A small investment can make a big difference.
In August 1986, with $200 in hand, several aspiring theater artists produced three one-act plays at Memorial Hall. Success inspired them to create Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC). Two years later arts patrons Murph and Ken Mahler and Ruth and John Sawyer financed the purchase of an Over-the-Rhine building on Vine Street that became ETC’s permanent home.
Now in its 25th season, ETC has seen many changes, but it still represents what creativity and devotion can achieve.
Preparing to write, I came across a season brochure from 1989 on which I took notes when I interviewed founding Artistic Director David White. On it, I wrote “more work for actors.” ETC has provided that and more, including bringing to town renowned playwrights such as Edward Albee, who staged three of his works there in the early 1990s.
ETC has presented more that 325 scripts in full productions, readings and showcases since its founding. Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers arrived in 1995 and sharpened the mission, calling ETC “Your Premiere Theatre.” Her theatrical connections — she was on the staff at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in the 1980s — served ETC well, as has her success in landing new shows.
ETC has repeatedly been the first regional theater to produce several Broadway hits, including Warren Leight’s Side Man (1999), Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife (2005) and last season’s 33 Variations by Moisés Kaufman. This season’s Thurgood by George Stevens Jr. does it again; ETC is the first and only regional theater in America to produce the show.
But ETC’s admirable history is more than a mere theater company. Since its early days, it’s been an anchor in a troubled neighborhood.
“Our dedication to Over-the-Rhine is at the heart of everything we do,” Meyers says.
“We believe we are helping to rebuild our city by holding our ground and continuing to expand. We now own 40 percent of our block,” she adds, crediting the Mahlers and the Sawyers, who, with philanthropist Otto M. Budig Jr., recently helped ETC acquire an adjacent building for offices and set construction.
Things were tougher in 2001 when riots prompted by racial unrest brought nascent redevelopment in OTR to a screeching halt.
There was discussion about moving, but Meyers was steadfast in her commitment to the neighborhood.
“We answered fear following the riots by doing (cutting-edge Rock musical) Hedwig and the Angry Inch and making everyone so curious that we sold out performances,” she says. “It kept us open. If we were not bold, we would have failed.”
Producing new plays with unfamiliar titles is an uphill marketing challenge, but Meyers has succeeded by selecting seasons and staging attractive productions that instill confidence in subscribers. Today they renew at a rate of 85 percent, often before plays are even announced.
“The best is yet to come,” the enthusiastic Meyers says. “When many theaters dedicated to new work are folding, our attendance is at an all-time high.”
ETC has just 191 seats but brings thousands of people to OTR’s rapidly redeveloping Gateway Quarter.
“We have quadrupled subscriptions in the past five years,” Meyers says. “Our current subscription number is just over 1,600 annually. When I got here, we had 221.”
ETC has strengthened the theater scene in other ways. Cincinnati Shakespeare Company founder Jasson Minadakis interned there in the early ’90s, followed a few years later by CSC’s current artistic director, Brian Isaac Phillips. ETC employs dozens of local professional actors year-round, especially with annual holiday musicals based on fairytales (this year it’s Cinderella) with scripts by Cincinnati playwright Joe McDonough and music by local composer David Kisor.
ETC’s second production of the current season is Thurgood (running through Oct. 31), a one-man play about Thurgood Marshall, the pioneering African-American civil rights lawyer whose advocacy during the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case launched a legendary career that led to a seat on the Supreme Court.
“(Thurgood) is at the heart of what ETC is about,” says Meyers, who has also produced several plays from August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” and plans to do more. “Thurgood has a conscience of society. It is immediate in its explanation of history. It also is about doing what is needed for our city.”
With pride, Meyers says, “We present high-quality professional theater that means something to local audiences. Our new doors at the front and the loading doors at the side of the building say two things — we are here to stay, and we want you to come and see us. Our doors are open, our work is transparent. We are not hiding — we are embracing.”
Thinking back to darker days a decade ago, she adds, “We weathered the storm, waiting for the rainbow. I think I can see it as I look out our new glass front doors.”
Asked how she’d like to see ETC’s landmark season celebrated, Meyers quickly answers, “How about $25 for our 25th anniversary?”
Another small investment that could make a big difference.
THURGOOD, part of Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati’s 25th anniversary season, opens Wednesday and continues through Oct. 31. YOUR NEGRO TOUR GUIDE, a play based on Kathy Y. Wilson's one-time column in CityBeat, runs on evenings when Thurgood isn't performed, opening Sunday. Buy tickets for both shows, check out performance times and get venue details here.