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Cleveland Play House Holds Its Stride

The artistic director of the nation's oldest nonprofit theater explains her approach to keeping the company strong

DYNAMIC, sharp, and witty, the artistic director of the Cleveland Play House reigns over the oldest not-for-profit theater in the United States. Justly proud of the Play House's history, Josephine Abady has made every effort in the four years she has held the post to jolt new life into the theater's original purpose - and then dilate that purpose to meet contemporary needs.

"There was nothing like not-for-profit in 1915 [when the Play House was organized]. That was a first in theater," says Ms. Abady in an interview.

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"And it has been an absolute blueprint for regional theater in America. There isn't anything that has been done, or is being done now, that wasn't done here first. By the time regional theater really caught on in America, all the ways of thinking and fund-raising, subscription and so on, had already been tried here.

"In 1947, the artistic director had the idea for a thrust stage," Abady continues, "and the first time theater architecture changed anywhere in the world in 300 years happened when they built this stage."

The fact that the rest of the nation seldom credits Cleveland Play House's contribution to regional theater may be due to its location and a certain insularity about the region, she says.

"The Play House had a history of doing new work long before that was popular," she observes. "They began doing new plays here in the '30s - new American plays, which was unheard of. Almost every major American writer you can name has had at least one seminal or minor work done here: William Saroyan, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Maxwell Anderson.... When I came here four years ago, I said, 'What a legacy to follow.' I thought we should make sure that new work was a large part of the agenda here."

And so it has been - along with those plays that have become the "classics" of the American stage. New plays are given staged readings each spring in the Play House's "Discovery Series."

Those plays selected by the audience will be nursed along until ready at some future time for full-scale production.

One such play was in production at this writing. "A Quarrel of Sparrows," by James Duff, selected last year, was given a distinguished veteran cast including George Grizzard and Pat Carroll. Drawing on the New York stage's talent pool is another Play House tradition.

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But Abady's commitment to new theater extends beyond the borders of the US. The Play House had many international connections in its early days, and that, too, inspired Abady.

The first Pirandello play done here was at the Play House, as was the first American performance of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage," she says. Abady continues the tradition this season as she directs the American premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's "Man of the Moment," which officially opens tonight.

Combining her commitment to American classics and European theater, Abady went to Russia last summer to direct "A Streetcar Named Desire" with a Russian cast. She was the first American woman to be invited to work with a Russian theater company - the New Experimental Theatre of Volgograd.

In exchange, the Russian "Streetcar" will be offered at the Play House June 12 with simultaneous translation. The company will also present a Russian play, "Suicide," by Nikoli Erdman, opening a day later.

Abady observed that women do not generally hold positions of authority in the Russian theater. She eventually overcame chauvinist resistance to her authority - but not without a struggle, she says. Abady's experience in Russia leads inevitably to the subject of how women are faring as directors in American theater.

"When I came out of school and I said I wanted to be a director," she says, "everyone said to me, 'Well, why don't you be an actress?' And it was very hard for me to get work of any kind except as an assistant in a office, stage management, those kinds of jobs. When I took over as artistic director here, I was one of three women artistic directors in the country."

There are now at least nine, she says, "all of whom, except for one, got their jobs after I got this job [four years ago].... It's different now. I felt the sexual politics when I started. Every interview I ever had when I first started, the first question was, 'What's it like to be a woman in a business like this?' and my answer always used to be, 'I hope there will come a day when people do not define artists by their gender.' " Apparently, that day has come.

Male or female, it takes bold leadership to keep a theater company viable in these times. The community that created the Play House in 1915 also created the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Art Museum (both first-class institutions) about the same time. Abady understands what kind of commitment from the community it takes to sustain any art. One of her most important goals as artistic director of the Play House was to set up an extensive education program.

"I think that the American tradition is something as Americans we really deny and have disdain for. I hear this constantly, that American culture is baseball and TV and that we don't have a culture."

While Abady disagrees with that view, she stresses the importance of educating audiences, and particularly young people, about the theater as part of the Play House's vital functions. Alan Ayckbourn's 'Man of the Moment' continues at the Play House through May 24.

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