In 2014 it requires equal amounts of energy, will and naïvety to single-handedly start a theater. But that’s what 22-year-old John Leo Muething is up to with Cincinnati’s newest company, Stone on a Walk. He seems to have all those elements readily at hand, as well as a supportive network of friends and family.
Muething grew up in Cincinnati and graduated from St. Xavier High School. He spent much of his time between sixth and 12th grade performing with Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati. When it came time for college, he went abroad, enrolling at Durham University in England where he majored in physics, earning a degree in three years.
But he was also attracted to Durham because it had a vibrant drama program, the Durham Student Theatre, producing approximately 100 shows during a 28-week term. Most ran for just one weekend, but the multitude of activity gave Muething a chance to stage a wide variety of shows, from the musicals Hair and The Last Five Years to Tom Stoppard’s heady drama Arcadia.
His return to Cincinnati builds on that wide-ranging experience. This summer he’s working as a counselor at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s summer camp, introducing kids to the joys of performing. (A true urbanite and the epitome of many like-minded up-and-coming creators, Muething lives in Over-the-Rhine and says, “I really don’t want a car.” He hikes up to the Playhouse in Mount Adams daily to perform his duties.)
In a recent conversation at Coffee Emporium, he mentions that his company’s name is from a book he read as a child. To him it represents how one stone can be enough for skipping, but it’s also a warning that too many stones can make for too much of a load.
The motto for his company is straightforward: “Short. Sweet. Cheap.” He’s producing shows this summer at the Art Academy of Cincinnati’s lecture hall (a venue familiar to Cincy Fringe attendees, it’s at 1212 Jackson St. in OTR) that are roughly 60 minutes in length, enjoyable and require just $10 for admission.
He has scheduled one production for one weekend in each of the summer months. In June it was Cain, Muething’s own cut-down adaptation of an 1821 play by Romantic poet Lord Byron, which he had produced previously during his studies in Durham. In 70 minutes and using three local actresses (who played several roles, male and female), the show told the story of Adam and Eve’s disgruntled and cynical son who could not abide his faithful brother Abel. Things didn’t go well. The production at the Art Academy was moving, although it suffered from the no-budget production values (no lighting or sound, borrowed furniture, troublesome sightlines).
Muething is addressing his “no-budget” situation with an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign (igg.me/at/stoneonawalk, with a four-minute video that gives an overview of his company and its shows — and includes a solicitation for audience support) to cover the cost of renting the performance space at the Art Academy. He’s keeping things simple by rehearsing at his nearby Over-the-Rhine apartment on Jackson Street.
Stone on a Walk’s second production happens a week from now, repertory theatre by Israeli playwright Eldad Cohen. (The show had its world premiere at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival by the Elephant & Mouse Company; it’s still touring in England, and Muething’s production is its U.S. debut.)
The show has a simple concept: A young timid playwright implores the artistic director of a prestigious national theater to consider his debut play. He struggles to follow the artistic leader’s neurotic train through a wilderness of Hamlet obsessions and more, and their conversation goes from nerve-wracking to insane when the theater itself seems to join into the mayhem.
Reviews from 2012 called the work confusing but were quick to suggest that it resolves deliciously. Performances of repertory theatre are July 24-26 at 8 p.m. Tickets are sold at the door or at stoneonawalk.com/tickets/.
Stone on a Walk’s third production will be something completely different: Thespis was the initial collaboration (in 1871) of the legendary Victorian operetta team Gilbert and Sullivan. The score was lost in a fire, and with some artistic license, the young director and his cast are making something new from the story of inept actors who take over for Roman gods and pretty much make a mess of things.
Muething intends to return next summer with more of this varied material that’s “short, sweet and cheap.” He’s hoping for continuing support from local theater fans. He just might make it work.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: firstname.lastname@example.org