Take your pick from four wildly different shows on Cincinnati stages this weekend.
For something completely different, check out Beertown at Know Theatre (through March 19). It’s a national touring project by dog & pony dc, a company that was here for several recent Cincinnati Fringes. The show is set in an imagined American town that opens a time capsule every five years to review its “eternal” and “ephemeral” contents. With the exception of dog & pony dc actor Wyckham Avery as the town’s patronizing mayor, the performers are all Cincinnati actors, a majority with significant improv experience. They solemnly execute the “20th quinquennial” ceremony to revise what’s saved and removed, relying on voluntary input from the audience as to what’s most important for the community. The show includes interspersed scenes (injected as “antecedents”) that reveal details of the century-long tradition. Beertown starts out feeling like an amusing Fringe show — artifacts range from serious items such as antique photos and a family bible to trivia such as pink slips and a “jar of smoke” — but by the time it’s over, with some cleverly planted messages from the ably played “townspeople,” you realize you’ve been part of a civic exercise that has depth as it explores just what’s important to a community. Know’s artistic director Andrew Hungerford says, “There’s nothing newer than a show that is created in partnership with the audience each night.” I’m not a fan of theatrical audience participation, but I was surprised and gratified by how Beertown unfolded and landed its messages. By the way, you’re invited to bring desserts to share for the potluck before ceremony begins. Tickets: 513-300-5669.
The Disney musical Newsies, based the 1992 film, is in town through March 13 at the Aronoff Center. The true story is unsubtle and predictable: Downtrodden newsboys in 1899 New York City get fed up with the high-handed ways of arrogant publisher Joseph Pulitzer and go on strike. Their “children’s crusade” wins out and improves conditions for kids who hawked papers on street corners. There’s no question from the outset that these spunky young fellows are going to succeed; Pulitzer is an unadulterated greedy villain, and Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro), the Peter Pan-like leader of the boys is played as the hero from the get-go. Nevertheless, Newsies indeed showcases athletic dancing — about 15 high-energy young men who high-kick, cartwheel and back-flip around the stage for more than two hours to imaginative choreography by Christopher Gattelli. The production’s design, big pieces of Erector Set-like structures that double as fire escapes and more, roll into various configurations and provide surfaces for video projections that set the scene. Not profound, but fun to watch. Tickets: 513-621-2787. An additional note: The show’s “newsboys” will present a special evening of song and dance on Monday evening at 7:30 p.m. in the Aronoff’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater with the proceeds to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Tickets start at $25: cincinnatiarts.org/newsboys.
For another musical populated by disaffected youth dancing, check out American Idiot at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. Onstage at Patricia Corbett Theater, like Newsies, this show is rooted in real events — it opens with ominous video recollections of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It’s based on Green Day’s 2004 Punk Rock album, full of anger and angst. The show is more impressionistic than narrative following three young men yearning to escape the deadening humdrum of suburbia to do something, be somewhere, where they will feel more real. But crushing reality — ranging from parental responsibility to military service and drug addiction — bears down in depressing ways on them. After pain and searching, they find their way to stasis if not happiness. Along the way, the production, staged by Aubrey Berg with music direction by Steve Goers, pounds out Green Day’s mostly anxious songs; of singular note is CCM senior Samantha Pollino’s thrashing, hair-whipping, fist-punching choreography. One word of caution: This show is no-holds-barred in terms of drug use, sexual content and profanity. But frankly (and I do mean frankly), that’s a big part of what it’s about. It’s onstage through March 13. Tickets: 513-556-4183.
veteran company member Kelly Mengelkoch, Emma (through March 26) lives up to Cincy Shakes previous productions
of stage adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels — romances, first and foremost,
navigating the ins and outs of love and relationships in the early 19th
century. Austen’s central characters are usually feisty but moral women,
strong-minded and judgmental, and they match up well with the versatile female
talent in Cincy Shakes’ acting company. First and foremost is Courtney Lucien
as Emma Woodhouse, whose confidence in her matchmaking skills puts her in
several pickles with friends and acquaintances as well as personally. The
object of Emma’s plans is the modest Harriet Smith, played by Caitlin McWethy,
who often says as much with demeanor and facial expression as with the words
provided by Jon Jory’s adaptation of the 1813 novel. Despite some derailments
along the way, Emma is awash in wit and good humor. I gave this production a
Critic’s Pick. Tickets: 513-381-2273.
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
Perhaps by now you’ve heard that Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is building itself a new home at 12th and Elm streets in Over-the-Rhine. (Construction is already under way.) But before the move, there’s one last season of theater to be produced at 719 Race St., Downtown, the space where the group has performed since the late 1990s but has outgrown.
Brian Phillips, Cincy Shakes’ producing artistic director, says, “Before we go, we have one last season here on Race Street. We will present a slate of titles that are as nostalgic as they are timeless and represent the next phase of Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. This is the perfect chance to join us as we bid a fond farewell to Race Street, because this goodbye is only the beginning.”
The season announced today offers nine productions, commencing with a powerful stage adaption of The Diary of Anne Frank (Sept. 9-Oct. 1) featuring Courtney Lucien — currently playing the title role in the current adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma — as the young Jewish girl who records her harrowing story in her diary. Her family’s experience, hiding from Nazi persecutors in an Amsterdam attic, endures as a condemnation of man’s capacity for cruelty and a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. It will be followed by Bernard Pomerance’s award-winning American classic, The Elephant Man (Oct. 14-Nov. 5). Longtime favorite actor Giles Davies will play the deformed central character, Joseph Merrick, and Brent Vimtrup portrays the young doctor who finds an intelligent, sensitive man behind his horrifying disfigurement.
The season’s first Shakespearean production at the classic theater is the romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing (Nov. 18-Dec. 10). It’s about Beatrice and Benedick, a perfectly matched couple who can’t stand each other — a formula for great comedy. More Shakespeare comes in January as Cincy Shakes wraps up the History Cycle, a feat undertaken by just one other theater in the U.S. The presentation in chronological order of Shakespeare’s history plays about the reigns of five British kings and a century of turmoil began in 2013. The concluding elements of this series will be the 2017 productions of Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses, Part 2 (Jan. 20-Feb. 11) followed by the cycle’s thrilling conclusion with the story of England’s most murderous monarch, Richard III (Feb. 17-March 11), played by Billy Chace.
Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece of the American stage, A Raisin in the Sun (March 24-April 15) comes next, about a working class African-American family in 1950s Chicago. A financial windfall opens a door to opportunity, but social pressures undermine their dream. The 1959 play is a classic in every sense of the word.
Cincy Shakes’ final production on the Race Street stage, fittingly, will be Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest (May 5-June 3). Longtime company member Nicholas Rose will play the magician Prospero in a sweet story of revenge, love, magic and redemption.
To add several sparks of hilarity to its final season, Cincy Shakes will present two other shows outside the subscription season. They are All the Great Books (abridged) (July 22-Aug. 13, 2016), another script from the deliriously fevered brains that created The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), The Complete History of America and more. They’re calling it a refresher of literature’s greatest hits for “everyone from the illiterate to the literati.” And it wouldn’t be a Cincinnati holiday season without another round of Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!) (Dec. 14-31). The 90-minute send up of “Beloved Holiday Classics” returns for the 11th year.
It’s a great send-off for the company, the little literary engine that could, which will open the following season in the new facility in Over-the-Rhine in September 2017.
Tyler Wolf and Lily Turner, co-founders of Urban Blooms, recently built the largest living wall in Ohio. The two Walnut Hills High School graduates started the nonprofit two years ago and have been amazed with the outpouring of support and interest they have seen from Cincinnati communities thus far. Urban Blooms specializes the design, installation and maintenance of indoor and outdoor living walls — functional vertical gardens — as a source of income for other community sustainability projects. One of the organization’s goals for the year is to build at least six more. The living walls are not only aesthetically beautiful, but also good for the environment — with air-cleaning abilities, they can filter out particulate matter and volatile organic compounds from the air we breathe. Urban Blooms is responsible for the 18-by-8-foot installation at Hyde Park’s E+O Kitchen, and will be exhibiting a living wall at the Cincinnati Flower Show in April.
What makes this nonprofit really special? It’s still in the startup phase. Wolf and Turner have no paid staff and haven’t pulled a salary for themselves yet.
“We are professional volunteers,” Turner says. “When you remove the money factor, you see what you can do, and that’s when the passion really kicks in — and the ambition. It’s fantastic to see, and that’s part of the energy of the startup community.”
The two are committed to their cause and to the city of Cincinnati. “We are not trying to get rich with this,” Wolf says. “We really want to make our city into a more sustainable and community-oriented place that appreciates art, like these living walls. I believe we can turn Cincinnati into the most sustainable city in the country.”
There is an upcoming opportunity to volunteer with Urban Blooms. During the next few weeks, the team will be working to clean out a space in North Avondale to build a community butterfly garden. Any one wanting to help can contact Urban Blooms for details on time and place.
At the beginning of last year, Wolf got involved with the East End Veterans Memorial Garden, located behind Eli’s BBQ. The vets that tend to the garden are part of the drug and alcohol program at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center. “The whole program is based around providing healthy living and learning environments and to teach them sober activities to occupy their time with,” Wolf says. Volunteers are welcome to visit the garden from 9 a.m.-noon Thursday or 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday starting around the first week of April. There is a 52-week curriculum that teaches different gardening techniques that are relevant to the seasons. “In the spring we teach how to get soil ready, starting seeds and transplanting,” Wolf says. “In the summer it’s more about taking care of plants and knowing when its time to pick. In the fall it’s about picking produce, cooking with it and getting the garden ready for the next year.” Urban Blooms is not looking for gardening gurus to get involved with this community project, just volunteers who want to spend some time getting their hands dirty to make a difference in the life of a veteran.
There is another garden near the Cincinnati Zoo where volunteers are welcome to come and help the team prepare the beds to be planted. This community garden has about 12 raised beds and is a traditional community garden where people in the neighborhood take responsibility for their own beds and work through trading with other people utilizing the gardening space. Anyone living in Avondale or Clifton who wants space in the garden can contact Urban Blooms.
Because this organization is so new, they could still use a little help with the business side of things. Anyone willing to contribute time to grant writing, website building or nonprofit administration would be more than appreciated.
Urban Blooms is a young nonprofit, so donations help greatly. Money is always appreciated but there are many other ways to help this growing organization. The team has asked for gardening supplies like soil, seeds and rocks. Donated wood and 55-gallon barrels can be used to make garden beds and planters. One unique donation they are looking for is old jeans — Turner has the interesting idea of turning jeans into cool planters.
For his fifth season in Cincinnati, six of the 10 productions are by women or artists of color. Robison has included a Pulitzer Prize winner, a work by America’s greatest African-American playwright, a couple of classics, two world premieres and some shows that touch on important contemporary issues.
He’s particularly pleased that the shows he’s programmed for the Robert S. Marx Stage “have some degree of name recognition. But the season is not watered down — we haven’t resorted to ‘cotton-candy’ programming. We’re leaning forward and doing some very challenging work, but it has a popular flair. From the beginning I said that I wanted to be sure that our programming was both artistically challenging and hugely popular. That seems like it should be an easy thing, but it’s actually one of the hardest. I think this season has come the closest to that goal.”
The Marx season opens with an adaptation of John Irving’s popular 1989 novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany (Sept. 3-Oct. 1). A work that explores friendship, destiny and faith, it’s a show that Robison staged with memorable success a decade ago at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md., where he was artistic director before Cincinnati. “It’s a beautiful, imaginative, resonant story,” he says. “The search for meaning, personal faith and true things, above and beyond organized religion, is interesting to people these days.”
Next will be August Wilson’s Jitney (Oct. 15-Nov. 12), one of the 10 plays in Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” chronicling African-American life during the 20th century. The story of men operating an unlicensed car service in Pittsburgh has never been staged in Cincinnati. Playhouse Associate Artist Timothy Douglas, one of the foremost interpreters of Wilson’s work in America today, will direct it.
Following the 26th annual production of A Christmas Carol, the Playhouse will present Little Shop of Horrors (Jan. 21-Feb. 19), a campy off-Broadway show about a man-eating plant that became a Broadway hit (and a movie) in the 1980s. (The Playhouse produced it in 1987.) “I just love this show.” Robison says. It’s no longer touring, and he promises “a high-level treatment” by guest director Bill Fennelly, who helped make Jersey Boys a hit. “When we did Ring of Fire in 2015,” says Robison, “we discovered that something fun and peppy and innately populist fits in January.”
From populism to the classics is the path he’s taking for the season’s final productions on the mainstage — an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s romantic novel Jane Eyre (March 11-April 8) and Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (April 22-May 20). The latter is an amusing adaptation in the same vein as the hilarious production of The 39 Steps, using five actors to play numerous roles and hurtle through a familiar tale.
The Playhouse’s Shelterhouse stage is where more adventurous works are offered. The season kicks off with Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Disgraced (Sept. 24-Oct. 23), a dinner party on New York City’s Upper East Side hosted by a Muslim-American attorney with friends and colleagues that melts down around identity, religion and politics. “It’s the Playhouse’s responsibility to ensure that our audiences can enjoy these huge award-winning plays,” Robison explains. “ You don’t have to go to New York or Chicago to see them. It’s going to be fantastic in the Shelterhouse. We’ve intentionally chosen to put this pressure cooker in the Shelterhouse and turn up the heat.”
Every holiday season the Playhouse seeks an alternative to its lovely traditional production of A Christmas Carol. This year’s show should be especially attractive: The Second City’s Holidazed & Confused Revue (Nov. 5-Dec. 31). It promises to be a hilarious evening of its skits that send up Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and everything in between, performed by talent from the legendary Chicago comedy club.
In the New Year, Robison has lined up two more world premieres, again featuring up-and-coming female playwrights. Arlitia Jones’s Summerland (Feb. 4-March 5) is about a “spirit photographer,” inspired by a man who took haunting images of the dead in the era just after the Civil War. That will be followed by Jen Silverman’s All the Roads Home (March 25-April 23), the story of three generations of women and the legacies they inherit across the latter half of the 20th century.
The Shelterhouse season wraps up with a one-woman show, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End (May 6-June 4), a portrait of the Dayton, Ohio, housewife whose newspaper columns gave voice to ordinary women everywhere. “This show is just an absolute stitch,” says Robison. “It had a very successful run at Arena Stage in Washington last spring, and we got it immediately because of the Ohio connection. It’s the perfect vehicle to send people into summer with a smile.”
As Robison said, it sounds easy to assemble an
artistically challenging and popular season, but it’s truly a tough
task. It would appear that he’s done it for 2016-2017. “I think this
season has come the closest to that goal,” he says.
The box office is the true gauge, but the season certainly looks promising.
There’s an exciting array of theater on local stages this weekend, a perfect time to check out a live performance before you settle in for the Academy Awards on Sunday night.
It seems that all a theater needs to do these days is mention Jane Austen and fans line up for tickets. I’m sure that’s what Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has in mind with its production of Emma, opening tonight. It’s the story of an amateur matchmaker who loves to meddle in the love lives of others. But when her efforts on behalf of her friend Harriet go awry, Emma Wodehouse has to undo the damage. Cincy Shakes’ productions of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility broke box-office records, and there’s no reason that show adaptation (also by Jon Jory, who led Actors Theatre of Louisville for 32 seasons). Tonight’s the opening, and the show will be onstage at 719 Race St. through March 26. Tickets: 513-381-2273.
Last June, the Audience Pick of the 2015 Cincinnati Fringe was dungeon by the Hit The Lights! Theatre Company from New York City. In fact, the company has roots here in Cincinnati; its co-founder says, “We’re overjoyed to be returning to Cincinnati, our home away from home, to invite audiences into a more fully-formed dungeon than they last encountered.” The show is about a young man who enters the unknown to rescue something he holds dear. The show is inspired by kabuki, video games, horror movies and Pixar shorts, creating a world where darkness speaks louder than light. Two encore performances this weekend at Essex Studios (2511 Essex Place) in Walnut Hills at the Cincinnati Actors Studio and Academy (CASA, Room 282B), tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $15 at the door.
It’s the final weekend for three shows on campus at Xavier University, presented in repertory: Miss Julie, a classic by August Strindberg; Betrayal, a heady drama by Harold Pinter; and Begotten, a world premiere by senior theater major Tatum Hunter. At the Gallagher Student Center Theater through Sunday. Tickets: 513-745-3939.
The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists (on the Shelterhouse Stage through March 6) has another week to run. It brings together a quartet of badass women, under house arrest during the French Revolution — including Queen Marie Antoinette and assassin Charlotte Corday. Awaiting their likely demise by the guillotine, they encourage, inspire and support one another during the horrific Reign of Terror. Sounds serious but it’s a very funny, irreverent fantasia performed by an excellent cast. I gave this one a resounding Critic’s Pick. Through March 6. Tickets: 513-421-3888.
The characters might express the feeling that “It Sucks to Be Me,” but I don’t think anyone in the audience will feel that way watching Cincinnati Landmark’s production of Avenue Q at the Incline Theater in Price Hill. The darkly funny and very adult parody of Sesame Street has been staged by local stage veteran Elizabeth Harris with a cast of singers and actors who know how to bring puppets to life — politically inappropriate, from start to finish. It’s an evening of gasps, giggles and guffaws. Through March 6. Tickets: 513-241-6550.
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
Customers entering Building Value in Northside are greeted by a yard of
bathtubs, sinks and other home furnishings. It might seem like a graveyard for
building materials, but these old home fixtures are awaiting a new life.
This is confirmed by the set of child-sized lawn chairs by the store entrance.
Upon closer inspection it’s clear that the chairs are actually repurposed
shopping carts. Inside, customers bustle around the store through aisles of
cabinets, shelves and other furniture looking for a new home.
All of the goods available for purchase at Building Value are either donated by
homeowners who no longer use them or salvaged from demolished homes. Anything
bought here can be given a new life in another home rather than sitting in a
While two men get out a tape measure to see if their dream cabinets will fit
inside their kitchen, the store cat Bella Value perches atop the checkout
counter as the clerk asks a customer to sign a donation form.
“With or without the cat’s help?” he asks. Bella seems indifferent to the man’s
signature as he signs off on the goods he donated to the store.
Building Value’s main mission is to employ people with disabilities and other
workplace difficulties and give them the training needed to obtain positions in
the construction field that pay livable wages.
Those who complete Building Value’s training program develop basic
deconstruction skills. They may then be hired by companies like Messer
Construction, a partner of Building Value.
“A combination of our program and our store work hand in hand,” Daniels says. “The
deconstruction part tears down buildings and brings it back to the store; the
store sells it so that we can make money to fund our mission.”
Instead of completely knocking a house to the ground, Building Value works to
take it apart piece by piece so that almost all parts are salvageable and able
to be resold in the store. All proceeds benefit programs at Easter Seals, a
nonprofit dedicated to creating opportunities for those with disabilities or
disadvantages to realize their full potential. The tristate chapter of Easter
seals founded the store in 2004.
“We’re trying to carefully remove items so that it can come here and get a
second life as the same thing or maybe repurposed,” Daniels says. “Our biggest
component here is how much stuff we divert from the landfill.”
The cheapest way to demolish a building is to completely raze it and dump all
of the components into a landfill, Daniels says. Although Building Value does
not demolish homes this way, having the service done by them may be comparable
or cheaper because the items salvaged for resale are tax-deductible donations.
“The thing that separates us from another business is that all the material
that comes back to the store is an actual tax write-off to the organization
that offsets their bill,” Daniels says.
The customers who shop at Building Value are contractors, house flippers and
those looking to repurpose old items — a group Daniels proudly calls “the
Pinterest crowd.” Since the key to making money off these ventures is finding
cheap materials, Building Value is an essential shopping destination for these
Before Daniels became the store manager, he flipped old houses and was a
frequent customer himself. He combines his skills from managing a Walgreens
store with his knowledge of what homebuilders need to run Building Value.
The 2016-2017 season for Broadway in Cincinnati was announced over the weekend. We’ll be seeing several time-tested titles, as well as a number of brand-new works and a couple of certifiable hits. Here’s the rundown:
The Sound of Music (Sept. 27-Oct. 9): It’s a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved hit about Maria and the von Trapp Family. It’s a sure bet that audiences will love this one, the show that became the most successful movie musical in history.
The Phantom of the Opera (Nov. 15-27): I’ve lost track of how many times a tour of Phantom has come to Cincinnati, but I can tell you that the Aronoff Center’s Procter & Gamble Hall, which opened in 1995, was designed with the appropriate infrastructure to support the show’s crashing chandelier. This tour is a new production by Cameron Mackintosh that’s described as “bigger and better than ever before,” featuring many exciting special effects — including that legendary chandelier. It’s one of the largest productions currently touring. This one is what the Broadway Series calls a “Season Extra,” not part of the package of shows that subscribers can purchase — it’s an over-and-above choice that a lot of people will be making, I’m sure.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (Jan. 3-8, 2017): The one-week run suggests low audience expectations, but this show earned rave reviews in 2014 and won the year’s Tony Award for the season’s best musical. It’s the story of a distant heir to a family fortune who sets out to move to the top of the list by eliminating eight relatives in the way — all played by one actor. It’s a very funny farce.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid (Jan. 17-29, 2017): Based on the Disney animated film, this one will draw families by the droves, I’m sure. It’s the story of Ariel, weary of flipping her fins and longing to be on dry land. All the characters from the film are all onstage — Sebastian, her crabby sidekick; handsome Prince Eric; and most memorably, Ursula, the evil sea witch. I bet you know some of these songs.
Something Rotten! (February 21-March 5, 2017): Weary of competing with Rock star playwright Shakespeare, Nick and Nigel set out to write the world’s first musical, based on questionable advice from a soothsayer who suggests that the future of theater is about singing, dancing and acting — all at once! Great fun for those who pick up on the Elizabethan gags and musical theater parodies, as well as anyone else who simply loves over-the-top comedy. I saw this show on Broadway back in November, and pretty much laughed from start to finish.
Mamma Mia! (March 10-12, 2017): This is another “Season Extra,” presented outside the subscription package for just a three-day stop. It’s the ultimate feel-good show with ABBA’s greatest hits, including “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance on Me” and “The Winner Takes It All,” and a story of love, laughter and friendship.
The Illusionists – Live from Broadway (March 21-26, 2017): OK, it’s not exactly a Broadway musical or play, but it is a spectacular showcase performed by seven of today’s most entertaining illusionists.
Matilda The Musical (April 4-16, 2017): Roald Dahl’s beloved novel became a hit in London when it debuted as a musical in 2011 where it’s still running; it’s been a Broadway attraction since 2013, when it picked up a bushel basketful of Tony nominations. Time magazine named it 2013’s No. 1 show, and the story of a spunky girl who, using her imagination and her sharp mind, takes a stand and changes her destiny, is a worldwide hit. It should be popular with Cincinnati families.
Beautiful – The Carole King Musical (May 2-14, 2017): Everyone I know who’s seen this show in NYC has loved it. King’s songs (many of them written with her husband Gerry Goffin and best friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann) became hits for the biggest acts in Rock & Roll. But when her personal life began to disintegrate she found her true voice and became one of the most successful solo acts in Pop music. Her tunes were a soundtrack for the late ’60s and early ’70s — “I Feel The Earth Move,” “One Fine Day,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “You’ve Got A Friend.” The show won two 2014 Tony Awards and its cast recording earned a 2015 Grammy; it’s still playing to sold-out houses on Broadway. Nostalgia is the key and it’s unlocking a lot of warm feelings.
WordPlay is a space in Northside where children can come for free tutoring services and creative encouragement. This nonprofit organization is dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty by improving the quality of life, education and opportunities for kids in Cincinnati.
In just more than three years, WordPlay has gone from seeing two to four students a day to somewhere around 160 kids a week. The growing organization provides academic after-school programs, creative writing workshops and summer programs for grades K-12. “WordPlay Scholars” is their academic after-school program reserved for children who meet the low-income criteria. “WordUP” is a creative program offered to students at Aiken High School and Hughes High School. “Happy Hour” is a creative workshop and is open to all, low-income or not. It is a time where children can collaborate in a creative format and learn from each other.
Volunteer: “Volunteers are just as valuable as money,” says Libby Hunter, co-founder of WordPlay. It is a goal for the organization to match each child with a tutor for a special one-on-one experience. This means that at any given time, WordPlay needs a volunteer team of at least 150 people. To begin volunteering as a tutor, first contact WordPlay through e-mail and schedule a training session (you’ll also need to pass a background check). During the school year, tutors must be 18 or older. Tutors should be able to make a commitment of two sessions per month, each two hours long. Literacy skill work, creative reading and homework time happens 3-5 p.m. Monday- Thursday — this is when tutors are needed the most.
Proficiency in school subjects is not a requirement for volunteers, but a genuine interest to be part of WordPlay is. During training, a lot of time is spent talking about the culture and the environment that is being created at WordPlay. “Having that one-on-one time with a kid makes a difference, even if you have to ask your neighbor for help with a homework problem,” Hunter says.
Behind the scenes, volunteers make up an advisory board to review and evaluate every program at WordPlay. Anyone with expertise in developing and assessing creative curriculum is encouraged to reach out and offer their skills.
“The Change Makers” is a working concept at the moment. The goal is to cultivate a group of young creatives willing to tap into their existing social networks and organize outreach events. “It will raise a little money but really focus on outreach and awareness of the issues WordPlay is addressing,” Hunter says. This is a unique opportunity to get on the ground level of WordPlay’s outreach program.
Donate: “Close the Gap” is a fundraising initiative created to benefit summer learning programs specifically. “Children from low-income households tend to not have equal access to summer enrichment programs,” Hunter says. “That is where they lose a lot of ground in terms of reading proficiency and other academic skills.” WordPlay provides free summer enrichment programs to help kids keep their skills up and stay on track.
WordPlay can never have enough school supplies, specifically copy paper, lined paper and composition notebooks. Donating gently used or new books is a cheap and easy way to help WordPlay succeed. Free books are offered for kids all year long. Check the attic for old typewriters to donate. A WordPlay volunteer works to recondition them for resale. The money from typewriter sales and repairs goes directly back into their programs.
This May, WordPlay is partnering with Spun Bicycles to host Ride for Reading, during which a parade of 60-70 cyclists will fill their bags and baskets full of donated books and ride them to Parker Woods Montessori. Volunteers will be waiting with tables set up to distribute the books to students. This means they will need a lot of book donations ahead of time. The organization is collecting books from now until the ride. “The kids are out in the parking lot and you would think it’s a Rock concert the way that they scream and cheer when the bike parade pulls in,” Hunter says. This is the fourth year WordPlay has done this, and Parker Woods is the biggest school so far, with 500 students. In the past, they have been able to give 10 books to each student.
British playwright George Bernard Shaw was one of the great writers for the stage a century ago, and his most popular play, Saint Joan, is a choice available for theatergoers this weekend, thanks to the Diogenes Theatre Company. It’s the story of the rise and fall of one of history’s most fascinating characters, a young country girl in the early 15th century who claimed that God told her to drive the invading English army out of France. Of course, her fate turns and she’s burned at the stake before her 20th birthday. Cincinnati Shakespeare veteran Sara Clark is taking on the title role, and Lindsey August Mercer, who has assisted with many Cincy Shakes productions, is the director. She says, “The beautiful effect of Shaw’s account is the way his language encapsulates Joan’s strength, conviction and unshakable positivity.” Three actors — Billy Chace and Geoffrey Barnes from the Shakespeare company and Patrick Phillips, a regular with Ensemble Theatre —portray a large cast of additional characters. Diogenes is presenting Saint Joan at the Aronoff’s Fifth Third Bank Theater through March 5. Tickets: cincinnatiarts.org
The smart-alecky Avenue Q just opened at Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ Incline Theater in Price Hill. A Tony winner in 2004, the show is a darkly funny knock-off from Sesame Street, Muppet-like puppets and all, with a strong off-color dose of contemporary sarcasm. Kids who watched the educational PBS show were told they could do anything if they tried hard; Avenue Q turns that notion inside out, working from the premise that life sucks. (The song “It Sucks to Be Me” takes most of the air out of any optimist’s balloon.) The production, staged by local state veteran Elizabeth Harris, has a cast of able singers and actors who have learned they way around making puppets laugh-out-loud funny, especially Allyson Snyder as nice girl Kate Monster and neighborhood bad girl Lucy the Slut. A fine and varied singer, Snyder ably flips the switch between Kate’s naïve innocence and Lucy’s lascivious come-hither ways, often in the same scene. It’s an evening of giggles and guffaws, but not for the kids. Through March 6.
Some good things happening starting this weekend on campus at Xavier and Northern Kentucky universities. At XU’s Gallagher Student Center Theater you’ll find three shows in repertory — a classic by August Strindberg, Miss Julie; a heady drama by Harold Pinter, Betrayal; and Begotten, a world premiere by senior theater major Tatum Hunter. They’ll be in a rotating schedule through Feb. 28. Tickets: 513-745-3939 … At NKU, it’s a classic comedy, Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, a wickedly funny script from 1929 about some vaudeville troupers trying to make a comeback in Hollywood. Tickets: 859-572-5464 … Want to know a bit more about local university theater programs? Read my Curtain Call column from Feb. 17.
Once you make it past the weekend it will be time for the second installment of Serials! at Know Theatre, the “episodic theater party” offering 15-minutes from five works in progress — three that began on Feb. 8, and two new works starting this week. Audience members get to vote for their favorites to keep them alive for the next session on March 7. Watch theater being made on the fly. Tickets: 513-300-5669
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
Matthew 25: Ministries is a nonprofit organization based in Blue Ash dedicated to international humanitarian aid and disaster relief. Since its inception in 1991, the nonprofit has been able to go from carrying suitcases of medical supplies to small villages in Nicaragua to now distribution 15 million pounds of product each year that reaches 20 million people worldwide.
“Give items, give financially, or give time. It’s not right for me to tell someone how they should serve, it’s up to them to decide how they should serve.” says CEO Tim Mettey. Basically anything someone has to offer is accepted here. Mettey stresses that there is no effort too little to make a difference to someone in need.
Matthew 25: Ministries is looking for volunteers of all ages with any range of abilities to help with sorting and repackaging the tons of donated items. Walking through the 168,000-square-foot facility between shifts, it’s obvioushow huge the place actually is. The warehouse organization is so efficient with pallets of donations stacked to the ceiling, it’s like walking through an altruistic Costco.
Matthew 25: Ministries could be considered low-maintenance volunteering — they just ask people to drop in when they have time; there are no commitments or an extensive training before you start. “Every thing we have we can teach anyone to do in 5 minutes.” Mettey says.
Volunteers can help by sorting through cans of latex paint for their Rainbow Paint Reblending Program. The program takes paint that would normally go to waste, opens it all up, combines like colors and repackages the paint which is then donated to housing projects around the world.
Or help build personal care kits that are sent to people in need, either living in an area without access or having lost everything in a disaster. This station is designed for younger volunteers. Shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, mouthwash and other hygiene products are separated into bins and arranged in a circle. This makes it a simple task to grab a plastic bag and pick one product from each bin to fill it.
If you don’t have a ton of extra time in the day, think about cleaning out a closet or the pantry to find items for donation. Any consumable item you can donate is a gift to someone facing the aftermath of a disaster or living in a developing country. Medical supplies, clothing, hygiene products, non-perishable foods, cleaning supplies and toys are just some of the items that Matthew 25: Ministries is always accepting.
The organization collects empty pill bottles as part of the Recycling Program. Donated pill bottles, clean with the labels removed and the lids on, can be reused. If a lid is lost or you don't feel like cleaning the bottles, they can be shredded and turned in for cash that is put back into the organization. About a dozen giant bins of donated pill bottles, that would most likely be in a landfill otherwise, are processed every day for recycling.
Monetary donations are appreciated. “If someone writes us a check for disaster relief, 100-percent of that will go to the disaster relief.” Mettey says. Because there is only one facility, Matthew 25: Ministries is able to keep its overhead cost very low, allowing 99 percent of the cash donations to go directly into service programs.
Just by stepping foot in the facility it was evident that Matthew 25: Ministries is dedicated to what it is doing. The organization began with one man’s compassionate idea to deliver medical supplies to a small village in Central America. Today, it celebrates 25 years of providing humanitarian aid to more than 60 countries.