OTRview IV: D. Lynn Meyers
D. Lynn Meyers is the Producing Artistic Director at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) located at 1127 Vine Street in the Gateway Quarter of Over-the-Rhine. ETC is the second largest professional theatre in the Cincinnati region and is now celebrating its 25th anniversary in OTR. During the April 2001 “civil disturbance”, CNN used the Ensemble Theatre as a backdrop. Fortunes have changed since then and ETC is one of the neighborhood’s anchors that deserves praise for its commitment to OTR (especially after it was offered several million dollars to move to NKY).
Lynn has some fantastic insights to share. Enjoy:
1. You appreciate Over-the-Rhine. When did you first learn about and/or experience OTR or what is your first memory of OTR? How has your perception of it changed since your first impression? Was it love at first sight?
I grew up in Cincinnati and around OTR. My grandparents lived a few blocks from where ETC stands. My grandfather worked at Findley Market on the weekends as his extra job and as a child I freely roamed the market place and loved it. My grandfather was paid in product, not money, so whatever the stands had left at the end of the day the workers took home. I recall my grandmother laying out all of the bits and pieces he would bring home and planning the week’s meals around it. I thought it was like opening a great surprise every week. Sometimes we had a lot of meat, other times we were long on potatoes, but it always ended up tasting great. One of the reasons I returned from casting work in L.A. to work at ETC, was that I saw OTR had turned into a very sad community, torn apart in those days by drugs, crime and sadness. I wanted to make a difference in helping to heal this area that I love so much. Using my work at ETC as a catalyst for positive change has been a rewarding experience and I believe ETC has been a strong and positive anchor for the past 25 years.
2. Here’s something many readers may not know: After the “civil disturbance” of 2001, ETC was offered several million dollars to relocate to NKY. You and the board refused, staunchly believing in the neighborhood. Why did you stay?
We stayed because nothing ever changes by leaving or quitting. Our founders could have started the theatre anywhere in the city, but 25 years ago, they chose OTR as the place to provide a home to local professional actors and artists and because they saw the great potential of the area. They knew the historical significance of the neighborhood as having once been an active, bustling area of the city and its ability to once again become that. Covington is a great city, but we were meant to make OTR a stronger neighborhood—my sincere commitment to the theatre was based on my commitment to the neighborhood. I felt, and our board agreed, that standing our ground and turning down the very generous offer from NKY was the right thing to do for our community. We believe a regional theatre should be about and serve the region in which it is located. We had a chance to take an easy way out and make life easier for ourselves or taking the road less traveled by investing in OTR to make it a better place for everyone. So, instead, we chose to present Hedwig and the Angry Inch that summer and bring people back into OTR. I think staying was the single most important decision we ever made and we’re very proud of that decision.
3. ETC attracts many first-time (or first-time in a long time) visitors to OTR. What is their reaction to the recent and ongoing improvements to the neighborhood?
Our loyal audience base feels rewarded for their long-standing dedication to ETC by having new destinations to shop, park and eat, but our first time visitors are amazed that this is such a great neighborhood destination. I feel there is a sense of surprise at how easy it is to come to ETC, and how much of an evening or afternoon they are able to make within a few blocks. I can only see thing getting better and better.
4. Is ETC’s programming (choice of plays or outreach programs) influenced by its location in OTR? How and why does it differ from other local or regional theatres? How do you think this influence, if any, affects your attendance?
Absolutely on all accounts. Our choice of plays is dictated by our location. We bring issues to our stage that would not fit into other communities. I believe our street address gives us a great amount of latitude in the choices we make. We deal with city issues, race issues, political issues; we bring to our stage conversations that feel totally at home here in OTR. We are pioneers with regard to bringing the best voices in contemporary theatre to our stage and we believe that since our inception 25 years ago that we have been and continue to be pioneers working towards a strong future for OTR. I would not present much of our programming if we were located elsewhere. Our home in an historic building in an emerging, yet historic, neighborhood is perfect to present the future of the American theatre.
6. Now celebrating ETC’s 25th Anniversary, what are some milestones/major accomplishments in the organization’s history or things about the organization that readers may be unaware of?
We are about to present 25 The Musical that will include 25 great songs from our entire history, I think that is surprising, since we are best known for contemporary, cutting edge works. ETC was founded as a fully professional Equity theatre from its start and for our first season, we presented the plays at Memorial Hall before moving to our current location later that year. Since then, we also became a LORT (League of Resident Theatres) theatre in 2007, a distinction we share with some of the best regional theatres in the country, including Playhouse, Actors Theatre of Louisville, and the Goodman Theatre. This of course means that we pay union salaries (including pension and health benefits) to our actors and stage managers so that they can earn a livable wage and concentrate more on their profession.
Some other things that readers may not know about ETC is that we were selected to present the world premiere of Lee Blessing’s Lake Street Extension, the world premiere of Glimmer, Glimmer, & Shine by Warren Leight (Executive Producer of Law & Order), and Edward Albee directed the world premiere of his play Fragments. When we did The Exonerated, a play that tells the true story of six wrongly convicted people who are on Death Row, we partnered with the Ohio Innocence Project and Jerry Springer did a special one-night only performance of the show to help raise money for the Ohio Innocence Project. We were also the first theatre in the county to be given the rights to produce I Am My Own Wife while it was still running on Broadway (our production was remounted at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Peterborough Players in New Hampshire, and Florida Stage) and were the only theatre in the country given the rights to produce Thurgood this year. Our hit production of Souvenir was also remounted at St. Louis Repertory, Ensemble Theatre of Santa Barbara and even abroad at Vienna’s English Theatre.
I think our Education Programming, which is stellar, is also not as well known as it should be. For over a decade, each season we have been bringing in over 1,200 economically disadvantaged children to see our holiday shows for free and providing them snacks through our Fairy Godmother Program. And, through our Prelude Program we go into local schools (again focusing first on OTR and other economically disadvantaged schools) to teach children how to write, perform, and produce their own plays—the subject matter is always driven by the students, but also integrates relevant curriculum. So, themes have ranged from teen pregnancy to strengthening math skills—and it’s fascinating that these subjects are chosen by the students themselves. Theatre not only is a great vehicle for learning life skills such as public speaking and listening to peers, but it’s also fun and creative at the same time.
Finally, we have an extraordinary intern program, which helps feed the youth element in our town. Many of these have chosen to make Cincinnati their home, including Brian Isaac Phillips who runs Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and professional local actors Michael Bath and Sara Mackie who also began their career as interns here at ETC. Each year, we bring in about 10 recent college graduates from across the country to work with us for the season in all aspects of theatre. Additionally, for the past two years, we have also partnered with CCM on two fronts to provide students with real-world application of their studies. We have a Technical Apprentice Program that takes one student each year to give them experience with our award-winning production staff and secondly, we have our stage management internships that provides 3-4 students from the CCM Stage Management degree program with invaluable experience in a professional level while receiving school credit. These are highly sought after internships.
5. Finally, what role do you think ETC and the arts play in OTR’s renaissance? What does the future of ETC and OTR look like to you?
Bringing over 25,000 people a year through our doors is a major economic impact on OTR. I believe our faith and steadfastness has inspired others to locate here. Our subscription numbers and single ticket sales are at an all time high, which gives me great hope for our future. We are producing a show this summer (Winter Wonderettes, the sequel to last year’s Marvelous Wonderettes) specifically to keep foot traffic in the neighborhood and help feed the stores and restaurants with our patrons. This is a risk we are taking for our neighborhood and it’s an exciting time. We hope doing a Christmas-in-July show works! We believe it will. Had we not done Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the summer of 2001, I don’t think we would be open today. We had to seize the chance to make a difference. I believe ETC served as inspiration for many other theatre groups to begin. Before ETC was founded, the only theatres in town were Playhouse and the touring shows. Since ETC opened and has succeeded, many small companies have had the courage to begin. ETC’s positive influence on a national scene with regard to theatre and neighborhood commitment has shone a bright and positive spotlight on our city and I strongly believe it will continue to do so for many years to come.
Thank you Lynn and everyone at the Ensemble!
ETC is currently performing “End Days” which has been extended through April 9th. Visit www.cincyetc.com for more information on tickets, upcoming shows and a chance to win free tickets. Find Ensemble on facebook here.