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Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE

CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE

The Cleveland Play House is the longest-running professional theater in the United States. Unlike many theatres that celebrate their longevity, the Cleveland Play House remains the only institution that has been in continual operation since its establishment in 1915. The founders of the theatre gathered in the living room of CHARLES S. BROOKS and his wife, Minerva, in order to view lighting displays on a miniature stage created by Raymond O'Neil, the company's first director. Amazed by the visual feats, Minerva Brooks proposed the formation of an 'art theatre' to be led by O'Neil with the goal of exploring the aesthetics of Edward Gordon Craig and allowing supporters to participate in the experimentation of theatrical production.

The generous support of FRANCIS EDSON DRURY and his wife Julia allowed the young company to utilize a vacant house on his property for their minimalist productions, beginning with a marionette show and followed by a shadow play. The Cleveland Play House enjoyed steady growth and support from a small number of dedicated members, enabling the group to purchase a church on Cedar Avenue as its first permanent home. O'Neil, however, exhibited little skill as an administrator, alienating supporters and breaking promises to mount a full season of shows. By 1921, O'Neil had resigned to pursue work in New York City, and the theatre's board of directors looked for leadership that would save the nearly-bankrupt company. The three men hired by the theatre - the first professional employees of the theatre - would dictate the course of the theatre for the next four decades. Under the direction of FREDERIC MCCONNELL, the Cleveland Play House grew by leaps and bounds, growing annual attendance from 4,000 to 40,000 within the first few years, implementing education outreach programming and touring companies, and becoming a fully professional company. Most importantly, McConnell¿s success led to the 1926 construction a two-theatre complex at 85th and Euclid Avenues - land generously donated by the Drurys which remained the home of the theatre until 2010 - and the acquisition of a third theatre in 1949 located at E. 77th and Euclid Avenues. This converted church featured one of the first thrust stages utilized in professional theatre.

The next three directors of the Cleveland Play House were internal hires, favoring familiarity with the community over artistic ingenuity. K. ELMO LOWE (1958-69) - one of the three men hired with McConnell - oversaw the unionization and integration of the theatre but continued the fairly conservative play selections of his predecessor. To their credit, Lowe and McConnell consistently sought out and produced new plays, but very few had any impact on a national level. Following two years of turbulent leadership involving a forced resignation and suicide, Richard Oberlin (1971-85) continued Lowe's trend of providing a populist mix of classics and contemporary play with a few premieres offered each year, successfully maintaining audience support and enabling the Cleveland Play House to expand once again. Architect and Cleveland native Phillip Johnson designed a new four-theatre complex to encompass the prior facilities located at 8500 Euclid Avenue. In addition to the 160-seat Brooks Theatre and the 522-seat Drury Theatre, the new construction introduced the 644-seat Kenyon C. Bolton Theatre as well as open space often utilized as a blackbox theatre. The old Sears Carnegie store situated behind the theatres became the theatres' production facility and housed its own restaurant, the Play House Club.

Following the brief directorship of William Rhys (1985-87), the board of directors once again searched outside of Cleveland for new leadership that would be able to combat decreasing audiences and the company's increasing financial constraints. Josephine Abady (1988-1993) instigated immediate controversy when she announced the elimination of the theatre's resident company (which officially has been in existence since 1921). Citing a charge from the board of directors and following the example of regional theatres around the country, the disbanding of the resident company forever changed the perception of the theatre in the community, yet it is arguable that this move increased the national reputation of and quality of acting within the Cleveland Play House. Marred by the bad publicity surrounding her decision along with unpopular play selections, Abady was fired abruptly by the board of directions. The tenure of Peter Hackett (1994-2004) was marked by the implementation of a moderately-successful new play festival and the establishment of a professional actor training program in association with Case Western Reserve University. Hackett's play selections, like many of his predecessors, were criticized routinely for catering to populist tastes, yet he and his successor, Michael Bloom (2005-2013), were forced to attract wider audiences with commercial fare due to the financial constraints of the aging, mammoth facility.

By 2011, the complex at 8500 Euclid Avenue had become an immense financial burden for the Cleveland Play House, requiring nearly $1 million in yearly facility maintenance. A drastic change was needed and Michael Bloom oversaw the enormous relocation of the Cleveland Play House to Playhouse Square in the Allen Theatre complex. In its first season after the move, the Cleveland Play House saw record-breaking sales. However, the follow year saw significant layoffs and Bloom resigned in 2013. That same year, Laura Kepley became the organization's ninth artistic director (2013-Present). At the time of this writing, the Cleveland Play House continues to flourish and maintains a strong commitment to Ohio playwrights.