Public Square to bloom with music, storytelling and more this summer

lFrom kids and break dancers romping in the fountains to the instantly successful Cracking Art animals, Cleveland's reinvented Public Square has been wildly successful since its unveiling last year just ahead of the Republican National Convention.

Now as the North Coast looks forward to the summer of '17, a whole slew of new programming is set to fill the six-acre green space courtesy of a $100,000 in grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and matching funds from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture's (CAC) project partner, the Group Plan Commission. This is the first time in CAC's 10-year history that it has been a grant recipient.

Arts & Culture on the Square will include a diverse array of performances and celebrations such as "Poetry for the People" by Daniel Gray-Kontar, while "Common Threads" by Brendan Trewella will be a large interactive installation that utilizes a series of circular shapes outlined with wooden pegs.

<span class="content-image-text">Daniel Gray-Kontar</span>Daniel Gray-KontarAll of the events are free and open to the public. And while the schedule doesn't kick off until later this month (see the "List of events by date" at the bottom of this article), programming will continue through August.

In the meantime, Fresh Water checked in with some of the people who are making it all happen.

An integrated experience

As the oldest multi-cultural theatre in the country, Karamu House goes back more than 100 years, but that doesn't mean this "place for joyful gathering" — the translation of the Swahili word karamu — won't be bringing something fresh and unique to the Art & Culture on the Square line-up.

Per Karamu CEO Tony Sias, "An Evening of Blues and Jazz" will be full up with "high energy, fun and exciting jazz, blues and some musical theatre tunes as performed by a combination of professional artists and very talented students from the city of Cleveland."

The program will be inspired in part by Karamu's Blues in the Night production, which kicked off its 2016/2017 season last September and was directed by Reggie Kelly, who will also be one of the directors for the forthcoming Public Square show. "Evening" will feature kids in grades eight through 12 and Karamu artists who have performed nationwide. Students will be from across the city, and may include attendees of the Cleveland School of the Arts, Karamu's jazz vocal program or All City Arts.

"This is an example of giving [students] an opportunity by putting them on a big stage in a public setting and allowing the community to celebrate what they do," says Sias. "A lot of young people don't do jazz or do blues," he says, noting he hopes this sort of programming helps reverse that trend. "This is kind of an art form we're working to keep alive in our community. I really view Cleveland as a jazz town."

Sias also sees the Square as a unique venue that transforms a performance in a way only Mother Nature can.

"The magic is about a freedom of expression when you're outdoors that quite often you don't get to have in an indoor or theater environment," he says. "You don't have to be fully engaged. I can be eating my lunch while listening to the music and appreciating the experience," he notes, adding that a performance on the Square becomes on of many contemporaneous components.

"Having nature complement the music elevates the work," says Sias. "It's an integrated experience with the environment, the music, people and energy."

Opera for all

Cleveland Opera Theatre (COT) will present a 90-minute concert that will at once be part of the "Arts & Culture on the Square" programming as well as the group's summer-long "Opera for All," which will play out at points across Northeast Ohio. While the date for the Square performance is still to be determined, other concerts are scheduled for June 3 at 2 p.m. at the Summit Stagefest in Akron, August 5, 2 p.m. at the Cleveland Public Library Main Branch and many others.

The events, including the Public Square production, will feature "operas greatest hits" according to Megan Thompson, the group's director of community outreach and engagement, with titles such as Nessun Dorma and O Mio Babbino Caro.

All of COT's performers are based in Cleveland or Northeast Ohio, with about 20 singers involved in the summer lineup.

"We have just a tremendous talented pool of local singers," says Thompson, adding that the area is indeed fortunate to have so many refined professionals in its midst. And during the public summer performances, they go the extra mile to engage lay audience members.

<span class="content-image-text">Opera For All</span>Opera For All

"One of the things we try to do to help make opera accessible is have the singers speak to their pieces before they start so there will be some context given," says Thompson, adding that "Babbino," for instance, tells the story of a daughter who's trying to convince her father to support her in a romance of which he does not approve.

"It's a chance to bring opera to the people," she adds. Bringing the performances out into the community also challenges the notion that opera is only for the pearl-and-tuxedo set by reaching audiences that "otherwise might not have a chance to attend a full production."

In the past, the group has also ventured out to entertain specific groups. Last year, for instance, they assembled at Hopkins International Airport as all the RNC participants were leaving. "As the visitors departed, we were wishing them goodbye with favorite patriotic tunes sung in full operatic voice," recalls Thompson. "It was a blast."

So while not all of the people will come to the opera, and Thompson and her team can't bring their opera to all of the people, they are endeavoring to bring the sophisticated art form to as many as possible. And they are winning converts — one chorus at a time.

Thompson recalls a conversation with one accidental audience member. The young man asserted, "Oh, I don't like opera." She then told him he'd just listened to three arias.

"This is opera?" posed the surprised convert. "This is beautiful."

Letting our imaginations soar

A committee of local residents selected all of the programming. Their recommendations were based on the project's feasibility and potential to energize Public Square. The group included Kamla Lewis, director of Shaker Heights' Neighborhood Revitalization.

Lewis notes the committee was informed in no small part by the Cracking Art animals and the success of that installation.

"It brought out the inner child in all of us," she says. "It provided a way for us to let our imaginations soar."  That was the consensus of the committee members as well, adds Lewis. "It's what the whole committee wants for the square — to be a place where we make new memories together."

While she is quick to laud all the programming and lament that the committee couldn't approve every submission application, Lewis looks forward to the summer Square offerings with relish.

"I hope personally to experience one new art form in a way I haven't before," she says. "That's one of the great things in the diverse range of events that they're having."

Lewis says the Karamu performance is of particular interest to her, as is Lake Erie Ink's “Story Building in the Square,” which will inspire and engage participants as they "build" stories using giant word blocks. She imagines they will evoke the same playfulness the Cracking Art installation did while simultaneously transforming preconceptions of writing and storytelling.

"The whole idea of being able to put words together jointly with strangers," she says, "I think it's just brilliant. I can't wait."

She also previews "Fiesta Latina at the Square" from the Julia De Burgos Cultural Arts Center, which is billed as a lively and colorful event with music and hands-on activities: "I think Fiesta Latina is going to be a huge hit because which of us Clevelanders can resist good food, good music and dancing in the streets?"

<span class="content-image-text">Cracking Art in Public Square</span>Cracking Art in Public Square

Lastly, serving on the committee included a small stipend, which is unremarkable until you ask Lewis about it.

She's forwarding the funds to the Sarita Herron fund of the Shaker School Foundation, which was set up in memory of Lewis's daughter who attended the Lomond Elementary School in Shaker Heights.

"She believed everybody should do art and everybody can do art," says Lewis. "She passed away when she was nine."

And the program founded in her memory goes to ensure each Lomond student has art supplies at home and also funds an annual chalk festival on the last day of school. Lewis will be attending this year, along with the Shaker class of '17, of which Sarita would have been a member.

"She's been a part of this whole process," says Lewis of her late daughter's memory.

<span class="content-image-text">Roots of American Music</span>Roots of American Music 
In addition to the programs mentioned herein, "Arts & Culture on the Square" will also feature:

Crossing Borders: Immigrant Narratives from Literary Cleveland will include staged readings of original work by local writers on the theme of immigration.

Incendiaries in the Square by Pandora Robertson will be a performance based on the 1966 Hough uprising that aims to bring Cleveland history to life by actors, with a post-show discussion and workshop.

Rust Belt Roots: A Family Day of Music from Roots of American Music will feature musical entertainers and teaching artists.

List of events by date


Tuesday, June 20, 7-8 p.m. – Literary Cleveland (Crossing Borders: Immigrant Natives)
Thursday, June 22, 12-2 p.m. – Daniel Gray-Kontar (Poetry for the People)
Friday, June 30, 6-8 p.m. – Lake Erie Ink (Story Building in the Square)


Saturday, July 8, 3-5 p.m. – Lake Erie Ink (Story Building in the Square)
Wednesday, July 12, 12-1 p.m. – Literary Cleveland (Crossing Borders: Immigrant Natives)
Friday, July 14, 12-2 p.m. – Daniel Gray-Kontar (Poetry for the People)
Saturday, July 15, 1-8 p.m. – Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center (Fiesta Latina in the Square!)
Friday, July 21, 6-8 p.m. – Roots of American Music (Eric Seddon Quartet)
Saturday, July 22, 2:30 p.m. – Pandora Robertson (Incendiaries in the Square)
Thursday, July 27, 7-8 p.m. – Literary Cleveland (Crossing Borders: Immigrant Natives)
Friday, July 28, 6-8 p.m. – Roots of American Music (Zydeco Kings)
Saturday, July 29, 3-5 p.m. – Lake Erie Ink (Story Building in the Square)


Friday, August 4, 6-8 p.m. – Roots of American Music (Evelyn Wright Quartet)
Sunday, August 6, 5-8 p.m. – Karamu House (An Evening of Jazz and Blues)
Saturday, August 12, 3-5 p.m. – Lake Erie Ink (Story Building in the Square)
Friday, August 18, 7-9 p.m. – Daniel Gray-Kontar (Poetry for the People)
Saturday, August 19 to Monday, August 21 – Brendan Trewella (Common Threads)
Friday, August 25, 6-8 p.m. – Cleveland Opera (Opera for All)

Other committee members included Cavana Faithwalker of Left Thumbprint Solutions, Jason Estremera of the Hispanic Business Center and Trunk Collective, James Jones of the East End Neighborhood House, Sanaa Julien of the Group Plan Commission), Nora Romanoff of LAND studio and Garry Regan Grove Programming at Mayfield Village.

This story is made possible through a partnership with Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, which is part of Fresh Water's underwriting support network.

Erin O'Brien
Erin O'Brien

About the Author: Erin O'Brien

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.