This month, the Cleveland Play House will take out a billboard that reads "for 95 years you thought we were downtown and now we are." The frank statement is referring to the Play House's move from its Fairfax neighborhood complex at 8500 Euclid Ave. to PlayhouseSquare's Allen Theatre in the heart of downtown.
"A lot of people have never figured out the difference anyway, between us and PlayhouseSquare," says Cleveland Play House artistic director Michael Bloom. "So we hope that we are better able to tell our story down here."
Cleveland Play House's previous home consisted of two 500-seat theaters, the Drury and Bolton, which were plagued by problems such as a leaky roof, an uneven stage and a lack of wing space. So after 84 years, the Play House decided to sell its property to the neighboring Cleveland Clinic and start fresh. Bloom couldn't be happier about the opportunity.
"We need to be in an arts district," he says. "We were really on a hospital campus. We are getting out of the real estate business and focusing on our core mission."
That mission starts with the Allen Theatre. The Play House, PlayhouseSquare and Cleveland State University have spent about $32 million and one year working to transform the 1921 theater. What was once a single, 2,500-seat theater that was used only 75 nights a year has been converted into three theaters: a 500-seat theater, a 300-seat theater and a 150-seat black box theater.
"Audiences want intimate houses," Bloom says. The main 500-seat theater will open Sept. 16 with Galileo (running through Oct. 9), a drama about the groundbreaking astronomer and scientist. The Play House will retain the theater's historic character while adding modern touches. "It's a contemporary design inside of a historic shell," Bloom says.
Mesh screens will be hung over the theater's original walls to keep the audience focused on the stage, and the lobby is being expanded and outfitted with a video monitor that will promote upcoming performances as well as two glass-enclosed event rooms.
The 300-seat theater and 150-seat black box theater will open in January. They are being built on a space that was formerly a 50-car parking lot. All of the theaters will be shared with Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve University theater grad students, giving them a chance to perform on a Broadway-style stage.
As Bloom stands on East 14th Street and looks at what will be his future home, he just shakes his head. "There is no comparison to the old facility," Bloom says. "We had two really dysfunctional theaters, and we're trading them for three beautiful new theaters."