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A Brief History of the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park

Nestled on a hill and commanding a superb view of downtown Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park has been offering audiences the finest in professional theatre for more than 45 years. Nationally known for its excellence and commitment to new works, an artistic home for America's best actors, directors and designers, the Playhouse always keeps its primary role at center stage — to serve the Tristate by producing the finest in classic and contemporary works: musicals, dramas, comedies and recent hits. Simply put, the Playhouse strives to celebrate the live theatrical event in superlative fashion, in a setting that is second to none.

Today the Playhouse offers productions 10 months out of the year, attracting more than 200,000 people annually to its two theatres, the 626-seat Robert S. Marx Theatre and the intimate Thompson Shelterhouse, which seats 225. Each show enjoys a run of at least four weeks, with eight performances per week, scheduled for every day but Monday. One of America's first regional theatres, the Playhouse, a not-for-profit organization, is a member of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) and operates on an annual budget of approximately $10 million.

Today's Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park is the product of a rich history. It began in 1959 with the dream of a young college student, Gerald Covell, who combined his artistic vision for a professional theatre in Cincinnati with the commitment of several of the city's foremost arts, business and political leaders, including Emily Adler, Stanley Aronoff, A. Burton Closson and Morse Johnson, who became the Playhouse's first president and chairman of its board of trustees.

The original Playhouse was confined to the park shelterhouse that now houses the Thompson Shelterhouse Theatre. Scheduled for demolition, the building offered the perfect setting: great theatre performed in the beautiful surroundings of Eden Park. The building was converted to a 166-seat theatre where, on October 10, 1960, Meyer Levin's Compulsion celebrated the opening night of both play and Playhouse. It was directed by David Marlin Jones, the theatre's first artistic director, and was followed by 12 more plays, each running two and a half weeks.

In that first cast, and a veteran of several productions in the early years, was a young actor named John Hillerman, whose skill later took him into a successful film and television career. He is among the first of the thousands of actors who have appeared at the Playhouse. Many names are familiar: Scott Bakula, Roscoe Lee Browne, David Canary, Kristin Davis, Patty Duke, Raúl Esparza, Bonnie Franklin, Swoosie Kurtz, Cleavon Little, Donna McKechnie, Estelle Parsons, Anthony Perkins, Charlotte Rae, Lee Roy Reams, Lynn Redgrave, Mercedes Ruehl, Gary Sandy, Susan Stroman, Daniel J. Travanti, Cicely Tyson, Sam Waterston and Henry Winkler. Yet, celebrity or not, all who perform at the Playhouse are among the country’s most skilled professionals and, like Playhouse audiences, they come to let the play, not personalities, capture the spotlight.

As audiences steadily grew, so did the Playhouse's leadership in the new regional theatre movement nationwide. In 1965, the Playhouse was selected as the first regional theatre showcased on the television program, Esso Repertory Theatre, hosted by David Susskind.

Within a very few years, as sold-out houses became the norm, it became apparent that the success of the Playhouse would cause it to outgrow the Shelterhouse. First the original theatre was expanded, then in 1966, plans were announced for the construction of a new, larger space. On July 18, 1968 the Robert S. Marx Theatre, named after the well-known Cincinnati philanthropist, opened with Camino Real by Tennessee Williams. Designed by Hugh Hardy of the New York architectural firm, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, the Marx won awards for its innovative design and flexibility. It also began a new era for the Playhouse, which was, for the first time, able to produce two works simultaneously in two complementary theatre spaces.

James Valentine and Cicely Tyson in Pygmalion.

As the Playhouse ended its first decade, it already was catching notice for its caliber of production and its belief that theatre can be innovative as well as entertaining. In the late 1960s, the National Theatre of the Deaf, the Barbwire Theatre and Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s Living Theatre all came to the Playhouse. In 1970, the Playhouse mounted a pioneering production of Shaw's Pygmalion, acclaimed for its use of non-traditional casting. In 1973, Harold Scott joined the Playhouse as the first African-American artistic director in the history of American regional theatre.

Although productions have been presented first and foremost for the Tristate, the Playhouse always has contributed to the national stage. Ever since the U.S. premiere of Henry Livings' Eh? in 1966, which subsequently played to great success off-Broadway, the American theatre has benefited greatly from the vision and craftsmanship now synonymous with the Playhouse. Among its many other premieres are: Caravaggio in 1971, directed and produced by Word Baker; Sing Hallelujah!, which enjoyed huge acclaim when it moved to off-Broadway’s Village Gate in 1987; Tapestry: The Music of Carole King (1988) which ran off-Broadway five years later; and The Notebook of Trigorin (1996), a work by Tennessee Williams which garnered international attention.

Judith Hawking and Curzon Dobell in The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

For the past 15 years, the Playhouse has produced at least one world premiere production each season. Several recent Playhouse premieres also have gone on to subsequent production or publication. The 1997 production of In Walks Ed by Keith Glover was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Angus MacLachlan's The Dead Eye Boy (2000) was nominated for the American Theatre Critics' Association's New Play Award and enjoyed a critically acclaimed run at off-Broadway's MCC Theatre in 2001 and at the Hampstead Theatre in London in 2002. The Playhouse’s 1998 premiere of Coyote on a Fence by Bruce Graham enjoyed a 2004 run at the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End. The 2003 Playhouse production of The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Carson Kreitzer was honored with the citation as the runner-up for the 2004 American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award.

Among the non-premieres that have been presented elsewhere, the Playhouse’s production of Thunder Knocking on the Door, the electrifying blues musical by Keith Glover, enjoyed subsequent runs in San Diego, Rochester, Cleveland and Stamford, Connecticut. Nixon’s Nixon, Russell Lees’ speculative eavesdrop on the conversation between Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, has now played on four continents and was hailed as among the best at 1999’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It enjoyed acclaimed runs in Ireland and Toronto, at the 2001 Hong Kong Theatre Festival, at the Comedy Theatre in London's West End and in Australia and New Zealand, as well as the East and West coasts of the United States.

Cast of Company.

The Playhouse’s 2003 production of The Syringa Tree was presented in 2004 at the English Theatre in Vienna, the longest operating English language theatre in continental Europe, and in 2006 at The English Theatre Frankfurt in Germany. In November 2006, the Playhouse’s production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s landmark musical Company, directed by Tony Award winner John Doyle, will be presented in an open-ended commercial run on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre.

The Playhouse also has a long tradition of bringing theatre into young lives. Today, more than 72,000 young people typically participate in a Playhouse program each year. In 1968, the Playhouse became one of the first theatres to offer discounted student matinees to area schools. The Rosenthal Next Generation Theatre Series, which debuted in the fall of 1994, offers a diverse selection of Saturday performances for youngsters. Year-round acting classes for all ages also are offered, while a series of in-school touring performances touches additional thousands at hundreds of Tristate schools. The Playhouse hosts several young actors each year for a season-long internship that offers a variety of acting experiences while providing a critical transition between educational theatre and a new career in the professional ranks. As the Lafley Touring Company, they perform their own repertoire at schools throughout the region.

Motivated by expanding programming and record attendance, the Playhouse launched a $7.5 million capital campaign in 1995 to modernize and expand both public and backstage spaces. It raised more than $8.4 million, making possible the most extensive renovation of the Playhouse since the building of the Marx Theatre.

In 2004, the Playhouse was honored with the Regional Theatre Tony Award ®. One of the most coveted awards in the entertainment industry, it honors a non-profit professional regional theatre company that has displayed a continuous level of artistic achievement contributing to the growth of theatre nationally. The award has been given to one theatre annually since 1976, and it places the Playhouse in the company of some of the nation’s finest regional theatres.

Since 1992, the Playhouse has been under the leadership of Producing Artistic Director Edward Stern and Executive Director Buzz Ward, who oversee a full-time staff of 75. They, together with a board of 54 trustees, nearly 1,000 volunteers and more than 19,000 season subscribers, remain committed to a tradition of excellence which now carries the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in its fifth decade.