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Cleveland Play House plans housing and equity changes after fallout from 'I'm Back Now'

 A person walks by Cleveland Play House in Playhouse Square.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland Play House issued a letter to the community about changes it is taking in the wake of issues raised in recent months.

The Cleveland Play House is making changes to address issues raised by creatives involved in the halted production of “I’m Back Now.”

Playwright Charly Evon Simpson pulled the rights to her play weeks before its February premiere in response to CPH’s mishandling of a reported sexual assault and allegations that CPH leadership mistreats artists of color.

In a message to the community shared on its website Tuesday, CPH apologized again to all involved in the production of “I’m Back Now” and stated the organization “must show, not just talk about, how we are determined to do better.”

At the top of the list of actions the century-old institution shared is new housing for out-of-town artists. In mid-January, an actor in “I’m Back Now” reported a sexual assault in the elevator of the nearby Reserve Square apartment complex where artists had been housed by CPH reportedly for the past 11 years. Artists have also complained about safety there.

Molly Hernández, a cast member of another CPH show, “American Mariachi,” said she too raised issues about the safety and poor conditions at the artists’ housing last fall and that no one should have to stay there. Hernández also said she was drugged at a nearby bar CPH recommended to visiting actors.

“I'm certainly not interested in returning to Cleveland Play House,” she said. “I did not feel safe out there. It was not a good experience.”

Other steps CPH said it is taking include sexual harassment training for all employees, compliance reporting training for management staff and establishing a committee for Collaborative Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access (CEDIA).

CPH also will fully compensate all artists involved in “I’m Back Now,” which was to be the world premiere of a play set in Cleveland about a woman learning of her family’s past as slaves. Grievances were filed with the national theatrical union Actor’s Equity Association about the nonpayment of creatives for lost work due to the stopped production. A union spokesperson said Tuesday the grievances were resolved.

“We intend to make those payments as quickly as possible. We are not, however, in full control of when those payments will be made,” CPH stated in its letter to the community, signed by Interim Artistic and Managing Director Mark Cuddy and board Chair Michael Meehan.

CPH declined Ideastream Public Media's request for an interview about the changes shared in the letter.

Former CPH Managing Director Collette Laisure said these changes feel “like too little, too late,” but that she is “hoping they live up to it.”

Laisure was surprised, she said, the statement didn’t acknowledge any discipline or the termination of staff involved. The issues run deeper than problems raised during the production of “I’m Back Now,” she added.

In October 2022, Laisure left CPH after she said it had become too stressful working for better equity at the organization.

“I really started to feel that I wasn't appreciated, my experience wasn't valued, and that it was time for me to move on,” she said.

CPH staff, Laisure said, resisted instituting equity in hiring practices, for instance, and she was disheartened by negative comments from audiences.

“There were people that walked out of certain productions and wanted refunds, or, you know, said they don't want to be subscribers anymore,” Laisure said.

Ultimately, she said the “whole company needs healing.”

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.