Lights up on Cleveland Play House: Theater is ready to raise the curtain after a long, dark period

The staff at the Cleveland Play House remember all too well that day back in March 2020 when they got word that the theater was shutting down and all productions were going to be cancelled.

“Middletown” was scheduled to open on March 18 last year and “Antigone” was scheduled to open on March 28, but on March 16 everyone was ordered to work remotely, with the exception of the production staff.

By the next day, the Play House was contacting ticketholders about show cancellations.

<span class="content-image-text">CPH Scenic Artist Megan Walsh prepares the set of Playhouse Square’s ‘The Choir of Man</span>CPH Scenic Artist Megan Walsh prepares the set of Playhouse Square’s ‘The Choir of Man“We had those two productions—one that was a couple of days from opening and the other that was a couple of weeks—and there were sets on the stage,” says Jeff Ryder, Play House associate managing director. “It was nearly ready to go to have an audience in the theater. And that was just kind of left.”

“A Doll’s House, Part 2” and “Frida… A Self Portrait” were scheduled to round out the season, but instead the Cleveland Play House was vacated—abandoned in mid-production.

The day has finally come, and all that heartbreak is, hopefully, in the past now as the Play House is getting ready to once again welcome guests.

After 18 months of being dark the lights and curtain will rise again with the opening of  “Twelfth Night” on Wednesday, Oct. 13. The mainstage season premiere will be Saturday, Oct. 23 with  “Where Did We Sit on the Bus,” a high-energy experience that explores what it means to be Latinx in America. “Antigone” will premiere in the Spring.

It’s been a long wait, staff members say, that's been full of unknowns—from dealing with layoffs, to helping others while the theaters were dark, to planning for a new season and any future curve balls that may come along with the virus still prominent.

A rude interruption
The news of having to shut everything down was jarring, says Play House director of production Tyler Jacobson.

“My first thought when we shut down was, ‘is this real?'” he says of the early days last year. “How do we as a theater industry continue, when we're such a live nature, and that's what we're here for—that's what separates us from TV and film. So how do we continue?"

Ryder remembers how they had to stop everything in its tracks, with all performances being in various stages. “Twelfth Night,” a production in collaboration with Case Western Reserve’s master of fine arts in acting program, was just days away from opening, with “Antigone” not far behind on the main stage.

“[The ‘Twelfth Night’ cast] had their final dress rehearsal that day when we were closing everything, recalls Ryder of last March. “And then they never performed for an audience. ‘Antigone’ was our next main stage show, and they were in the end of the second week of rehearsal. So, they were gearing up for it to begin. We would have started rehearsals for the last show of the season, “A Doll's House, Part Two” just a week or two after the shutdown. That never happened.”

Collette A. Laisure, Play House interim managing director, says closing down was frustrating for those who are used to entertaining people in a live theater environment— especially in a time of crisis with the pandemic.

“The theater is dark, and it feels like that's the time when we need to come together the most and enjoy things, with people, with like-minded individuals,” she says. “The talent wasn't able to entertain us, and we weren't able to get together in that way.”

Adapting to change
Cleveland Play House had to lay off 35 staff members during the pandemic, but Ryder says it ended up being a busy year, as the Play House switched to virtual programming and spent the time fundraising and keeping business running until the theater was able to open for in-person education and entertainment.

<span class="content-image-text">CPH production staff members at work</span>CPH production staff members at workThere were only about five people in the office since last March. Jacobson was able to keep working throughout the past 18 months, isolated in the Play House’s production studio  on East 72nd Street and St. Clair Avenue, while most everyone else was working from home. He says it was a rough go for a while.

“It was definitely very surreal whenever we would go walk through our empty theater spaces or even our empty shop, just because  they're large, cavernous spaces that we just kind of walked away from,” he recalls. “I was the person going out [to the theater] to make sure the pipes didn't freeze or there weren't holes in the roof or anything like that, to just make sure that that building was taken care of.”

He also admits he relished the excuse to get out of the house occasionally. “I count myself very lucky in the fact that I was able to go to another space to get away from my home office for a little bit, to be able to stretch my legs a little bit and make sure that that place was taken care of,” he says.

While focusing on virtual performances and other tasks, Ryder says the not-knowing component was the worst. “In addition to being disconnected from the product and the service to the community that we normally have, just having really no timeline or end in insight of how long we've been working towards theoretically reopening at some point was a real challenge,” says Ryder

“And it was a challenge, I think, for all of the staff who were kept on through this period, whether we were working on the virtual programs or fundraising or marketing or finance—everyone had different kinds of challenges,” Ryder continues. “We had to adapt many times to different and new challenges.”

A helping hand
Jacobson says the production staff found ways to be productive and help where their services were needed. After University Hospitals put out a city-wide request for help with masks and PPE, the costume shop staff came running.

<span class="content-image-text">CPH production staff members making masks</span>CPH production staff members making masks“We're all more than happy to make masks and help out there,” says Jacobson. “I know we made over a thousand masks to help out hospitals at the beginning of the pandemic.”

With the 3D printer in the prop shop they were even able to make the plastic bands that take pressure off the ears while wearing masks.

When Playhouse Square began bringing back live shows with “Choir of Man,” which opened in June, the Cleveland Play House production team was able to help make the set.

“It was really great for us to be able to bring back some of our staff a little bit earlier and help build that world and help out our fellow theaters,” says Jacobson, who adds that the assistance went further than Playhouse Square. “Our props department was doing a handful of prop exchanges with other theaters who were doing online stuff or different things like that. We were doing what we could to stay connected to the community around us and helping out where we could.”

Jacobson says there was a bright side to the past 18 months. “We did a lot during the shutdown—doing the best we could with technology to make sure that we were staying engaged with the Northeast Ohio community,” he says. “And what was wonderful, what was really great about the digital aspect, is being able to interact with folks that weren't just in our theater—we were able to connect with artists all over the country, all over the world, which was really cool.

By early this year, Laisure says the staff started speculating that perhaps they could indeed return to live theater. Tentative plans to raise the curtain began.

The Play House received a grant from the Cleveland Foundation to hire three human resources professionals to help with hiring staff and managing people, while policies and procedures were implemented to make sure everyone is safe and well supported as they re-enter the workplace. The Play House still has about eight open positions, says Laisure.

<span class="content-image-text">CPH production of Clue</span>CPH production of ClueThe dubious return
Laisure says they’ve been making the plans for a new live season before knowing for sure if there would even be a season, or how it would work.

“Since mid-February, up until we decided to have the in-person season, we've been talking about if we would be able to have the season, what would it look like if we did, along with [the procedure of] bringing staff back to work and following the state health and safety protocols,” Laisure recalls of the recent stress. “So even though there were no live productions, there was certainly a lot going on behind the scenes.”

Staff has been returning to work since mid-August, and Ryder also says it’s good to be back.

“It is exciting and I'm actually in the office now where we've been working mostly from home,” he said in August. “We're putting all the pieces together, hiring the artists and getting ready.”

Laisure says envisioning what this month would look like was virtually impossible, but everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they were able to get vaccinated quickly and a live theater season began to take shape.

<span class="content-image-text">Cleveland Play House tech table</span>Cleveland Play House tech tablePlans continue to change and adapt, says Laisure, as they try to prepare for a great season yet also be ready for worst-case scenarios. They are keeping the audience in just the lower level of the main theater—to about 300 people—to be safe.

“As you can imagine, the actors and everyone, along with patrons really want to have live theater again,” she says. “So, we are cautiously proceeding. And we’re keeping our fingers, toes, and everything else crossed.”

Jacobson is also eager to have a live audience again. “I think we all thought during the initial shutdown that we’d be shut down for only a couple of weeks, a couple of months maybe,” he recalls. “But now, after however long it's been, it’s made us kind of take the time to understand what's important in our art form and what's important about the live interactions and the audience experience—not only for the audience, but how important it is for the actors to feel that energy of being in a live room and how much that moves us.”

Ryder says they will continue to offer their digital season, after mastering the online production process last year. “We've been kind of forced to innovate in this area, and it will be a little bit of an experiment, but it will probably benefit people for multiple reasons,” he says. “If they're out of town, or not able to get downtown, or [they] spend the winter away from Cleveland, they'll still be able to access our work.”

And they will be ready to go remote again later this winter if need-be.

“It was really weird to come home, and then it was really weird to come back,” Ryder says. “We’ve talked so much the last year about how we are in the business of gathering people together, which is not how I would have phrased it two years ago. But it's an essential part of what we do to be together.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.