Ensemble Theatre’s D. Lynn Meyers: ‘creating a huge bubble of theatrical goodness’

D. Lynn Meyers (Photo by Mikki Schaffner)

D. Lynn Meyers was just six years old – seven, maybe – the first time she saw a play.

That’s how her mother Audrey remembers it, at least.

“It was ‘The Passion Play,’ down at St. John the Baptist parish in Over-the-Rhine,” recalls Audrey Meyers, mother of the longtime producing artistic director of Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. “That’s not something you take a child to. But she wanted to go. And you know Lynn – once she gets something in her mind, there’s no way to stop her.”

As unlikely her choice of plays was, it was the beginning of a love affair that continues today, nearly 60 years later.

Lynn Meyers and Dee Anne Bryll, as Laura and Amanda, respectively, in a late 1970s production of “The Glass Menagerie” at Thomas More College. 
Another shot of Meyers, as Laura, from the same production of “The Glass Menagerie”

Indeed, that sort of tenacity and clarity of thinking have been hallmarks of Meyers’ 25-year reign at ETC. When she was flown in from California as the interim artistic director in 1995, her charge was simple – to close the theater and cease all operations. Very few people believed that a “real” theater audience would want to attend a play in ETC’s home on a “dangerous” stretch of Vine Street in OTR.

But Meyers didn’t see it that way. She felt then, as she does now, that theater can be a healing force in society. So, instead of shuttering the building, she persevered. And ETC became one of OTR’s first new arts venues since Emery Auditorium opened its doors in 1911. As for Over-the Rhine itself? Well, we all know how that has worked out.

What many once regarded as Meyers’ obstinacy is now viewed as visionary foresight. Where others saw endless complications, she saw opportunity.

For all arts organizations – and those who are dependent on them – 2020 has been a catastrophic year. It’s impossible to know how the pandemic will reshape the local cultural landscape. But to judge by Meyers’ track record combatting adversity, it’s fair to imagine ETC being among the leaders to scramble back to health fairly soon.

It’s one of those qualities that has enabled ETC to build such a devoted following. Producing new plays with unfamiliar titles is always an uphill marketing challenge. But Meyers’ seasons have always managed to instill confidence among subscribers. Perhaps that is why ETC is able to secure renewals from as much as 85 percent of its subscribers before the next season’s plays are even announced.

Before the pandemic closed down all theatrical activity, Meyers and ETC were on quite a roll. In April of 2019, Meyers had been awarded ArtsWave’s uber-prestigious Sachs Fund Prize, which recognizes individuals who have made an “outstanding contribution to the cultural life of Cincinnati, bringing distinction to themselves and the region through their work.”

Meyers receiving the ArtsWave Sachs Fund Prize in 2019

That had come on the heels of being awarded the Governor’s Award for the company’s vaunted arts education program.

The honors continued even after the pandemic struck.

On May 20, 2020, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company – an ETC competitor, incidentally – gave her its Globe Award, an honor bestowed annually on an individual who has “made a significant impact on the company through philanthropy, advocacy and leadership.”

“Cincinnati Shakespeare Company would not be here if it wasn’t for Lynn,” said Brian Isaac Phillips when he presented her with the award. “Lynn is a friend to Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, a friend to me and a gift to our entire city.”

It would be easy to attribute her significance merely to her longevity in Cincinnati. But by the time she arrived at ETC, she had already spent more than a decade at the Playhouse in the Park, developed a flourishing business as a freelance stage director and become an active casting director for films.

Lynn Meyers (center) with famed Hollywood character actor Gale Gordon (“The Lucy Show,” “Our Miss Brooks,” “The Danny Thomas Show”) and Adam Furfaro. Meyers directed the pair in an enormously popular stage version of “Mass Appeal” in the early 1990s.

In each of those aspects of her career, she built formidable networks of connection. More than that, they were connections who adored working with her.

“She’s an absolute mensch in the atmosphere she creates,” says Dennis Parlato, who first met her in 1984, when he was auditioning for the Playhouse in the Park. It was a beginning of a professional relationship that has spanned more than 30 years so far. Most recently, he appeared in the 2016 production of “Annapurna” that Meyers directed at ETC. “She has so much trust in her actors and everyone else she deals with. She guides you, but it’s never intrusive or abusive. As a director, she has one of the lightest touches I’ve ever worked with.”

Dennis Parlato as Ulysses and Regina Pugh as Emma in the ETC production of Sharr White’s “Annapurna.” Directed by D. Lynn Meyers, with costumes by Reba Senske. (Photo by Ryan Kurtz)

Those of us who attend shows at ETC get a glimmering of Meyers’ positive approach in the high-energy welcoming speeches she gives before every show. She’s so energetic and enthusiastic that it feels like she is channeling all of her energy into creating a huge bubble of theatrical goodness for the audience.

The thing is, it’s not an act. The Meyers you see on the stage before the shows is the same woman you see in rehearsal or in interviews or in business negotiations.

“Lynn was the perfect child,” says Audrey Meyers. Admittedly, you have to take a mother’s words with a grain of salt. But Audrey is known for her tough-talking frankness. She’s not above offering criticism, even in public. Besides, there is no shortage of people who express similar sentiments.

During that streaming Globe Award ceremony in May, Cincinnati actor Annie Fitzpatrick said that “Because of Lynn, hundreds of actors – just like me – have a mentor, a fierce advocate, a tireless cheerleader and the most kind-hearted friend you could ask for.”

But to Meyers, this is all part of why she is here. And why she continued to champion ETC even when logic would seem to dictate against it.

“This is not a new message,” says Meyers. “Ensemble was founded to give local artists a home to work.”

Actor Gary Sandy, D. Lynn Meyers and playwright Warren Leight celebrate opening night of ETC’s production of Leight’s “Side Man” at Nicola’s in September, 1999.

What Fitzpatrick left out in her Globe Award comments is that Meyers’ work as a movie casting director has made it possible for many actors to live in Cincinnati and make a living wage from their craft. Stage acting alone probably wouldn’t provide enough to live on. But that changes when supplemented with the occasional film or commercial work.

The list of films for which Meyers has been able to recruit Cincinnati is long and impressive, including titles like “The Shawshank Redemption,”  “Carol,” “Miles Ahead” and “The Killing of the Sacred Deer.”

By any measure, Meyers’ 25-year tenure at ETC has been an unlikely journey. But according to costume designer Reba Senske, Meyers is attracted to challenges, the greater the better.

“No matter what it takes to get it done, she’s your woman,” says Senske, a CCM faculty member and former ETC costume designer, whose history with Meyers goes back to the early Playhouse days. “You just say ‘this is what I need to do’ and move forward. I think it’s the secret to her success.”

If she runs into barriers – and she has – she doesn’t regard that as a sign to stop. Rather, she sets out to find a different solution.

“I loved doing those crazy Christmas shows with her,” says Senske, recalling the dramatic challenges that would often pop up in Joseph McDonough’s scripts.

Andrew Maloney (Dormouse), Michael G. Bath (White Rabbit) and Kenneth Early (Caterpillar/Butterfly), all wearing costumes designed by Reba Senske, in ETC’s 2018 production of Joseph McDonough and David Kisor’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Directed by D. Lynn Meyers. (Photo by Ryan Kurtz)

Cincinnati playwright McDonough collaborated with composer David Kisor to create several of ETC’s holiday shows. They were filled with a rainbow-colored sets populated by small armies of ultra-zany characters; an Elvis-like Mock Turtle, a weed-puffing caterpillar, a Cheshire Cat who belts songs and so much gender-bending – a female Tsar, for instance – that audiences lose all sight of traditional gender roles.

“I think he would write some crazy line in there just to see if we could do it. I remember some like ‘a herd of buffalo thundered across the stage,’ or ‘the elephants would show up’ or ‘everybody turns into a thorn bush.’ We’d laugh and shake our heads. And then we would make it happen. That’s the magic of Lynn.”

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As with most live theater in Cincinnati, Ensemble Theatre remains closed at present, hoping to return to in-person performances as health concerns allow.

Learn more, and support Ensemble Theatre at ensemblecincinnati.org.

This profile is made possible thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor.

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