Northeast Ohio is still a mega manufacturing center for one thing: theatre arts. The area is practically a factory pumping out hundreds of regional, small professional and community productions annually, and behind the scenes, there are thousands of folks working to produce them.
Ohio is unique in that it boasts three of the oldest types of theatre in the country: the first professional regional theatre, The Cleveland Play House; one of the nation’s oldest community theatres, The Youngstown Playhouse; and the oldest African-American theatre, located in the Fairfax neighborhood of Cleveland, Karamu House.
Of course, that giant outdoor chandelier on Euclid Avenue welcomes visitors to the nation’s largest performing arts complex after Lincoln Center, Playhouse Square, with its annual offering of Broadway touring performances. In addition, Playhouse Square houses two regional or League of Resident Theatres (most cities have only one): Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater.
In fact, Cleveland is such an important theatre locus that this year Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for professional theatre, was courted by local theatre artists and organizations and won the bid to host TCG’s annual international conference in Cleveland this month. And just this past April, the Cleveland Play House learned that it will have one more accolade to celebrate during their centennial year: the 2015 Regional Theatre Tony Award, a special non-competitive Tony Award given annually to a regional theatre company in the United States.
Playhouse SquareTheatre education is abundant on the north coast. Two universities, Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve University, have collaborative programs with The Cleveland Play House. Baldwin-Wallace University offers career-oriented performance training in Musical Theatre and Kent State University offers a Master of Fine Arts program in Acting for the Returning Professional that prepares those with extensive acting experience for other careers in the field.
Northeast Ohio even has two high school programs that offer pre-professional training: The Academy for the Performing Arts, a half-day college preparatory program of Excel Technical Education Career Consortium, and the Shaker Heights High School Theatre Arts Department, an award-winning public high school theatre program with alumni working in theatre, film and television. (Disclosure: I've taught in this program since 2002).
With all this theatre practice, it’s no wonder the area is a big exporter of talent, too. Most folks know that Joel Grey and Paul Newman were in the Play House’s youth program, Curtain Pullers, but more recently the city has launched the careers of Tony-nominee Mary Bridget Davies (A Night with Janis Joplin); Tony Award-winner Alice Ripley (Next to Normal), who began as a monkey in the Beck Center’s The Wizard of Oz; and current Broadway Phantom of the Opera star Kaley Voorhees, just to name a few.
Hathaway Brown Theatre Institute students
This entire ecosystem is connected to the myriad of area summer theatre camps, where many a young person catches the theatre bug. When it comes to summer opportunities for their young thespians, area parents are spoiled for choice: from small urban start-ups to traditional day camps to intense audition-only pre-professional programs. Some require applications, some offer scholarships, and some actually pay students. In addition to providing enrichment and/or daycare for working parents of young thespians, summer theatre camps make an impact socially, culturally and economically.
"I've met people from all over," says Shaker Heights High School junior Lauryn Hobbs, "and because of this I have a high tolerance for others with different beliefs than me.” In addition to performing at her high school, she has also worked professionally and credits her summer experience as helping her break into the local scene. “Instead of just having an hour class in school or after school, I can devote 90 percent of my time to my craft. When you focus on nothing but theatre for 16 hours a day, it really builds your stamina.”
The economic impact of summer theatre programs is significant. Ed Gallagher, Director of Education at The Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood says their youth arts programming has a financial impact in excess of $10 million dollars annually. “First and foremost, jobs are created and maintained – teachers, directors, choreographers, designers and musicians, as well as a variety of support staff. Meanwhile, the area benefits as nearly 70 percent of our students reside outside of Lakewood. While in town, parents and students shop and dine in local businesses as a good portion of their days are spent in the Lakewood community.”
ArtWorks is another program that makes a direct economic impact into the pockets of young artists who are actually paid to learn. “Artworks is more than a camp in that high school students are hired to create art,” says David Schiopota, Associate Director of Programs at the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning. “ArtWorks Apprentices, as we call them, work alongside professional teaching artists to create original work for the public at large.”
Broadway actress and Shaker Heights High School alum Halle Morse says she attended a lot of theatre camps in Cleveland. The recent Mamma Mia performer credits the Beachwood Youth Theater Camp as being the most influential. “It's a great program that really helped me come into my own,” she said. “Jill is very supportive of her campers. She both pushes and encourages you, and above all, she wants everyone to have fun!”
Before appearing in the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of The Tempest this summer, Morse will come home to Cleveland for one week to teach a musical theatre camp for “A Class Act NY” at the Olmsted Community Center. “I get to bring all the camp lessons I have learned through the years home to inspire the next generation!”
Of course the biggest cultural impacts are the inter- and intra-personal benefits of studying theatre in this age of screens and drones. Even for the kids who don’t go on to pursue theatre as a career learn skills from putting on a show, including teamwork, creativity, imagination, collaboration and empathy. Pretty hot 21st century job skills.
Here’s list of summer theatre programs in the Greater Cleveland area. Registration has closed for a few, but many are still open. Be sure to keep this guide handy for next summer.