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The Arts District Difference

Cleveland Play House's move to the city's PlayhouseSquare complex reverberates throughout the nation

By Christopher Johnston

It's early June, and Michael Bloom is looking at the future of his theatre. Two years ago, the 96-year-old Cleveland Play House, for which he serves as the eighth artistic director, teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Now it's less than three months away from a highly ambitious rebirth in a downtown location: PlayhouseSquare. Since 1927, the Play House has resided in three conventional proscenium theatres several miles to the east on Euclid Avenue. No more. It will now inhabit three new venues within the PlayhouseSquare complex: the completely reconfigured Allen Theatre and two new flexible spaces of 300 and 150 seats.

Shuddering a bit at the thought of what his institution has endured in recent years, Bloom stands at the back of the cavernous new Allen, near what was once the very last row in the orchestra of this 2,500-seat behemoth, originally built in 1921 as a venue for movies and vaudeville shows. Wearing a light summer jacket and tie accessorized with a yellow hardhat, he surveys the nearly completed construction of the Play House's sparkling new home. "You're in a different area code back here," he quips.

Bloom faces the stage from a spacious bar-and-lounge, with glass-walled rooms for pre-show discussions or private parties. Behind him, the bar opens onto a significantly more intimate, 300-seat theatre, a space in which no audience member will be more than 55 feet from the action. The still smaller 150-seat black box inhabits a former parking lot adjacent to the Allen. The company recently rebranded itself as CPH, in part to mitigate confusion with its similarly named new location.

Bloom, who has been artistic director of the company since 2004, is energized by the radical architectural transformation of the Allen into one of the nation's premier contemporary theatre spaces, but that's only part of the story here: In moving to PlayhouseSquare, CPH has effectively partnered with the country's second largest performing arts complex after New York's Lincoln Center. And the deal is possible in large part because of another momentous partnership, between CPH and the theatre and dance departments of Cleveland State, a major urban university right next door.

This ambitious plan isn't just a big deal for Cleveland—it's also on the radar of theatre managers and deal-makers from Oakland, Calif., to Newark, N.J., to Dallas and Philadelphia, all cities with expanding arts districts, who are watching this bellwether effort as a case of civic/arts partnership in action.

Indeed, in a time when theatres are struggling to stay open, Bloom expects this teaming to maximize each partnering institution's economic viability. The benefits for PlayhouseSquare—which annually attracts 1.2 million patrons into its 10 performance spaces, with more than 9,000 seats, to attend some 1,000 performing arts events—start with an additional 125,000 to 150,000 ticket-buyers. Instead of 75 evenings a year, the Allen will now be open more than 200 nights (or 40 weeks) a year, all of which helps leverage new development in the district.

"We're modifying the Allen and building two new theatres for roughly $32 million," Art Falco, president of PlayhouseSquare and a senior staff member there since 1985, tells me later in an interview. "To build them independently would have cost upward of $80 million, so the community is saving $50 million."

Standing near Bloom, reviewing the floor plans for the Allen on his laptop, is Paul Westlake Jr., managing principal of the architectural firm Westlake Reed Leskosky. "We're not just renovating or restoring a theatre," Westlake explains. "We're building a new theatre by creating an entirely new audience chamber within the Allen's historic shell."

Westlake and his firm have been involved in the design of more than 100 theatre projects across the U.S., and for the past 30 years they have worked nearly continuously at PlayhouseSquare. Their work has encompassed the master plan and restoration of the complex's four other historic theatres—the Ohio, the Palace, the State and, across the street from the Allen, the Hanna Theatre, recently renovated for Cleveland's other LORT company, the Great Lakes Theater (which recently dropped "Festival" from its name). Westlake also restored the Idea Center facility next door, which houses WCPN and WVIZ, the local NPR and PBS stations, and WCLV, a classical-music radio station. Bloom is working out the details to collaborate with ideastream, the nonprofit that runs the center, on programs, including wiring the Allen for live broadcasts.

Construction started in September 2010, after 15 months of weekly meetings with the CPH and CSU teams to determine the design concept for the three theatres, the positioning of each, and completion of the architectural documents. "This was a project CPH was going to have one chance in a lifetime to do," Westlake relates. "They could make it any way they wanted, and they all wanted to form these three venues perfectly for the next 50 years of the Play House's existence."

Throughout what he considers one of the most complicated projects he's worked on, Westlake says, PlayhouseSquare officials remained mainly in the wings, allowing CPH and CSU to lead the way in creating the theatres that they felt would be most beneficial to all. PlayhouseSquare maintained more of a tempering influence, ensuring that the varied needs of all of the potential stakeholders who might use the venue in the future were considered.

"They asked the 25 questions that no one else thought to ask," Westlake says with an appreciative smile.

Westlake's design left the Allen's original ceiling and outer walls intact, although the ceiling boasts an entirely new, modernized light grid. The floor was raised and re-raked to create ramping all the way down for easy wheelchair access as well as to improve sightlines by putting spectators at nearly eye level with the actors. The proscenium arch was shortened eight feet on each side to make the relationship to the audience more compact. To further enhance intimacy, Westlake created an architectural liner that acts as an interior reflector shell to improve acoustics in the once-reverberant hall; made from a scrim-like material, it can be altered by lighting effects to be diaphanous or opaque.

The design also reduced the balcony to four rows, with the back row closer than the first row of the old balcony. Westlake broke the orchestra level into eight different seating zones, each angled and oriented directly toward the stage rather than all being frontal.

However excited Bloom and Westlake are about the completely revamped Allen, they are doubly fired up by the Second Stage space, not to mention the black-box Lab Theatre, which will be the primary teaching space for CSU. (CPH will happily name any of the theatres after a generous donor, if you're interested.) A new lobby for the Lab will lend a welcoming face to what had been the nondescript rear entrance of PlayhouseSquare, and will connect theatre patrons and employees of the million square feet of office space in the complex to a central concourse.

The flexible Second Stage features seating wagons on casters that are four rows wide and six rows deep, and that can be interlinked and arranged in a variety of configurations, including end-stage, three-quarter thrust, runway and avenue. It also has a trapped floor, fly system and specially designed flexible lighting positions. According to Bloom, its intimate seating arrangement, only seven rows deep, makes it one of just three fully flexible theatres in the nation, along with the New Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre at the Dallas Theater Center. "We hope our design creates a benchmark for the next generation of theatres," Westlake adds.

CPH will unveil the Second Stage in January 2012 with its production of Jeffrey Hatcher's Ten Chimneys.

Bloom's excitement is understandable. "Programmatically, this gives us options we've never had before, like doing a play in the round," he enthuses. "I also think it gives CSU the best teaching facility in the country, with three completely different spaces to work in and three completely different technical setups."

"I hope this doesn't sound like hubris," says Michael Mauldin, head of CSU's undergraduate theatre and dance department, "but this places us in a position of promise to become one of the destination programs in the U.S." Since taking over the nearly defunct program in 2006, Mauldin has grown the department from 21 to 85 majors. Now he dreams of hosting the American College Theater Festival, since PlayhouseSquare offers an ideal site with the extensive theatre facilities, hotels and restaurants.

Actually, a fourth institution will benefit from the partnership as well: Case Western Reserve University, which joined its acting MFA program to the Play House in 1996. "It's certainly a win-win situation for us," confirms Ron Wilson, chair of CWRU's Department of Theatre. "The new theatres provide a more varied experience in modern, high-tech spaces, so it's very exciting for our students." In addition to working with CPH personnel, students will learn from the high-profile touring artists who perform at PlayhouseSquare.

It's not a bad situation, considering that a few years ago, CPH was staring down bankruptcy and the possibility of going dark permanently. The theatre held a $4-million debt and needed $20 million in repairs; it was housed in a 300,000-square-foot facility when it only needed some 130,000 square feet; it spent $1.2 million annually just to keep its doors open; and it was isolated by an ocean of asphalt that comprised most of its 12-acre property. As Cleveland morphed into a post-industrial city, the Play House found itself in an entertainment and cultural void between the Cleveland Clinic and a gap-toothed stretch of urban corridor between University Circle and downtown.

According to managing director Kevin Moore, the organization had contemplated moving several times, as far back as the 1960s. In the late '70s, the board decided to commit to the site by acquiring the Sears warehouse building that directly abutted it to the rear and hiring Philip Johnson to design a new, 500-seat theatre.

"The expansion established the Play House as the largest physical plant of any regional theatre in America," says Moore, who came to CPH from Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., in 2007. "That was impressive for about a minute, before they started realizing what the costs were."

The additional funds needed to finish the building combined with the exorbitant overhead costs sent the organization into two decades of chronic financial distress. During that time, CPH borrowed money to pay off operating deficits and debt service costs, including $2 million during the early 2000s just to pay interest. The board analyzed multiple locations before again committing to the site with the new strategic plan in 2006. The top criterion was to keep the operation under one roof.

"There was a pervasive feeling that it wasn't so much the work but the architecture, the building itself, that was the cornerstone of the theatre," Bloom laments. But the grandiose spaces were not very warm or welcoming, and the location lacked the vibrant urban energy more likely to attract a younger audience to replace CPH's army of fiercely faithful but aging patrons.

By the fall of 2008, the board had withdrawn funds from the endowment to pay off outstanding loans and reduce the debt service costs. When the recession hit, the endowment lost more money. Gas had risen to $4 a gallon, and subscribers, already challenged by the distances they had to drive from their suburban and exurban homes, started to "drop like flies," Moore says. CPH laid off 10 percent of its full-time staff. The situation was so dire they reduced the mainstage season from nine to seven plays, which meant a 3-percent cutback in seasonal staff.

Then, in the darkest days of February '09, Moore and Bloom experienced a true deus ex machina: a telephone call from Cleveland State University, asking if they would be willing to meet to discuss the potential of a partnership with the university and PlayhouseSquare. As part of his visionary plan to revitalize CSU, then president Michael Schwartz was attempting to move the theatre program into the little-used Allen.

"Walking out of the meeting, Michael, our board chair Peter Kuhn and I looked at each other," Moore recalls. "We said, 'Well, yeah, we should do this.'"

By selling the property to its neighbor, the Cleveland Clinic, CPH was able to pay off most of its debt and establish a cash reserve. KeyBank agreed to extend the theatre's line of credit for a six-month period from $1.25 million to $2 million, and several board members made major contributions to keep CPH from declaring bankruptcy. The organization never missed a payment, and broke even for the 2009–10 season. Through a well-organized capital campaign led by CPH, the partnership raised $21 million toward the $30 million necessary to retrofit the Allen and make the move to PlayhouseSquare.

Today, when Bloom walks, it's easy to detect the lightness in his step, now that the debt and the architectural albatross have been lifted off his shoulders and he can focus on his mission to produce compelling theatre and provide arts education. The financial impacts continue to be far-reaching. "The funding community looks at us differently now, since we're working to maximize our resources and efficiencies by collaborating with these other organizations," he explains.

Still, he is sensitive to the concerns and deep nostalgic reaction of Clevelanders at the move out of CPH's residence of 80 years. Commenting on the myriad phone calls, e-mails and letters he has received, Bloom says simply: "There is no question whatsoever that we would have gone out of business had we not sold the theatre."

While the new partnership with the Cleveland Play House and CSU amplifies its attractions, PlayhouseSquare has stood since the late '70s as a national model for economic viability in the area of arts and urban redevelopment. In addition to saving the historic theatre complex from the bulldozer, PlayhouseSquare launched a local development corporation that owns more than 1.6 million square feet of office and retail space, inhabited by more than 3,000 workers in five buildings. PlayhouseSquare developed the 205-room Wyndham Cleveland Hotel and manages an additional million square feet of real estate throughout metropolitan Cleveland.

"We learned early on that a performing arts organization needs to look outside its four walls," Art Falco declares. "So we took a leadership position in becoming a developer and owner of commercial office space and hotels because ultimately we want to create a 24/7 neighborhood."

According to Deborah Frieden, a cultural projects planner in Oakland, Calif., cities develop arts districts with the hope of creating a brand that will drive significant visitation to that area. "PlayhouseSquare offers these historic theatres, which retain an authenticity of place," she says. "Rehabilitating historic theatres and finding contemporary uses for them is always good for a city."

Lawrence Goldman, president and CEO of the Theater Square Development Company in Newark, N.J., cites PlayhouseSquare and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust as the first two art centers in the country that embraced urban transformation as a fundamental part of their missions. They served as the inspirations for the development of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, now the nation's sixth largest such facility. Opened in 1997, NJPAC contains three theatres, three restaurants and social spaces for corporate and civic events.

Recalling the time he spent with Falco, whom he labels "a genius" for his ability to guide urban arts development, Goldman says: "I was inspired by the whole entrepreneurial spirit around PlayhouseSquare, especially the notion that arts executives are not just about what's on their stages, but about devising ways for the arts to generate revenue for the arts center and vitalize a downtown."

Before assuming his new position in July, Goldman served as founding president and CEO of NJPAC for 22 years. Currently he is focused on completion of One Theater Square, a 1.2-acre, 44-story mixed-use residential building adjacent to the arts center in Newark that crystallizes longstanding efforts to bring NJPAC's environs to life as a vibrant live-work-play urban space.

The Dallas Arts District, on the other hand, marshaled public and private funding in the late '70s to revitalize a rundown industrial district. The city contributed the land and $18 million in infrastructure to the $354-million development. New buildings arose for the Dallas Museum of Art in 1984 and the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in 1989, and a closed school was converted into a 475-seat theatre. Additionally, a "temporary" metal shed housed the Dallas Theater Center for 20 years before the Rem Koolhaas–designed Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in the new Dallas Center for the Performing Arts opened in October '09. The first year of the new theatre brought nearly 1.5 million people to the district.

"Even though theatres and arts organizations are suffering from fewer or smaller donations, or their endowments may slow in growth, we still see people coming to the theatre," says Veletta Forsythe Lill, executive director of the Dallas Arts District. "So the commitment of downtown or urban communities to artistic endeavors is commendable." The district is completing a year-long economic impact study through Americans for the Arts to determine its economic-development effectiveness.

While planner Deborah Frieden classifies the sizable arts districts in Cleveland, Dallas and New Jersey as anchor- or institutionally driven, Philadelphia's Old City Arts District is more of a natural cultural district. In other words, the several-block downtown area was depressed, with old industrial operations closing, so impoverished artists could find cheap spaces there to live. "Their presence then creates a community and begins to drive some synergistic uses such as cafés and bars," she explains.

In Philadelphia's case, the next phase was art galleries that began moving in during the late '80s, and by 1991 there was enough critical density to form the Old City Arts Association (OCAA). In the mid-'90s, the Arden Theatre Company relocated into a building originally built as a ship-parts factory in the 1880s (a post office was added in the 1920s). Through phased construction, Arden completely restructured the 50,000-square-foot space to contain a 360-seat flexible space and a 175-seat studio theatre, along with offices, classrooms, rehearsal space and a costume shop.

Co-founder and producing artistic director Terrence Nolen believes their move transformed Arden from a small theatre into one with more than 100,000 ticket-buyers annually. The metamorphosis works both ways, Nolen says, to the point where former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell often pointed to Arden and Old City as a model of ways to create the synergies that can revive struggling neighborhoods.

"When we first moved in, there were a handful of restaurants and a lot of empty spaces," Nolen says. "Now, there are dozens of restaurants, retail shops and boutiques within a couple blocks of the Arden."

Arthur Meckler, owner of the Reform Vintage Modern furniture store on Third Street and an OCAA member, concurs. "I always know when there's a good play at Arden," he says. "Some of my best customers show up a couple of hours before the show, and then they go to a restaurant."

Cleveland characterizes several of its neighborhoods as arts districts, including University Circle, Little Italy, Tremont and the Waterloo Arts District, the recent beneficiary of a $500,000 grant from the New York–based Leveraging Investments in Creativity to provide housing loans for artists. Other than PlayhouseSquare, however, only one is anchored by a professional theatre—the Gordon Square Arts District on the near West Side, where Cleveland Public Theatre has stood at the center of the neighborhood's extraordinary revitalization since it opened in 1981.

Today, not content to rest on its laurels, PlayhouseSquare continues its aggressive pursuit of new attractions within and around its theatre complex. There was rejoicing at the recent announcement that celebrity chef and restaurateur Zack Bruell will open his fifth restaurant in the city at the western end of the same block.

For his part, Bloom is overjoyed at the thought of moving from an urban island to an urban oasis where he and his staff can walk to a coffee shop or restaurant. He knows it will only energize Cleveland Play House veterans and open the door for new audience members. He's anticipating that excitement as audiences attend Bertolt Brecht's The Life of Galileo, CPH's inaugural production in the revamped Allen (through Oct. 9)—and a play, fittingly, about the dawning of a new age.

"It's a rare opportunity for an A.D. to participate in a true game-changer for a theatre, especially the creation of new spaces," Bloom says. "I know I'm very fortunate in that regard."

Christopher Johnston is a freelance journalist, playwright and director based in Cleveland. His new play, Semper Fi: Ghosts of War, will have a public reading at Dobama Theatre this season.