From the nationally treasured 1878 Music Hall to an entirely new contemporary theater for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, several Cincinnati arts venues are debuting significant new spaces to audiences this fall – all to rave reviews.
The Cincinnati community has invested nearly $200 million to both revitalize historic arts buildings and create contemporary new spaces for generations to come to enjoy. It’s the single-largest investment in arts infrastructure in the city’s history.
“Music Hall has always been magical. This renovation is investing in Music Hall’s future,” said Chris Pinelo, vice president for communications for the symphony. “Music Hall had an expiration date. Those beams were from the 1800s. … To (add legroom in the seats), they had to go into the studs and reinforce them with steel. My sons’ great-great-grandsons will also be able to enjoy great performances at Music Hall because of the work being done now.”
But Music Hall is just one of several significant arts-related construction projects that wrapped up this fall. In fact, Cincinnati is undergoing its largest renovation of its arts offerings in its history. Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, after performing for years in an old, single-screen movie theater, welcomes the first audiences to its brand-new home, the Otto M. Budig Theatre, on Elm Street in September. Then, in October, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati unveils a multi-million dollar renovated performance space on Vine Street, and Cincinnati Art Museum will open a million-dollar community gathering space gallery.
Before the Music Hall renovation could begin, the CSO made major upgrades to the Taft Theatre so it could serve as its temporary home. They removed top hat racks (yes, really) and added air-conditioning.
Memorial Hall, situated in the “arts corridor” around Washington Park, also received a multimillion dollar makeover in the last two years, while farther afield, on Red Bank Road, the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati built a new home.
And don’t put down the hammers just yet: Playhouse in the Park plans to rebuild its mainstage.
Altogether, these projects — even before the Playhouse build — represent a roughly $200 million investment in the arts in Cincinnati.
“The ability for this community to get those projects done is not surprising at all because of the generosity of this community,” said Brian Isaac Phillips, producing artistic director for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. “Of course this community was going to get this done, because this is what Cincinnati needed. … There was a recognition that it was time to get (Cincinnati arts) in facilities that represent the world-class performances they are giving us.”
Here’s a closer look at the projects making history:
photo credit | Mark Lyons, courtesy of CSO
The renovation of Music Hall was about preserving a historic landmark while making it more convenient, comfortable and accessible for patrons. But in achieving these prosaic goals, Pinelo said, the project has “rediscovered a lot of the grandeur of the building.” Dropped ceilings and bricked up windows — put in to conserve energy during past renovations — have been removed to uncover the original high, stenciled ceilings and allow natural light to flood into the building. A free community open house on Oct. 7, hosted by ArtsWave, kicks off five weeks of celebrations that showcase the five arts organizations that call Music Hall home. With Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and the School for the Creative and Performing Arts just down the street and Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati just a few blocks away, with Over-The-Rhine bustling with restaurants and bars, with Washington Park filled with people, “that neighborhood has become a true arts destination,” Pinelo said.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
Rarely does an organization get a second chance to make a first impression, but that’s exactly the opportunity Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has as it opens the Otto M. Budig Theatre, Phillips said. “There was really great work happening at Race Street, but for a lot of patrons, that space wasn’t ideal.” The lobby was cramped, seats weren’t accessible, and even backstage, the company was making do, cobbling together sets that could be taken through a regular-sized door. The new $17.5 million theater has none of those defects — spacious, comfortable and with every seat within 20 feet of the stage! The facility also gives the company the space to expand its artistic and educational programming, and bring national attention to the work being done in Cincinnati. “It was never a goal to just build a building,” Phillips said. “The goal always was to grow the company to the next level.” In 2018, the company will bring national and international artists to Cincinnati for the annual Shakespeare Theatre Association conference.
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
Three times the number of restrooms. Three times the lobby space. An elevator to deliver patrons quickly and easily to bigger seats. “Everything, everything we did was about audience accessibility and convenience,” said D. Lynn Meyers, artistic director at Ensemble. The theater owns 40 percent of its block in Over-The-Rhine, and the $5.2 million renovation connected its three buildings and provides, in addition to all the accessibility improvements, room to expand its educational programming. An additional $2 million will cover the costs of the education expansion as well as an extra week of performances for every show. “It’s a way to add capacity without changing the intimacy of the space,” Meyers said.
Cincinnati Art Museum
The $1 million renovation of the Schmidlapp Gallery of the Cincinnati Art Museum will provide new interactive experiences for guests, a wall of windows opening onto the courtyard and allowing natural light to fill the space, and seating to encourage people to sit down and stay awhile. The space, which Executive Director Cameron Kitchin has said he envisions as a “living room” for the community, will open to the public in October 2017. Then, in early 2018, the final piece of the renovation — the large-scale “Mural of Cincinnati” by Saul Steinberg — will be installed.
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park Details are yet to be revealed, but the announcement has been made: The Playhouse is getting a new home. Although the Playhouse is staying in Eden Park, a beautiful green space perched on the hilltop overlooking downtown Cincinnati, the mainstage Marx Theatre will be razed and replaced following the 2018-19 season. Officials haven’t released a number for the capital campaign, designs for the new theater, or even plans for a performance space while the theater is rebuilt. (The plan is to reopen in the fall of 2020.) What Executive Director Blake Robison has said: The new theater will embrace the Playhouse’s scenic setting and the community and be an even more accessible, welcoming place to see a show.
Hillary Copsey is a writer and editor enjoying all the exhibits, music, libraries and restaurants Cincinnati has to offer. Follow @HillaryCopsey on Twitter and Instagram.