Let there be BorderLight: New theatre festival is drawing performers from around the globe

From the Dublin Theatre Festival in Ireland to the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, Dale Heinen and Jeffrey Pence have had no shortage of inspiration in planning the debut BorderLight Festival—which they hope will add Cleveland to the list of “second cities” that have become perennial theatre festival destinations.


“In places like London, Chicago, and New York, these types of events can get lost in the other activities going on,” explains Heinen, BorderLight Festival co-founder and co-director. “We’ve seen the placemaking power and what a great economic engine performing arts festivals can be for places that are not huge cities.”


Waiting On Godot - Robert HawkesTo that end, approximately 10,000 people are expected to attend the first BorderLight Festival, which begins tomorrow, July 24, and concludes Saturday, July 27. The festival’s lineup will span 40 productions and 11 venues—with participating performers and touring companies hailing from Bolivia, Canada, Ireland, Israel, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, Syria, and the U.S.


“It’s an opportunity not just to see great work, but to discover hidden spaces in Cleveland,” says Heinen, citing scheduled performances at The Hermit Club (where Cleveland Public Theatre will be setting up shop), Cibreo Privato, and Old Stone Church as examples. (All venues are located within walking distance of each other between Playhouse Square and Public Square.)

According to Heinen, one of the most anticipated festival aspects is the collaboration between local companies and international artists. For instance, Cleveland Play House is working with Cuban-American playwright Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas to mount a staged reading of “Our Dad is in Atlantis,” while South Korean director Hyeja Ju will recreate her Anne Frank-inspired “Good at Heart” with Cleveland Public Theatre.

Another sure-to-be highlight is South African puppeteer Roger Titley’s “Creatures,” which will feature an outdoor procession of life-sized animal puppets as part of the Cleveland Public Library’s 150th anniversary festivities. “[CPL] director Felton Thomas, Jr. is on our board,” explains Heinen. “He and I are both really enamored of puppetry and feel it’s not as represented in the U.S. as it is in other parts of the world.”

Artists are also coming to Cleveland from eight U.S. states to perform in the BorderLight Fringe Festival, which will showcase offbeat, alternative works—from a tribute to TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes to a poetry psychic. According to Heinen, many of the fringe artists are being housed in Cleveland State University dorms to help defray costs. “What we’re doing here is trying to reverse engineer the Edinburgh model, where you have to pay to play,” says Heinen.

Betsy Carmichael's BINGO PalaceHeinen adds that the mix of professional companies, international talent, and fringe artists also helps create dynamic networking and exposure opportunities for those participating. “It creates a gravitational pull—all of these artists are going to the same parties and being viewed by the same critics,” she says.

According to Heinen, the inaugural BorderLight festival has cost about $500,000 to produce, accomplished largely through funding from the Char and Chuck Fowler Family Foundation, Cleveland Foundation, George Gund Foundation, and Alkhayyat Foundation.

For Heinen and co-founder Pence, it’s the realization of a goal and dream that’s been in the works since 2014, when Heinen moved back to Cleveland from Europe after 15 years (two in Dublin, 13 in London). Heinen now works with Playwrights Local as a director and dramaturg, while Pence teaches cinema studies and English at Oberlin College.

Their hope is that BorderLight will become an annual event
. Says Heinen, "It's an exciting opportunity to do something out of the box."

BorderLight Festival takes place July 24-27 in various venues between Playhouse Square and Public Square. See the full schedule here.

Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast. When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.