[Joe McDonough was the 2005 CEA Theater Hall of Fame inductee. This profile article originally ran in CityBeat on Aug. 17, 2005.]You could stand in a check-out line at a grocery story in northwestern Cincinnati behind Joe McDonough and never detect that the guy unloading his cart before you is a playwright whose scripts have been enjoyed by audiences at theaters all over town and beyond, from New York City to Chicago, from Louisville to Denver.
In fact, McDonough, a self-effacing man who is disinclined to talk about himself at length, has been writing plays since 1988. This season he’s accomplished something no other local writer has ever managed to do: Two of his scripts will be given their world premieres almost simultaneously by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC).
Don’t let anyone tell you that a playwright has to live in New York City or even Chicago or Minneapolis to make it big: McDonough, who claims he’s lived all over Cincinnati, has done it right here in the Queen City. And for his continued success he’s been designated by the League of Cincinnati Theatres for its 2005 Award for Continued Excellence, to be presented at this year’s Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. By virtue of this recognition, he’ll also be inducted into the CEA Hall of Fame.
McDonough graduated from Purcell High School in 1980 and went on to major in English in 1984 at the University of Cincinnati. He focused on being a writer of fiction, but he points out that even his fiction had tons of dialogue. A grant to write a play tipped the balance toward the form he’s pursued ever since. He even spent a bit of time onstage — enough to learn he’s not an actor, he jokes — especially in a comedy sketch company, Carnivores in Action, in the early ’90s.
But his true theatrical home over the years has been at Ensemble Theatre. One of the theater’s founders, Ruth Sawyer, designed the set for his first show, American Gothic, presented in April 1988 during ETC’s second season. Another founder, attorney Gordon Greene, acted in it. McDonough laughs when he recalls the answer he received from ETC’s artistic director when asked why his play was chosen for production at Over-the-Rhine’s Memorial Hall: “We really didn’t like the other one.”
ETC also gave McDonough the keys to its holiday franchise: In the late ’80s and early ’90s the theater had offered a holiday “pantomime” for several seasons, a British-styled satire with political overtones based on a fairy tale.
With two others, McDonough created the final one that ETC staged — at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theatre in 1995. In fact, he notes, “I’m the guy who killed the panto.”
Not long after D. Lynn Meyers became ETC’s artistic director, she put McDonough together with composer David Kisor to create a holiday fairytale musical, minus the satirical component. The result was the 1997 production of The Frog Princess, which audiences loved.
Meyers invited the pair to create shows with a moral that might be positive lessons for the children who come to see ETC’s holiday production before it opens to general audiences, and that model held true for close to a decade — including a reprise of The Frog Princess in 2002, plus Alice in Wonderland (1998, reprised in 2003), Around the World in 80 Days (1999), Sleeping Beauty (2000 and 2004) and The Adventures of Pinocchio (2001).
He’s also written scripts for Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati, including Tom Sawyer, The Fantastic Toy Shop and Noah’s Ark. This season he pairs up with a new composer, Fitz Patton, for a new holiday musical, Cinderella (Nov. 30-Dec. 30).
But McDonough is considerably more than a children’s playwright. In 2001 he created a play for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, A Chance of Lightning, a Cincinnati-based re-telling of the story of the classical myth of Prometheus Unbound. In 2003 the Cincinnati Playhouse produced his three-monologue script, One, and it went on to a subsequent production in Florida earlier this year. The play was about three seemingly unrelated people — a troubled young nun, a self-centered actor and a Captain who served in the American Civil War — whose paths eventually intersect and affect one another.
“Writing One was a watershed,” McDonough says. “The interrelationships between the three characters were complex pieces of a mosaic that formed a whole.”
He says he’s fairly eclectic in what he writes.
“I’ve done both drama and comedy, although it’s been a long time since I’ve written ‘just’ a comedy,” he says. “However, my plays have a lot of comedy in them,” citing one of his works getting its world premiere at the Cincinnati Playhouse next spring, Stone My Heart (April 1-30, 2006), winner of the Mickey Kaplan New American Play Prize.
It’s based on Shakespeare’s Othello, translating the classic story of love, hate and jealousy to people who work in a contemporary Chicago morgue.
Meyers has selected a second McDonough script for production at ETC, Wayfarer’s Rest (April 19-May 7, 2006), about an American woman living in rural England during World War II who finds a mysterious cottage deep in the woods inhabited by two strangers who can see the future. Meyers has selected two of the area’s best professional actors for her production of McDonough’s piece, multiple CEA nominees Bruce Cromer and Annie Fitzpatrick.
McDonough, who has a New York agent to seek productions of his plays around the country, has workshopped his plays elsewhere and attended retreats for playwrights. But Cincinnati is his base.
“I’m happy here, my family is happy here,” he says. “I have a wonderful situation here with Ensemble and the Playhouse willing to develop my work. It’s a situation other playwrights would die for.”
Both theaters have given him the opportunity to refine his work. The Playhouse, for instance, gave Stone My Heart readings using the casts from two different productions during the past season. ETC’s Meyers was “all over” Wayfarer’s Rest, he says, attending a reading of the script at the Players Club in New York City. He especially relishes the chance to work with actors and directors.
“I enjoy letting go and seeing actors jump at it, taking chances,” he says. “The process with actors and directors often leads to a better interpretation. It’s illuminating for you as a writer.”
The growth of McDonough’s career has paralleled that of Cincinnati’s theater scene.
“When I started Ensemble was in its infancy,” he says. “There was only the Playhouse and some community theater. I’ve enjoyed watching everything grow, and the improvement of quality.”
What McDonough doesn’t mention — although it’s apparent to everyone else who loves theater in Cincinnati — is that he’s played an integral personal role in the improvement in local theater. And that’s the principal reason why the League of Cincinnati Theatres chose to recognize him.