2020 Vision: Cincinnati Artists Theatre

“I’m hopeful that maybe this might be our own version of Steppenwolf here in Cincinnati.”

It was offhand but sincere.  Tracy Connor, an actress best known for her role in “Home Alone” as the cashier, was waiting for the doors to open for Cincinnati Artists Theatre’s first official production at Liberty Exhibition Hall.  The show was intriguing to her due to her background in improv but also because she’d had these students in a class she taught at CCM.  She knows them pretty well – well enough to make such a bold statement about their potential.

I’ve been writing about theatre in Cincinnati for almost ten years.  I get excited by “new.” Whether its a new actor I’ve yet to discover, a new play that I’ve never heard of, or in the case of this 2020 Vision feature, a new theatre collective.  Cincinnati Artists Theatre’s leadership is comprised of three recent graduates of the Acting program at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

Brant Russell

Brant Russell, Associate Professor of acting at CCM, says, “I think this group has the potential to change Cincinnati’s theatrical landscape. They’re making the kind of artistically adventurous work that no other company is making right now.” Russell himself is known for risk-taking, adventurous productions that push the boundaries of traditional theatre.  He knows what he’s talking about. “These students are exceptionally talented, they’re savvy about their organizational and business structures, and they’re already forging meaningful partnerships with local mainstays. I’m a huge fan.”

So am I.

Most graduates of CCM move away to LA, Chicago, or NYC to pursue their craft.  So, why did this triumvirate of talent put down roots here?

Gabriella DiVincenzo

Gabriella DiVincenzo: Project Coordinator and Director of Artist Relations: “I started producing and directing my own work in Cincinnati as soon as I moved here to attend the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music in 2015. I quickly realized that when the people in this city get excited about something, they stand behind it with strength and support. The people who got excited about my productions supported me in such generous ways—friends, colleagues, and supporters of my work donated time, talent, and funds to help make the work we were doing the best it could possibly be. Choreographers, musicians, lighting technicians, props masters, sound designers, stage managers…the list goes on. All of these people from various disciplines volunteered immense amounts of effort and time to create something together, purely on the basis of them believing in it’s worth…now that is a city I want to work in. Those relationships changed my understanding of what it means to create meaningful, substantial work. I wanted to stay in the city that took so many chances on me based on passion and work ethic alone.”

Landon Hawkins

Landon Hawkins, Director of Programming and Development: “Well, originally, I did pursue my career in another market. After graduating from CCM in 2018, I immediately moved to New York for an opera directing gig and began the work/audition/side job grind. I spent a lovely six months in the city before landing an acting job in New Jersey, where I spent 4 months touring two Shakespeare productions throughout NY, CT, PA, and NJ. I was then hired to perform in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s summer festival and then returned to NJ for another Shakespeare show. Before I knew it, I’d spent 10 months working outside of the city (NY—a very, very expensive city for financially self-sufficient young artists) in which I’d chosen to “base” myself. I’d had a wonderful time roaming the country as an actor, but I couldn’t quite shake the itch to create, direct, and work administratively for an original theatre collective. Cincinnati offered this latter opportunity, and (and this is something many young theatre-focused artists who receive their education in this city either forget or ignore or are never properly informed of. . . ), offered an affordable living space in which I could base myself, pursue my passions, stay in the black, and still audition for many of the same jobs I was auditioning for in New York. That’s the career/business side of my story. The more personal version: Cincinnati is the city in which I first fell in love with theatre. I was educated here and have grown so much since moving to the area in 2013. I am so grateful to have the chance to create and program work in this community, which played such a massively instrumental role in my development as a person and artist. ”

Ella Eggold

Ella Eggold, Producing Creative and Marketing Director: “I’ve always been a Midwest girl, born and raised just one state over in Indiana. I love what the Midwest has to offer: warm people, welcoming cities, all four seasons, and, yes, cheap rent. When I graduated, I couldn’t quite pull myself away. I’d spent the last three years creating work in this city, building relationships and making connections. It didn’t make sense to pack up and leave all of that behind. When Landon, Gabriella, and myself got serious about the idea of starting a theatre collective here, I immediately knew I was 100% in. I love being in Cincinnati, and I think the work we want to do, just like me, will find a welcoming home here.”

All three have unique journeys into the performing arts.  Hawkins was an opera major before making the switch to acting.  Eggold got her start singing in church, which led to musicals and then a love of acting.  DiVincenzo was acting first and started directing while in high school.

“Once at CCM, I quickly realized that the performance opportunities didn’t feel proportionate to the talent and passion of my classmates, so I soon began directing classroom productions of full length plays each semester.” DiVincenzo continues, “It was that simple. We wanted to perform and challenge ourselves and it was up to us to put ourselves in the way of the work we wanted to see. In my junior year of college, my productions moved from classrooms to basements, and then to apartments, until finally, in my senior year, they moved to the Liberty Exhibition Hall—our collective’s new home.”
Eggold and DiVincenzo began working together while at CCM. “I fell in love with choosing the story we were telling and then making it happen, in an extremely logistical way. Sitting back on opening night and watching the audience watch the show that you put so much love, energy, and passion into is a really rewarding thing. I still love to sing, and I still love to act. Now, I also love to produce.”
Each of the three, while filling a distinct role in the leadership of CAT, will continue to try new things.  Eggold says, “I think that’s one of the reasons an artists’ collective is so exciting to me. It allows us the freedom to grow as creators, and we can support each other through that.”
There are already many theatres and groups producing shows in Cincinnati.  But this group is doing something different, something…almost dangerous. John David Back of ArtsWave explained that the first production (TOO MUCH LIGHT MAKES THE BABY GO BLIND) was unlike anything you’re likely to see at larger theatres like the Aronoff, Ensemble Theatre, or even Know Theatre. “I have not seen something so off-the-beaten-path in my time as an ArtsWave reviewer.”
DiVincenzo explains the motivation behind the collective. “To look at a room filled with people sitting together in a space they would never otherwise occupy, watching a story they would never otherwise hear, from a perspective that is never exactly their own — it’s a feeling so profound and it drives my desire to create.”

In their mission statement, they envision a theatre in which art, ideas, and performance inspire the community’s imagination. Desiring to rejuvenate the audience’s expectation and experience of live theatre by giving priority to programming that you won’t find programmed elsewhere in Cincinnati.

“THREE” runs from 2/28 – 3/1 at Liberty Exhibition Hall

This season, all of their productions include an element (or are entirely composed) of radical experimentation.  For instance, next is a reimagining of Chekov’s classic play, “Three Sisters.” “Our initial discussions regarding this piece (“Three”) have sparked questions about finding the connective threads between the live paraphrasing of Chekhov’s text, horrible puns, and baseball.”

Yeah, you won’t see that done anywhere else.

While pushing the envelope of normal expectations Is part of their goal, their broader focus is on finding and/or creating work that is challenging and daring for both audience and performer. “We believe [this] creates a theatrical opportunity to celebrate, investigate, and together, redefine what it means to bravely occupy the same uncomfortable space.”

Each of the principles identified some of their biggest influences.

Hawkins: “Atop my list of influences is the experimental theatre group, Elevator Repair Service. I had the pleasure of working with this group for six months in New York. A good friend and mentor, Emma Griffin, introduced me to their work after seeing one of my transmigration shows in 2015. ERS is known for their marathon-length novel adaptations (GATZ, The Sound and the Fury, + The Select (The Sun Also Rises)). In school, I went through a 4-year obsession with postmodern literature (Foster-Wallace, DeLillo, Franzen), and so naturally, ERS’ experimental adaptations of highly regarded, well-known novels were right up my alley. I think my biggest takeaway from working with that group and observing their rehearsal process was that if you’re going to attempt to do something original, brave, and/or groundbreaking, you have to kind of rebel against every instinct you have that tells you how to make something ‘good.’ If your goal is to experiment, you have to work with stylistic ingredients, source materials, or performative elements with which you are unfamiliar or afraid of…you have to really chance failure—only then might you yield theatrical results which are unconventional, fresh, and original.”
Eggold: “Theatre Handmade, Breach, and HOTTER Project are some of my biggest inspirations. All three companies are telling really daring and dangerous narratives about women in a way that I desperately crave. They also create their own work by relying on found text, which I love. Theatre Handmade just released a script called “The Pussy-Grabber Plays” that are inspired by “The Women Who Came Forward.” The company worked closely with the women that came forward with sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump and told their side of the story. I think that’s brave, necessary, and important theatre that has the power to change the way an audience exists in the same space as the performer. Breach is currently performing a devised piece entitled “It’s True, It’s True, It’s True,” that lifts text from trial transcripts that were recorded in Rome in 1611. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more impactful piece of theatre. HOTTER Project just sold out an extended run at SOHO. The theme of this play? What makes a woman hot. They interviewed a hundred women between the ages of 6 and 106 and used the intel they collected to build the piece. It’s messy and sexy and gentle and rough, and I’ve thought about the play every day since seeing it two years ago. I am drawn to companies that tell stories for a very specific reason and that aren’t afraid to bravely occupy a space, two feet away from an audience while presenting a story that could easily make one uncomfortable. This is my wish for Cincinnati Artists’ Theatre. With Gabriella and Landon by my side, I have no doubt we will accomplish this.”

DiVincenzo: “Some of my biggest influences include directors Joel Sugerman and Brant Russell, who each took the time to introduce me to styles of theatre I had never seen before through devising their own work, using the audience at-hand to create a pointed and specific piece of theatre, and introducing me to some of the best theatre-makers I have ever heard of or seen. On the top of this list is the Spitfire Company, a group out of Prague made of ensemble members who push the limits of the body and control through physical theatre. They utilize live music and live mixing along with voice over, projection and intimate staging to create an experience for the audience that is extremely visceral. I have loved every production of theirs that I have seen, but my favorite is “One Step Before The Fall,” starring Markéta Vacovská and Lenka Dusilová.  Another influential theatre company I’ve learned a lot from is Pig Pen Theatre Company. Pig Pen was started by freshman actors at Carnegie Mellon who wanted to create their own work and write their own music. Since starting up, their work has been performed all over the country, and they’ve earned critic’s picks in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe along with many, many others. Their work is so creative, and their ability to tell a complex story, simply, is unmatched.”

This kind of young ambition is impressive.  Carol Brammer and Mindy Heithaus of Clifton Players think so, too. They have joined into an artistic partnership with CAT and are providing the performance space at Liberty Exhibition Hall.  Brammer says, “Over the last twelve years of theatre development, I have been honored to partner with so many of Cincinnati’s incredibly talented, hard-working artists.  The Clifton Performance Theatre and The Clifton Players was built and has remained solid as a result of these working relationships and the unique creativity that is born by a group of actors allowing each other to have a “voice” in the creation of their season.  I guess that is my idea of an actual actor’s ensemble.”

Carol Brammer

She continues, “The Clifton Players has produced less in the last couple of years as a result of our resources and attention going to the development of our sister location, The Liberty Exhibition Hall, in Northside. In the process of building the Liberty’s focus and identity, we met Cincinnati Artist Theatre. It didn’t take much time to realize they were a powerful new breathe of life into the theatre community and yet, so familiar to me. The Cincinnati Artist Theatre and The Clifton Players’ mission statements strangely align as if we have known each other’s ensembles for years.  I am blown away by their choice of material and their unexpected approach to material that we may think we know. In addition to their creativity and professionalism, The Cincinnati Artist Theatre understands this is a company and yes – a business. They bring working dedication to the entire vision and ALL aspects of growing of The Liberty Exhibition Hall and our individual companies.  We look forward to producing plays together and combining our companies talents to bring Cincinnati some memorable ‘lightning in a bottle’ stories.

She ends her statement with this: “I am proud to say, ‘Welcome home Cincinnati Artist Theatre; you are a gift!’
According to their web site, this season will feature two more productions after “Three,” including an electronic opera featuring Hawkins performing solo.  But next fall, they plan to produce two published well-known contemporary plays which they’ll announce soon.
For more information about Cincinnati Artists Theatre, check out the links below:

Kirk Sheppard is a blogger, focusing on finding clarity through topics like spirituality, mental health, and wellness in 2020. Subscribe to his blog so you don’t miss a single post!