How Did Cleveland Become a Mecca Of Modern American Theater?

At the time of this writing, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors are two hours away from tip-off in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. The game will be held in Cleveland, and the city is very, very pumped up.

In fact, the Cavs (as we say in the industry) provide a timely metaphor for the city's resurgence as a whole. It's a comeback attributable to many factors, but one huge contributor, at least according to American Theatre, is the city's electrifying theater scene.

Central to this "urban renaissance"—American Theatre's words, not ours—are two anchor institutions: the Cleveland Play House and the Cleveland Public Theatre.

Let's start with the former. The Play House has the distinction of being the country's first regional theater. It's celebrating its 100th year in operation—an anniversary that will be commemorated with a Regional Tony Award. But more important than these awards is the simple fact that when hard times hit the city, the Play House hung around, cranked out great work, and acted as beacon of hope.

Don't just take our word for it. Laura Kepley, the theater's artistic director since 2013, notes, "Like many legacy cities or Rust Belt cities, Cleveland has had a hard road. Right now we are really turning a corner—there is more growth, more excitement and more energy here than in a very long time."

Further, the Play House is a textbook case study of the economic potential of anchor institutions. It's part of the bustling Playhouse Square complex, a nonprofit performing arts center and real estate company that houses nine performance spaces downtown. Not coincidentally, the surrounding area has seen a surge of new restaurants, bars, and housing developments. (The Play House receives funding from Key Bank, the Cleveland Foundation, and the Schubert Foundation, among others.)

Collaboration—not competition—is essential. "The theatre community is really quite cooperative," says Raymond Bobgan, artistic director of the second main actor (pun intended) in the city's resurgence, the Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT). "We share a lot of the same actors, a lot of the same designers. One of the things that I’ve heard from other communities is how there is a lot of divisiveness; that doesn’t really exist in Cleveland."

Not surprisingly, Theatre Communication's Group selected Cleveland as the host city for its June 18-20 national conference.

Better yet, the city continues to thrive in a host of other non-theater areas, especially music. Check out recent news to this effect here and here.

(Go Cavs!)