ’89."
Four years ago, the Cleveland Play House relocated again, to the city’s current theater district --- “Playhouse Square” --- home to nine different stages that host everything from college productions to Broadway road shows.
This past June, the Cleveland Play House won a Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. Artistic Director Laura Kepley helped accept the honor:
"At age 100, we are determined as ever to tell stories that matter, to nurture artists at every stage of their career."
Artists like Joel Grey, who says, "It was the greatest learning experience that I still rely on, and it’s made me what I am today."
The Play House continues a long-standing relationship with the Cleveland Public Schools and Case Western Reserve University, to help groom the next generation of actors to step into the spotlight.