CPT's big [box] boosts productions, bolsters talent

Two years ago, Deborah Magid conceived an idea for a musical Country and Western. Although she had penned a dozen plays within a few short years, she found herself struggling to complete this one because, as she says, "life kept getting in the way."

An accomplished opera singer, actor and budding playwright, Magid needed the right kind of nudge to complete her script and score. She found it with the Big [BOX] residency program at Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT).

Since 2001, Big [BOX] has been fostering original work by independent Northeast Ohio artists like Magid by providing access to CPT's myriad resources, including stage management, production staff, box office, and marketing and advertising support. For one week, artists are "given the keys to the theater" to polish their productions, culminating in a full-weekend run. The program runs for two months.

The program is often the key step between a finished script and full production, says Magid.

"It's fairly easy to get a public reading in Cleveland," notes Magid. "But there's a sort of chasm in between having a reading and preparing it for full production, and that's where Big [BOX] fits in. It's a springboard – it lets you get it on its feet, workshop it a bit, and see what you have."

Featuring toe-tapping Country and Western tunes, Magid's "The Cowboy Poet" is billed as a raucous exploration of desire, ambition, trust and hope. The production features a cowboy poet, a WASP socialite, and an ex-gang member, who together hold a gala in New Mexico to benefit adult literacy. The show runs February 25 through 27.

The impetus for Big [BOX] stemmed from CPT's desire to support individuals beyond the stage-reading phase, which it already achieves through its Little Box series. It also seeks to include support for local artists who aren't working from text-based performances, such as choreographers and directors.

"Big [BOX] gives a greater level of production and support to playwrights, but expands it to other art forms and creates a connecting place between people where they're seeing new work," says CPT artistic director Raymond Bobgan.

Often, the program serves as an incubator for pieces to advance into something else, resulting in greater exposure for artist and production. It also allows individuals to expand their artistry by working in new disciplines. A lighting designer, for example, may propose his or her own project or take on the role of director.

It's about people creating pieces and CPT supporting their growth as artists, Bobgan adds.

Each season, CPT selects a variety of fresh, artistically compelling projects from individuals or teams. Artists not only must possess enough experience to pull off the piece, but must benefit from doing a project that the audience will benefit from seeing.

As a choreographer, dancer and teacher, Kenya Woods is not well versed in playwriting. But she is skilled at communicating through the quiet eloquence of dance. Her poignant production "Through Her Eyes" depicts three mothers who find grace while exploring the meaning of life's daily, mundane tasks. Woods submitted the piece to serve as a voice for artists who struggle to find balance between supporting their craft and supporting their family.

Woods' experience with CPT has enabled her to connect with other artists in a professional and supportive environment. She also appreciates the organization's focus on local artists. "We have a lot of talent here, like myself, who just need a jump start," she says. "That makes a world of difference."

Big [BOX] is as much for audiences as it is for artists. Always well attended, these early productions boast plenty of audience feedback, which artists find invaluable to the development process.

Just ask Molly Andrews-Hinders, an actor, playwright and composer whose contemporary one-woman musical "Soliciting for Change" completed its run last month. Andrews-Hinders wrote and starred in the autobiographical account of her experience canvassing Cleveland during the lead up to the 2008 election. The story illustrates how a young, progressive woman discovers how to effectively communicate with strangers on sensitive political issues.

Andrews-Hinders enjoyed sharing her project with the community but admits her nervousness opening night upon realizing she had no idea what political affiliations her audience members held. Her fears were short-lived after receiving positive feedback even from those who didn't share her views.

"They told me why they wanted to see the production and that I was successful in not ostracizing them," she recalls. "They also provided feedback on what I could touch upon to make it more accessible to both political parties."

In the production "Sonic Cinema," FiveOne, a group of composers and performers, will provide a musical backdrop to the silent films of local filmmakers. This cross-collaboration allows individuals to create innovative projects with different types of people, notes FiveOne composer Michael Bratt.

"The art that CPT puts forth engages and makes the audience think," Bratt says. "Big [BOX] becomes the lifeblood for getting more adventurous art out there to audiences. I almost don't care if people come to our show and hate it, as long as they have an opinion."

"Sonic Cinema" runs February 18 through 20. The entire series features the work of 13 artists and runs through March 6.

Photography by Bob Perkoski
- Photo 1: Rehearsal for Cowboy Poet L-R: Valerie Young, Deborah Magid, Peter Toomey and Caitlin Lewins
- Photo 2 Playwright, actor and opera singer Deborah Magid
- Photos 3 & 4: Raymond Bobgan, CPT executive artistic director
- Photos 5-8: Choreographer Kenya Woods

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