As much as we all enjoy seeing the classics on stage—from Romeo and Juliet to The Odd Couple—we are fortunate to live in an area where local theater companies are eager to venture out in new and compelling directions.
This season, four such companies are proving that Northeast Ohio is fertile ground for theaters that are interested in trying new things, and challenging their audiences with theatrical experiences far from the "normal" fare.
At Cleveland Public Theatre in Gordon Square on the near west side, there always seems to be something new brewing. And this season is no exception. As executive artistic director Raymond Bobgan says, "We are eager to change the context of theater, to see how we can get more involved in the community and serve as the nexus point for social justice and change."
As an example, he cites the Station Hope series of "block parties with a purpose." These events, now in their third year, celebrate Cleveland's role in the Underground Railroad and take place in various community locations around Cleveland. As Bobgan notes, "We've learned that there's a huge number of people who won't walk into a theater. So we want to bring theater to them and demonstrate how theater can change lives—for the audience and for the creators."
This also speaks to another mission of CPT: Increasing the diversity of the people who create theater. The theater has long been a champion of women as playwrights and directors. And they are expanding their roster of creators in interesting ways. After the holidays they will stage a production of I Call My Brothers by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, a Swedish playwright whose father is from Tunisia. His play is about a car bombing and the main character, who is Middle Eastern, who is trying to navigate his way through the city during the chaos.
CPT also launched Teatro Publico de Cleveland in 2013, a Cleveland-based Latin American theater ensemble involving about 30 theater artists whose work reflects the artistic goals and ideal of its members. There are two of these productions each year, along with workshops for the community.
"Overall," says Bobgan, "our mission is to foster compassion, but always with the goal of increasing the quality and depth of our work. We want to develop and produce great new plays with an ensemble that has the space to grow and thrive."
A sometime collaborator with CPT is Theater Ninjas, which is going even farther in its quest for finding new theatrical pathways. In short, they're backing away from scripts...and actors. As artistic director Jeremy Paul explains, "We are interested in shifting towards a broader type of theater, one where there is more interaction among audience members in a more flexible environment."
In their first production of the season, The Last Day, there are actually no actors. The audience enters into an immersive storytelling experience where they are challenged to solve puzzles, manipulate arcane machines, and investigate the magical past of a mysterious woman. As Paul says, "It's like walking inside a three-dimensional novel. This is not a passive experience for the audience, you have to turn the crank to make it go." Indeed, patrons are encouraged to attend in pairs or even in groups, so they can help each other figure out where they are and who was there before.
Will this experience work for everyone? Hard to say, even for Paul. "We're finding our way with these productions. There's never been anything quite like this, although many people have had similar experiences with new media, such as with the video games "Myst" and "Gone Home."
Down in Akron, the None Too Fragile Theater is still using scripts and actors. And since they've developed a strong following, they are expanding their season to six shows in 2017. True to their mission, NTF will stage off- and off-off-Broadway shows that are new to the area, with some challenging themes.
For instance, the first show of the 2017 season will feature a 600 lb. man in The Whale by Samuel D. Hunter. The play is a compassionate look at what it means to be a gigantic misfit. As co-artistic director Sean Derry states, "The Whale is just one of several kick-ass shows we'll be doing next year." Also on the schedule is the dark comedy An Impending Rupture of the Belly—apparently not a comment on their first show of the season—by Matt Pelfrey, who penned Pure Shock Value, which NTF did last February.
Derry adds that the experience at None Too Fragile is different for many reasons. "Since our theater is attached to a restaurant (Pub Bricco), the audience and the cast and crew often hang out after a show, sharing their thoughts about the production that night. That's a cool bonus when you come here."
While NTF is comfortably ensconced in their home in Akron, there's a drama of a different kind going on in Tremont. That neighborhood's only live, fulltime theater, convergence-continuum, may be in peril. Since co-founder and artistic director Clyde Simon is no longer able to continue as building owner and operator, the company has instituted a capital campaign to purchase the building from him.
Founded in 2002 by Clyde Simon and Brian Breth, con-con has produced more than 70 shows in their tiny, wonderfully intimate space. Plus, they have become the home to the annual Playwright's Festival sponsored by NEOMFA (the Northeast Ohio Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing).
So far, they've raised $82,000 of the needed $130,000. If raised by the end of 2016, Simon will be able to focus his energies on the creative aspects of the theater, If not, the property will be put on the open market and the future of convergence-continuum as a theater may be in jeopardy. If you would like to donate to the cause, visit the con-con home page at convergence-continuum.org.