The topic of children’s theater might conjure images of cardboard scenery and childish actors. That’s definitely not what you’ll find at The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati (CTC), which this weekend debuts High School Musical 2 at downtown’s Taft Theatre. David Centers, company scenic designer, exemplifies CTC’s professionalism.
Centers inherited his job from the late Jay Depenbrock, who eight years ago asked him to help establish CTC’s scene shop. Centers, a 1982 grad of the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA), knew Depenbrock and former SCPA Artistic Director Jack Louiso from high school.
He earned degrees in scenic design from UC’s CCM and New York University and tried university teaching. Then Centers returned to Cincinnati, angling for a freelance career as a designer and scenic artist. His ties with Depenbrock and Louiso, now CTC’s artistic director, paved the way for new opportunities.
Today Centers designs most of CTC’s productions — in 2008-09 he’ll do a stage version of Disney’s Mulan, Rudolph for the holidays and the current sequel to another Disney show, High School Musical, which garnered big audiences for CTC a year ago.
Centers is truly a jack-of-all-trades. He designs CTC’s productions, then he puts on a technical director’s hat and teams with Cat Johnson and Jerry Hill, CTC’s fulltime carpenters and artists. “They’re a great team,” he says, “very skilled individuals who bring my designs to life.” But Centers doesn’t stop there. He recycles scenery from one CTC production to the next. (The glittering “High School Musical” sign from last year’s production is back with a big red “2” this month.) He works all over the region — with Cincinnati Opera for 22 consecutive summers and with Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company, where he will design Wait Until Dark for the Victoria Theatre in May. He’s worked as a carpenter in construction, and he will sculpt or sew or do whatever is needed to make a show look its best.
“My high school and college theater teachers talked about diversifying,” Centers says, “so you can do more when times are dry. When designs haven’t been there, I’ve made a living as a scenic artist.”
This winter Centers has been helping at Indian Hill High School with a set for Thoroughly Modern Millie. More than staying in touch with his wife, who’s a music teacher there, Centers says, “This is a chance to return to the roots of what I really learned and believe in. SCPA brought in professionals to build and design things. Now I have a chance to work with kids.”
Louiso recruited Depenbrock, and he did the same with Centers, passing experience from one generation to the next.
“The more we can do that,” Centers says, “the better our profession gets.”
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