Cleveland Play House Plans Return To Live Theater And Pandemic Recovery

The Cleveland Play House, one of America’s oldest regional theaters, is starting to recover from a year that threatened to bring the century-old institution to its knees. After suffering multimillion-dollar losses due to COVID-19 closures, the Play House also lost managing director Kevin Moore, who died unexpectedly in October 2020. But last week, the theater company announced a five-show season to launch in October. 

One of the first steps in moving forward was hiring an interim managing director and a chief financial officer to fill functions that Kevin Moore had helped coordinate for years. With new business leadership in place, Kepley said it is time stage an artistic comeback.

"This has been a season-planning process like no other, because we have had restrictions that we've never had to face before," she said, emphasizing that there's more to mounting a new season than flipping the lights back on. "Each play usually has a preproduction time of anywhere from six months to 18 months. That's how long it takes us to get ready. But in this case, we're having a much shorter ramp-up because we didn't really know, honestly, until about March or April of this year that it was actually going to be possible to come back."

In addition providing launch time to dozens of experienced artists and technicians, Kepley said she has to consider the needs of up and coming theater professionals.

"We have a relationship with Case Western Reserve University. We have an MFA program," she said. "It was really essential to me that these MFA students who graduate from our program with professional stage experience have a maximum amount of stage time because they, their training has been so interrupted by COVID. They made some fantastic Zoom productions. But, of course, that's not the same thing as being in the same room as your scene partner and of course being in the same room with an audience."

Kepley said the Play House did 47 hours of virtual theatrical productions during the COVID-19 shutdown. Those shows netted some revenue, but not a lot.

"We had a very small ticket price for the shows," she said. "And also, if people had subscribed to... the season that got canceled, they got to watch those for free. We did ask people if they'd be interested in donating. And so, really what we saw in terms of revenue was people's generosity."

Beside the economic hit, Kepley said the pandemic took an emotional and spiritual toll on her staff.

"You know, in those early days of the pandemic, we were all sent home. But, for those of us in the theater ... we were home," she said. "For us who make art for our community, when we're in that rehearsal hall, when we're on stage, that's our home. And so, when the pandemic happened, we were actually sent away from our home. And I think that's why I'm just so incredibly grateful to be able to get back to our home and to start making work for this community." 

The new season will kick off on October 24 with "Where Did We Sit On The Bus?"

"This is a play about a Latino man who is about to get married," Kepley said. "And he's thinking about the woman that he loves, who has Swiss and Austrian roots. He's a first generation American and his parents were from El Salvador. And he's thinking about what the world might be like for their children. The title ... comes from a question that he asked his third grade teacher during a lesson on the civil rights movement and Rosa Parks. And so as a Latino boy, he asks, 'Where did we sit on the bus?' And the teacher doesn't give an answer."

That season debut will be followed by a new holiday musical, "Light It Up," which opens November 27. A couple of classic stories will get new treatments: "The Three Musketeers" opening February 5 and  "Antigone" opening March 5. Kepley said that ancient Greek drama is given a contemporary relevance and marks a return to form for the Play House.

"Folks may remember that 'Antigone' was the show that was in our second week of rehearsals when it had to be canceled because of the pandemic," she said.

The final work in the new season is "I'm Back Now," a world premiere set in Cleveland that reflects on a family's connection to America's slave trade.

Kepley said the Play House applied for a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) and was recently notified that the application was under review. She said the prospect of such funds was "exciting," but doesn't pay the bills for the coming season, adding that the special economics of theater have prompted a separate fundraising campaign, called "Lights Up."

"Our 'Lights Up' campaign is to get us all back to work," she said. "We have not had any significant earned income this last year. And it's the earned income as well as the contributed income that helps us to get up and rolling for a season, because most of our expenses are front-loaded. We have to put in so much money to make the costumes, to make the sets, to hire the people. And we don't see any of that money back until the show is up and running. And so, we're really reliant right now on contributed income to be able to get us up and going, as well as to pay for things that we've never had to budget for before, in terms of all of the COVID safety precautions, upgrades to ventilation systems, you know, and we'll see how things go in terms of what other safety precautions and expenses are associated with this."

Laura Kepley with "Tiny Houses" playwright Chelsea Marcantel in 2019 [Cleveland Play House]

The devastation of the pandemic has also prompted some innovations that Kepley said will continue.

"We don't know how the variants might affect us and we want to make sure that our productions are accessible to people," she said. "So, we will be filming all of our shows and those will be available to stream so that digital access will allow people to experience our shows even if they are not ready or able to come back to the theater."

The prospect of people coming back to theaters is very much a topic of cultural discussion of late. This past weekend, the latest entry in the "Fast and Furious" movie franchise scored $70 million at the box office. Kepley said she's cautiously optimistic about the return of audiences to live theater. But, it will be an adjustment.

"I think what we're learning is that everybody is going to have their own individual sense of what they need to feel safe, and we want to make sure that there's so much energy and joy around returning," she said. "I also want to acknowledge that, it can also feel very, very strange and unsettling and it can sneak up on us. This might be oversharing, but one of my first trips back to the grocery store, when things were really starting to feel normal, I still had a mask, but I was like, I'm not as scared going into this grocery store as I have been."

Kepley paused at the memory.

"And I started crying," she said. "You know, it was not something that I was anticipating, but it was just this huge release. I think we've all tried to be as brave as we can, as courageous as we can during these past 15 months. And now, when you start to say, 'Oh, I can, I can let down my guard,' things might surface that you weren't expecting."

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