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Cleveland Play House acknowledges ‘missteps’ with 'I'm Back Now' production

"I'm Back Now" by Charly Evon Simpson was scheduled to premiere in February as part of the Cleveland Play House's 2022-23 season.
Cleveland Play House
Promotional image for "I'm Back Now," written by Charly Evon Simpson, which was scheduled to premiere in February as part of the Cleveland Play House's 2022-23 season.

Cleveland Play House officials issued a statement Friday evening in response to allegations levied this week over the halting of its world-premiere production, "I'm Back Now."

In the statement, CPH acknowledged there were “missteps in efforts to respond to a sexual assault” of an actor in mid-January at artists’ housing at a nearby apartment complex, Reserve Square.

Director Stori Ayers said that CPH Interim Artistic and Managing Director Mark Cuddy failed to notify her of the assault and that the actor was required to continue rehearsing for two days. During that time, a break-in reportedly occurred at the housing units as well.

CPH’s statement says staff offered to help the actor file a police report and shared information about an employee assistance program, but staff failed to immediately move the actor to other housing and notify the director of the reported assault.

Author Charly Evon Simpson subsequently pulled the rights to perform the play, which was slated to open this week.

Since then, Ayers said two grievances were opened with the national theatrical union Actors’ Equity Association over non-payment to the two dozen actors and production staff of “I’m Back Now." She also said there had been no communication from CPH leadership with her as of Friday afternoon.

CPH’s statement to the media includes an apology to all involved and also notes it has “begun a process of reviewing our internal policies and procedures.”

Saturday morning, Ayers said via email that CPH's public statement "hit the community of artists pretty hard." Ayers added that CPH "diminishes the assault" by describing it in the press release as an artist being "forcibly kissed."

The New York-based Ayers was named a CPH Artistic Directing Fellow in summer 2020, but she said she stepped down that October over the board’s rescinding of an anti-racism statement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Ayers also said that she maintained a good relationship with then-CPH Artistic Director Laura Kepley, who invited Ayers to return to direct "I'm Back Now." The director said she viewed it at the time as a "restorative justice attempt." The production was slated for the 2021-22 season, but Ayers said it was moved to this year due to COVID-19 cancellations.

Play House leadership has been in flux since last spring, when Kepley stepped down followed by CPH Managing Director Collette A. Laisure in October 2022. Kepley was replaced by Cuddy from Rochester’s Geva Theatre Center.

“I’m Back Now” was the company’s second production change this season. Last fall, the “Light It Up!” holiday program was canceled “at the request of the creators due to their own schedule and creative conflicts,” according to CPH.

New York-based Management Consultants for the Arts has been conducting a search for replacements, and a new artistic director was expected to be announced early this year. Instead, that search is on hold to concentrate on naming a permanent managing director by this summer.

Updated: February 11, 2023 at 11:02 AM EST
This story was updated to include Stori Ayers' response to CPH's statement issued Friday evening.
Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.