Jack Louiso knows kids. Maybe that's because he's kind of a big kid himself. His joyful sense of fun has, for many years, enabled him to get inside the heads of kids he's mentored and entertained. Louiso has taught kids to sing, dance and act at the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) for two decades and has served as artistic director for the Children's Theatre of Cincinnati (CTC) since 1992.
Those are the obvious reasons why the League of Cincinnati Theatres has named him the 2007 recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award and why he'll be recognized Monday at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards when he's inducted into the CEA Hall of Fame.
But all you have to do is meet Louiso to understand why he's the kind of guy who makes a difference.
"I have a strange way of picking talent," he tells me. "I always say you can look at someone's eyes and see if they have talent. There's a flicker, something in their eyes, and when they're auditioning you can see that."
Someone must have seen that flicker in Louiso: At the age of 8, he performed gigs at the Cincinnati Zoo. His official bio says he was dancing with the Opera Ballet at the Zoo when he was 17, but he confesses he was actually a bit younger.
"I was not really at the age I should have been," he says. "But that was my first professional job. I've been working ever since."
Well before he was 20, he started his first dance studio and began teaching kids about performing and enjoying the arts. He was with SCPA from its earliest days, serving as artistic director from 1975 to 1992.
During his tenure, he directed theater productions that toured nationally and internationally. He launched the careers of dozens of actors, singers, dancers, designers, stage technicians and arts professionals.
In 1993, he was recognized with the Distinguished Service Award by the Magnet Schools of America.
In 2006, Louiso was singled out as the state's noteworthy arts educator by the Ohio Arts Council, which bestowed on him one of the Governor's Awards for the Arts.
In a video shared with an admiring audience in Columbus, Broadway actor Ron Bohmer -- about to be seen around America as the coach in a touring production of the phenomenally popular High School Musical -- credited Louiso with identifying his talent.
"Jack was the first person who ever heard me sing," Bohmer said. "I had never sung in public. And now here I am doing Broadway shows."
"I've known Ronnie since he was 5 years old," Louiso says, laughing. "That's what it's all about, isn't it? Passing it on?"
Since 1992 Louiso passed it on to audiences for Children's Theatre, an organization that dates back to the 1920s. But when Louiso and his wife Susie took over, CTC was struggling, producing amateurish productions that reached perhaps 25,000 people annually. Today that number, he proudly says, is 250,000.
CTC presents four productions annually at the Taft Theatre downtown in a mix of public and school performances. (The 2007-08 season includes High School Musical in October/November; Seussical Jr. in December; Robin Hood, a new work next February/March by composer David Kisor and playwright Joe McDonough; and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in April.)
Under the Louisos' creative management, CTC took ArtReach Touring Theatre into its "family" in 2006, giving the company an outreach to area schools that expands the impact even further.
"It's been an amazing explosion of kids and their parents interested in seeing quality, entertaining works that hold their interest," Louiso says.
In fact, the high quality of CTC's productions means that they aren't just for kids. He's fond of recalling a woman he met who told him, "You know, I'm not coming with children any more. I come for myself, because you staged my favorite book and I just wanted to see it again."
Louiso observes, "It's amazing how people want to go back and revisit things they've loved as a child."
That might be a good indicator of his lasting legacy, introducing kids to live theater and creating an appetite that will continue into adulthood. Asked why live performances appeal to kids, Louiso is quick and insightful with his answers.
"First of all, it's happening only once," he says. "That time in the theater is when it's happening, and it's happening just for you. I think that's very special. I also feel that children really don't have the opportunity to go and experience being in a large, beautiful theater. They're used to sitting in front of a television, talking, getting up and fixing a pizza, coming back to a conversation. So they learn a lot of etiquette from coming to see our shows.
"They also learn and see things they can make up their minds about. Seeing live theater teaches critical thinking. They can say, 'I saw it this way. Do I like that way of telling this story?' The arts enable kids to find ways to express themselves."
Louiso has also had an impact on the creation of original stage works during his tenure at CTC, commissioning more than a dozen world premieres.
The first was by Melanie Marnich, a copywriter at a local ad agency who wanted to try her hand a script. She drafted a popular version of Jack and the Beanstalk that starred football great Anthony Munoz (as the Giant, of course) and Broadway star and Cincinnati native Pamela Myers (as Jack's mother).
Marnich has subsequently achieved significant playwriting success. One of her scripts, The Sleeping Country, will receive its world premiere at the Cincinnati Playhouse during the 2007-08 season.
Louiso has a long list of additional accomplishments -- serving as a charter member of the Ohio Arts Council, for instance -- but creating works onstage that audiences enjoy is truly what motivates him.
He's a kind of pied piper for theater in Cincinnati, leading kids (and their parents) to worlds of entertainment and lifelong appreciation. That's a lifetime achievement worth noting, making Jack Louiso a perfect addition to the CEA Hall of Fame. ©