“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, 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: 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, 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!