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100 Years On, Cleveland Play House Stays True To Its Regional Mission


The stage credited by many as America's first regional theater has been celebrating its 100th birthday. The Cleveland Play House has weathered two World Wars, the Depression and most recently the Great Recession. But it's always found a way to keep the lights on, as David C. Barnett from member station WCPN reports.

DAVID C. BARNETT, BYLINE: The walls of Otto Moser's Tavern in downtown Cleveland are lined with old glass cases displaying hundreds of autographed pictures of performers from a century ago - forgotten singers, jugglers, acrobats and assorted vaudevillians.

LAURA KEPLEY: We have a burlesque lady up here who's got a lot going on (laughter).

BARNETT: Laura Kepley is only the ninth artistic director in the 100-year history of the Cleveland Play House. In the fall of 1915, a motley group of artists and social activists was looking to engage the Cleveland community with an alternative to the mainstream fare on local stages.

JEFFREY ULLOM: Where you get the person strapped to the railroad tracks, the damsel in distress and the train barreling down to the person chained to the log that's going to get sawed in half.

BARNETT: Jeffrey Ullom wrote a history of the Cleveland Play House. He says in addition to presenting more serious work, it was one of the first places in the country to have lighting that did more than just turn on and off.

ULLOM: They can dim the lights over the audience. They can actually have mood created, atmosphere, you know, special effects with lights.

BARNETT: The Play House also turned those lights on the work of modern playwrights, ranging from Luigi Pirandello and Eugene O'Neill to George Bernard Shaw. In 1939, it mounted one of the first productions of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Frank) Now, Julia, there's no sense in going over all that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Julia) Now, Frank, you are just unreasonable.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Frank) Come on, Julia. It's getting late. Get in here.

BARNETT: The Cleveland Play House was followed by dozens of other regional theaters. The Guthrie in Minneapolis, the Alley Theatre in Houston and Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., were all modeled on the repertory theaters of Europe, which featured resident companies of actors. Sarah May joined the Play House company 50 years ago.

SARAH MAY: It was a time when young people going into theater really longed for an opportunity to work for one of the regional theaters like the Cleveland Play House, where they could live an artist life, be in a situation where you could be in three or four or five different plays within a year doing Shakespeare, doing Albee. It was very exciting.

BARNETT: She got her start in the Play House's children's theatre known back then as the Curtain Pullers. Joel Katz saw some of those kids on stage.

JOEL KATZ: I sat in the audience and watched something - I don't remember what it was - but I said I want to do that.

BARNETT: He joined the Curtain Pullers and before long landed a leading role.

KATZ: I was the wolf in "Red Riding Hood." It sort of presages a few villains that I played later on in life.

BARNETT: Like the sinister M.C. in the 1972 film "Cabaret." Today, Katz is better known as Joel Grey.


KATZ: (As M.C., singing in foreign language) welcome. (Singing in foreign language) stranger.

BARNETT: Grey is not alone. Paul Newman is another Clevelander who got his start at the Play House, as did Margaret Hamilton, who moved to Hollywood a few years after her 1923 stage debut and landed her most famous role.


MARGARET HAMILTON: (As The Wicked Witch of the West) I'll get you my pretty and your little dog, too (laughter).

BARNETT: The Cleveland Play House has had some scary moments of its own over the years. In the early days, it was itinerant, moving from theater to theater, before eventually settling on a 12-acre site with three stages, but that became a financial burden. In 1988, the Play House dismissed its resident company. Historian Jeffrey Ullom says the Play House was staring down an uncertain future.

ULLOM: They survived. There's many other regional theaters throughout the country that failed. You know, they expanded in the early '80s, and they were defunct by '87, '88, '89.

BARNETT: Four years ago, the Cleveland Play House relocated once again to the city's current theater district named Play House Square, home to nine different theaters that host everything from college productions to Broadway road shows. This past June, the Cleveland Play House won a Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. Artistic director Laura Kepley helped accept the honor.


KEPLEY: At age 100, we are determined as ever to tell stories that matter, to nurture artists at every stage of their career.

BARNETT: Artists like Joel Grey.

KATZ: It was the greatest learning experience that I still rely on, and it's made me what I am today.

BARNETT: And the Play House is still there for the next kid in the audience staring at the stage and saying, I want to do that. For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David C. Barnett

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