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Cincinnati Theaters — Come and Gone

By Rick Pender · June 19th, 2013 · Curtain Call
ac-cc_knowtheatre-photo-ericvosmeierPhoto: Eric Vosmeier

I’ve written about theater in Cincinnati for more than 25 years — including reviews and features for CityBeat since it began in 1994. I recently dug through my files on theaters that came and went during the 1990s. In this column (and one on July 3), I’ll provide an overview of that era and offer some thoughts about what’s missing in 2013. 

CityBeat’s first issue in November 1994 featured a story about Fahrenheit Theatre Company, a group devoted to classics and new texts, producing shows at Gabriel’s Corner, a church basement at Sycamore and Liberty streets in Over-the-Rhine. The following season, Fahrenheit changed its name to the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival and moved to Covington’s Carnegie Center. In 1996 Cincy Shakes moved to the Aronoff Center’s Fifth Third Bank Theater before settling into its own facility on Race Street in 1998. The group survived the tumultuous departure of its ambitious original leader, Jasson Minadakis, in 2002. In 2006 it took on the mantle they’re known by today, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, with a distilled focus on classics by Shakespeare and other great writers such as playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, as well as stage adaptations of literary works by Jane Austen, John Steinbeck and others. CityBeat’s 1994 story referenced a second “hot new company,” Frankenstein, also based at the Carnegie. It, however, was only around for one season. 

In 1999 the Know Theatre Tribe began as an itinerant group, presenting performances and poetry readings in art galleries and bookstores.

When Cincinnati Shakespeare moved to Covington, Know took over at Gabriel’s Corner. In 2005 the group moved to 1120 Jackson St. in Over-the-Rhine, with a more substantial name, Know Theatre of Cincinnati. Know also produces the annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. (The Cincy Fringe began in 2004, operated by Cincinnati Shakespeare, where Fringe founder Jason Bruffy had been a member of the acting company. Bruffy subsequently became Know’s artistic director and continued to build the annual Fringe event.)

Hot Summer Nights, offering musical theater productions at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, was already well established by the 1990s, having launched its 22-year run in 1980. Brilliant director Worth Gardner was its founder and mainstay director until he became the Cincinnati Playhouse’s artistic director in 1985. Up next was Aubrey Berg (1988-1994), who built and sustained CCM’s prestigious musical theater program. Richard Hess, head of CCM’s drama program, steered the series in creative ways during its final years (1998-2002). Usually offering three shows per summer, sometimes in rotating repertory, the series was terminated for financial reasons in 2002.

Downtown Theatre Classics had several troubled seasons at the Aronoff’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater between 1997 and 2000. Ken Jones, chair of the theater program at Northern Kentucky University, was its artistic director for the first season, followed by Jerry Lowe, but the group struggled to sustain itself financially. In 2000, Anton Shilov, a brash, young, not-quite-graduated CCM student took over, staging a troubled production of Little Shop of Horrors in August. A production scheduled for September 2000 was replaced with a three-week run of a tour version of Forbidden Broadway that closed after four performances when payments were not forthcoming. That was DTC’s final gasp.

The Fifth Third Bank Theater was home to the longer-lived Ovation Theatre Company (1998-2008). Its initial leaders were Lisa Breithaupt, Deborah Ludwig and Joe Stollenwerk, whose roots were in community theater but who aspired to more adventurous professional material. Thomas More College theater professor Alana Ghent headed Ovation during its final two seasons. But with the unstable economy in 2008 and a scarcity of subscribers, OTC folded. There were some promises of a return, but the group has not resurfaced. 

Director, actor and playwright Nicholas Korn, who had performed occasionally with Cincinnati Shakespeare, launched his own company, Stage First Cincinnati, in 1999. The group described its repertoire as “world classic theater,” and performed at the Fifth Third Bank Theater for its four seasons (1999-2003). They focused on works by Molière, Shakespeare, Aristophanes and works about historic figures such as Alexander the Great. One of its final shows, Korn’s script Illuzio, was later presented in Chicago and elsewhere.

If you have thoughts or insights (or corrections) regarding my recollections of theater from the 1990s, please drop me an email.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: rpender@citybeat.com



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