Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern today announced that he will leave the esteemed regional theater after two more seasons, following the 2011-12 season, his 20th. Ed’s tenure at the Playhouse predates CityBeat’s coming into existence: He began in 1992, two years before CityBeat began publishing. I had the pleasure of writing about the recovery of the theater under Stern for EveryBody’s News and then for CityBeat; the Playhouse was in desperate financial straits when Stern and Executive Director Buzz Ward took over — a $1.25 million accumulated deficit.
Stern began gradually and cautiously with shows that would attract audiences but not break the bank. But showmanship was also part of his formula — in 1992-93 he mixed Timberlake Wertenbaker’s historical drama Our Country’s Good with Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten and a wildly popular revue of tunes by Fats Waller, Ain’t Misbehavin’.
The latter musical was repeated for the 2009-10 season, the Playhouse’s 50th anniversary — another season typical of Stern, with popular classics including the Anthony Shaffer murder-mystery Sleuth and the ever-popular classic small-cast musical, The Fantasticks (Stern staged the latter with great results) plus a season stuffed full of world premiere works.
Stern often has reminded me that a responsible contemporary theater has to play a role in cultivating new works to keep the theater alive and looking to the future while still honoring the past by producing works for which audiences have demonstrated their love and appreciation.
Stern’s tenure has shown that kind of marvelous balance, and his audience has come to trust him, sustaining an admirable subscriber base even if some shows didn’t please everyone. In fact, it’s tough to get good subscription seats in the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse Theater, which presents fare that might be characterized as “off-Broadway.” But not always. Stern loves to defy expectations every year: He directed Shakespeare’s Othello in that intimate space in 2007, and it was among his best productions.
Stern’s leadership brought the Playhouse national recognition in 2004 when the company won the Regional Theater Tony Award. Even more impressive, the Playhouse’s 2007 production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company, directed by Tony Award winner John Doyle, transferred to Broadway and won that year’s Tony for the best revival of a musical.
Stern is giving the Playhouse board plenty of time to find his successor.
“I feel such a loyalty to the Playhouse that I want the transition to be as smooth as possible, and this will allow me to work through the transition with my eventual successor,“ he said in a press announcement released today. “The Playhouse has been an outstanding part of the Greater Cincinnati community for 51 years. I have been honored to be part of that incredible theatrical tradition and feel confident that I am leaving it with a bright and promising future.”
Stern won’t be easy to replace, but his successor will inherit one of the finest regional theaters in the United States. All of us who live in Cincinnati and love good theater owe a debt of gratitude to this boisterous, thoughtful man who has been presenting us with excellent theater for nearly two decades.
Best wishes, Ed. With a mixture of sadness and appreciation, I look forward to watching your final two seasons in Cincinnati.
And a footnote: As to what Stern will do next, he says, “I don’t ever see myself retiring. I look forward to directing regional theater and university projects and not to be in charge of day-to-day operations anymore. I’m ready to leave that to someone younger — but not wiser!”