Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s new theater no longer an impossible dream

Jay Woffington and Brian Isaac Phillips

Jay Woffington and Brian Isaac Phillips (Photo by Tina Gutierrez)

‘Such stuff as dreams are made on’

– William Shakespeare, ‘The Tempest’


Story by John Faherty

The patrons, actors, designers and directors at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company are on the verge of discovering what happens when all your dreams come true.

The path there has been a long one.

Brian Isaac Phillips, producing artistic director, is beginning his 14th season with the company. He has had great actors, but the size of the stage and the limited production capabilities at the theater on Race Street were daunting. Each new play started the same way: “We would talk about the vision of what we wanted, and then we would have to throw it all out and start over to make it fit in our shoebox.”

Jay Woffington is in his fifth season as executive director. His tenure began with “The Grapes of Wrath” in the spring of 2012. He vividly recalls the conversations at the time. “We had just finished, and everybody was saying the same thing: ‘That was the most amazing performance you could do within that space,’” Woffington said. “I was thinking, when do we drop that crutch?”

Somebody else had the same thought. One night Otto Budig was in the audience, and he saw talent and enthusiasm. He also saw limitations. He saw potential untapped, talent unrealized.

“When I was sitting in the theater, I said to myself, ‘We have to find a better place,’” Budig said.

In September, the Otto M. Budig Theater will open at 12th and Elm streets. It will overlook Washington Park, just steps from Memorial Hall and Music Hall. The 38,000-square-foot facility will provide nearly every possible advantage for theater production. The new home is the result of work, education, generosity, persistence and tax credits. It ultimately will cost more than $17 million.

Woffington has spent the past few years overseeing acquisition of that money, and at times, he said, he felt like the job ranged from difficult to impossible. On an “impossible” day, Woffington called Budig with a question.

Budig is known for ending his voicemail recordings with positive aphorisms he changes routinely. That day, Budig’s deep voice asked: “If something is not impossible, is it really worth doing?”

Woffington smiles at the memory. As with all good capital campaigns, Woffington began his with education. He learned quickly that people liked the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, but many did not fully understand what it does. The biggest misconception was that the company would put on a handful of productions each year, each lasting a couple of weeks, and the house would remain dark otherwise. People were genuinely surprised to learn about the company’s education and outreach programs.

They did not know about the 50,000 students from 200 schools who learn from the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company annually. Nobody knew of the 250 annual performances.

“There was a lot of, ‘I didn’t know that,’” Woffington said. The more people learned, the more people were happy to help. Budig and his family foundation gave the most to the new theater, but many other people gave generously.

Rendering of the Otto M. Budig Theater

Rendering of the Otto M. Budig Theater at 12th and Elm Streets, Over-the-Rhine.

“When people learned more about what we do, they came out of the woodwork,” Woffington said. Seven-figure gifts are the big bites of the apple, but Woffington was surprised by all the smaller bites. “We’ve had so many five-figure gifts that have meant so much.”

Much of this was possible because of the Cincinnati Development Fund and that organization’s allocation of new markets tax credits.

You need to be part banker, part accountant and part tax attorney to fully understand the tax credits program, but essentially it is a federal program that incentivizes banks to loan money to businesses and to stabilize low-income neighborhoods. The incentive is the tax credit.
Because of the credits, the Cincinnati Development Fund secured a loan for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company of $11.5 million. The company will need to pay back $7 million.

The money being raised to help build the theater will essentially be used to pay off that loan and one other.

For Jeanne Golliher, president and CEO of the Cincinnati Development Fund, the use of these credits for the Shakespeare Company felt like a perfect fit. The CDF had started working in Over-the-Rhine nearly 20 years ago. One of Golliher’s dreams was that Washington Park would become the anchor of an arts district. If you can remember the area in 1999, that probably felt impossible.

“This fits into a dream that’s been in my head for 20 years,” Golliher said. “I know it sounds corny, but that is one more jewel in the crown of the Queen City.”

Helping Shakespeare rise up on the last piece of developable land on Washington Park felt like it needed to happen. “They have had so much impact despite all their limitations at the old theater,” Golliher said. She particularly loved the fact that the Shakespeare Company teaches high school children in less advantaged areas.

“These kids begin to realize that all of their emotions they are feeling, that somebody was writing about those emotions more than 500 years ago. They learn they are not alone. Shakespeare can do that for you,” Golliher said. “When I heard those stories, I started to cry.”

And now things are close.

On a warm and overcast day in June, workers carried 250 seats off a truck and into the theater.

First, that is many more seats than the 150 on Race. Second, things are getting real in a hurry. The season opens in September.
As the chairs were moved into the theater, the buzz of saws filled the air, sinks were being installed in bathrooms and concrete was drying in front. Still, Phillips and Woffington remained mostly calm. This, they said, was the byproduct of every decision being considered and reconsidered. This move has been nothing if not intentional. Both men said it so often they started to laugh. Nothing has been left to chance.

The last play on Race Street was Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” That play begins on a stormy sea and ends in calm water. The final words are from Prospero, who asks the audience to set him free.

“As you from crimes would pardoned be, Let your indulgence set me free.”

The first play of the debut season will be “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on Sept. 8.

One of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, the play, if done right, can inspire spectacular production. It involves a love story, an enchanted forest, a fairy king and queen, a play within a play, and a love potion gone terribly wrong.

“We are talking about production without limitations,” Phillips said. “We wanted to start with something fun and wonderful for our staff and our community. It is really stunning.”

Phillips points to Woffington as the person who has made this possible. “He is the rocket fuel and the creator of culture. Without him this does not happen.”

Woffington, however, says Phillips is the reason this will all work. “Brian is the company. He is the artistic genius.”

It is probably fair to call them partners. It is safe to say that many people and organizations in this city believed in them. It is certain that the performances at the Otto M. Budig Theater will be grand.

People will be reminded of their new surroundings the moment they walk through the door. On the ground in the entrance of the new theater is a line from Celia in Shakespeare’s “As you Like It.” She is entering the forest, which offers sanctuary, and she is happy there. Her words will be at the theater for as long as the building stands: “I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it.”

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
2017-18 Season

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”
“Every Christmas Story Ever Told”
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”
“Noises Off”

Otto M. Budig Theater
12th and Elm, Over-the-Rhine

381-2273 x1

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