CLEVELAND PUBLIC THEATRE (CPT) was founded in 1981 by James Levin, a graduate of Shaker Heights High School and CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIV law school. Levin had spent the previous three years as an actor and director at Cafe LaMaMa, the internationally renowned experimental theatre in New York City. Inspired by this experience, Levin created an organization in Cleveland modeled on LaMama. His dream of producing innovative original work dealing with provocative political and social issues featuring culturally and ethnically diverse artists has been realized in CPT. Since its founding, CPT has become Cleveland's leading stage for experimental theater, achieving national stature in the process. The theatre produced five seasons of free "Shakespeare at the Zoo" from 1983-87 at CLEVELAND METROPARKS ZOO. It acquired a permanent home in 1984 in a former dance hall at Detroit Avenue and West 65th Street, which was renovated by a motorcycle gang in return for legal representation by Levin. In 1987 CPT began to focus on original work by innovative contemporary artists, including emerging playwrights and performing artists from the San Francisco Mime Company, Annie Sprinkle, and the Imani African American Dance Company. It originated the Cleveland International Performance in 1988, which eventually became an independent operation, ultimately ceasing operations in 1999.
Since 1984, CPT has supported innumerable emerging artists, arts organizations, and itinerant theatres. Companies launched or nurtured by CPT include Wishhounds (Theatre Labyrinth), New World Performance Laboratory, Ground Zero, The Repertory Project (now Verb Ballets), and SAFMOD. CPT helped develop regionally and internationally recognized projects such as the Performance Art Festival (1987), Festival of Alternative Theatre (1988), Sonic Disturbance Sound Festival (1990), American Indian Festival (1992) and Women's Voices, Women Dancing (1993).
CPT's commitment to the community is embodied in work with inner city youth and adults in recovery. Classes initially offered in schools and neighborhood centers eventually developed into a comprehensive outreach and education program. Continually evolving, the program includes Brick City, a partnership with Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority that provides theatre arts education on site to children who live in public housing, and Student Theatre Enrichment Program (STEP), job training and employment for low-income teens. CPT education programs now serve several hundreds of students through ongoing, free classes in the inner cities of Cleveland and Lorain.
In 1994 CPT conducted a successful capital campaign, purchasing their original facility and transforming it into a Black Box theatre, scene shop, and administrative offices. The adjacent building, Gordon Square Theatre (GST), was acquired the following year. GST is the oldest remaining theatre in Cleveland; it was built in 1912 as a vaudeville theater. When renovated, GST will serve as a first class 600-700 seat theatre, and a flexible performance space suitable for a broad range of events.
Since its inception, CPT has grown from a volunteer artist-driven entity with an annual budget of $5,000, to a vital arts organization with a budget that is close to one million dollars per year, a staff of dedicated professionals, and two performance facilities. Activity at CPT has anchored area redevelopment and stimulated a cultural renaissance in the once-blighted Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood. When complete CPT's Arts Campus will provide venues for a broad range of performing arts.
In 2004, CPT was under the leadership of Executive/Artistic Director, Randy Rollison, founding Artistic Director of HERE Theatre in New York City. Rollison joined CPT in 1998 as Producing Director. Rollison became Artistic Director in 2002, and Producing Artistic Director in 2004.