"I never dreamed it could be that good!"
According to multiple reports, that is the feeling most of the more than 800 theater people had when they spent a weekend in our town. Back in June, members of the Theater Communications Group (TCG), a national organization that fosters communication among professional, community and university theaters, were summoned to Cleveland for their annual conference — and they came from all corners of the country.
This was a conference unlike many, since all of those people were active movers and shakers in their own cities and states. And they were blown away by what Cleveland has to offer in terms of theater resources. In short, as Raymond Bobgan, executive artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre notes, "These aren't people who are going to leave the conference and then go back into a cubicle and do their work quietly. These are people who are vocal and will share their experience here."
Sure, initially there were doubters from both coasts and in-between — theater administrators, directors, performers and playwrights — who asked, "Why are we going to Cleveland for a theater conference?" That question was partially answered right away, during an opening speech by Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman. As he said to the theater people assembled: "Thank you for being so relevant in this time of discordance in our nation, when it is so hard to be honest about our past, and our present."
But more than that, Cimperman connected with the visitors on a personal level, citing his early years: "Had it not been for people like you, there would be people (like me) who would not know what it meant to be loved, what it meant to feel goodness, and what it meant to feel what it's like when you are alive. You guys are the ones who helped people that you never knew you helped."
Councilman Cimperman received a standing ovation from hundreds of people he'd never met before, after a six-minute speech. And if that doesn't illustrate the power of theater, then nothing does.
From there, the conferees split off to start attending small sessions, many of which were focused on helping theaters make the kinds of connections that Cimperman talked about. Diversity, equity and inclusion were major themes of these presentations and discussions, targeted on creating welcoming spaces for everyone.
As Laura Kepley, artistic director of the Cleveland Play House and a member of the TCG host committee says, "The TCG conference was electric, inspiring, galvanizing and challenging. One thing visitors were impressed with was how our local theater scene has become an economic driver for downtown and the neighborhoods."
Indeed, with CPH now part of the Playhouse Square complex, along with Great Lakes Theater and Cleveland State University, Cleveland has a powerful theater presence in the core of our city that others drool over. Kevin Moore, managing director of CPH observes, "In the past, most TCG conferences in other cities were held in hotel ballrooms, which feels antiseptic for theater people." But here, they were walking from one theater-oriented space to another — the stages, lobbies, and rehearsal halls in and around Playhouse Square — and it all felt comfortable and organic. And chances are, every time one of the participants sees a chandelier anywhere, they'll be reminded of their stay in Cleveland thanks to the light fixture that dominates the intersection of Euclid Avenue and East 14th Street.
Conference attendees also saw how theater is affecting our local neighborhoods, such as the Gordon Square Arts District (see sidebar), where an entire community has been lifted up by its bootstraps by the presence of exciting theaters.
In addition, the TCG conference will have a long-term positive effect for all of Cleveland. As Kepley notes, "The people who came to Cleveland also function as mentors, teachers and educators. And they now know that Cleveland is a place where creative people can come and make things happen. It will help draw young and talented people to our city, making us even stronger. In fact, we have an apprenticeship program at the Cleveland Play House, and many of those apprentices stay and work right here, because of all the opportunities."
Of course, like any convention, it wasn't all work for the participants. Most of the 800 visitors attended an opening party at Cleveland Public Theatre, but this wasn't any ordinary party. Under the direction of Bobgan, CPT opened their entire campus and had multiple short performances occurring all over the place. As Bobgan says, "It was a risk, since most people at a party like this just want to meet old friends and chat. But at our party, they met, chatted, and walked around looking at all kinds of performances." That included a dancing chorus line of gigantic pink elephants. Bobgan adds, "All I kept hearing was, 'What is going on here? This is crazy!'"
On another night, the attendees were treated to a Full Cleveland Cookout on the top of a parking garage behind Playhouse Square, with a rock band, a beer-stuffed bar, and lots of grilled sausages. There was even a doughnut truck parked on Euclid Avenue to satisfy momentary hunger pangs.
What is the take-away of the TCG conference for people here? As Faye Sholiton, local playwright, founder of Interplay Jewish Theatre and a TCG participant says, "I think the whole Cleveland theater community bonded during the conference. We worked together to make it happen, and now a lot of eyes are on Cleveland, eyes that never gave us a glance before. Everyone is sensing the arts renaissance in this city."
The bottom line is, it's all about the people in the community. And our theaters are increasingly focused on serving those communities (see sidebar). As one speaker at the conference, Stephen Wolfert, said: "We have to listen to the people. I think of an Italian who did a stint in the Peace Corps in Africa. He wanted to get the locals to grow tomatoes, but he couldn't talk them into it. So he planted his own and got a bumper crop. Almost immediately, however, the tomatoes disappeared, because a bunch of hippos came and smashed them to the ground. A local man said to him, 'That's why we don't grow tomatoes.'"
The message is, always ask what you community needs, so you don't "grow tomatoes." And apparently that message, and many others, came across loud and clear to the participants.
In fact, at the end of the conference, Diane Rodriguez, president of the board of TCG, said, "Before the conference, some people asked, 'Why Cleveland?' Now, we know the answer." The response, a thunderous ovation, signaled that Cleveland was now occupying a respected place on the national theater map.
(Many thanks to Faye Sholiton, who shared her copious and detailed notes on the conference for this article.)