Playhouse in the Park ‘Dracula’ director Joanie Schultz 

Creating mythic possibilities and hope

You can be forgiven if Joanie Schultz’s name doesn’t ring a bell.

She’s the associate artistic director at Playhouse in the Park. The job is enormous, overseeing the day-to-day operations of artistic operations, as well as leading the Playhouse’s new play development. But she isn’t the face of the Playhouse. That’s producing artistic director Blake Robison

Joanie Schultz, Associate Artistic Director, Play House in the Park (Photo by Joe Mazza)
Joanie Schultz, associate artistic director, Playhouse in the Park
(Photo by Joe Mazza)

Besides, Schultz arrived in Cincinnati in late 2021. It was a curious time. Just weeks after she got here, there was a huge spike in COVID cases and many of us went back into hiding. Meanwhile, just as Schultz was trying to settle into her new job, the Playhouse was preparing to raze the theater’s mainstage, the old Marx Theatre, and start producing shows away from its Eden Park home. 

Indeed, the first Playhouse show that Schultz directed – “Frida … Self Portrait” – took place at The Carnegie in Covington. It would be a year and a half after she arrived before Schultz directed a show on one of the Playhouse stages – the world premiere of “Origin Story” in the Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre. And it turned out to be a particularly memorable production – thoughtful, humorous and filled with quirky characters. It was one of those rare shows that, when it ended, you wished there was another act.

After the opening night performance, one of the Playhouse’s largest longtime benefactors – who asked to remain anonymous – turned to me and said, “This is one of the best shows I’ve seen at the Playhouse in years.” I had to agree.

Now, Schultz is preparing to make her Playhouse mainstage debut with “Dracula,” a collaboration with her “Frida” collaborator, Vanessa Severo. The show opens Feb. 8 in Moe and Jack’s Place – The Rouse Theatre.

Perfect timing

“To be honest, I had never met Joanie when I called her to talk about the position,” Robison said. “I knew of her by reputation. I knew that she was a very accomplished member of the Chicago theater community. But would we see eye to eye? Would we even get along? I had no idea.”

Robison’s timing was perfect.

“After the pandemic shutdown, I was completely unemployed for the first time in my life,” said Schultz, who had started teaching online to make ends meet. “Then, Blake called.”

A few years earlier, she’d had a bumpy experience as artistic director of a theater in Texas. But after speaking with Robison, she thought perhaps it was time to give arts leadership another try.

“He sounded like such a good guy on the phone,” she recalled. “I called a few people who had worked with him. I wanted to know if that was really the case. There are a lot of artistic directors who are much more ego-driven and hard to get along with. But everybody who had worked here as a director said they thought he was the real deal.”

From Robison’s point of view, she has been a boon to the Playhouse. Because of Schultz’s stellar reputation in Chicago, she has opened the Playhouse up to a pool of actors and directors that had seldom been drawn on before.

“She brings a different community of actors to the Playhouse,” Robison said. “The stereotype is that Chicago actors are emotionally raw. Think of those scene-chewing superstars from Steppenwolf,” he says, invoking the name of one of Chicago’s best-known theater companies, a place where Schultz has worked often. “In my experience, Chicago actors are deeply devoted to the stage.”

It’s no coincidence that, in the last 18 months, the Playhouse has employed far more Chicago actors than at any time since Robison arrived here in 2012.

Besides, the job sounded like everything she might want.

“I spoke with Michael Haney about the job,” said Schultz, referring to the man who was the Playhouse’s associate artistic director from 2002 to 2013. “He said that associate artistic director is the best job in the American theater. I get to run the artistic part of this theater – for the most part – yet I don’t have to be involved in most of the really hard stuff that Blake has to do, like working with the board and fundraising and staff management.”

Getting hooked early 

Schultz’s first brush with the stage was when she played Belinda Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol.” She was 6 years old and was working in a community theater in Aspen, Colo.

“I fell in love with the theater right then,” she said. “The people, the being backstage, the getting to know everyone. That really hooked me. I was the big drama kid from then on.”

Schultz stopped the conversation for a moment. She knew what it sounded like when she said she was raised in Aspen.

“I usually avoid telling people I’m from Aspen,” she said. “Because we were really poor. We just happened to be in this place which happens to be rich.” Besides, she pointed out, technically they lived in a suburb called Emma, a place mostly devoid of posh condos and overpriced restaurants. Rather, Emma is home to Red Eagle Roofing and Two Roots Farm and a medium-sized auto graveyard. “Down Valley,” they call the area.

“When I was a kid, I thought I was going to be a writer or an actor,” Schultz said. “Meanwhile, I was making plays at recess and telling everybody how we should do it. I had no idea that girls could be directors. It never occurred to me.”

In high school, she would play Winifred in “Once Upon a Mattress” and – “the highlight of my career” – Sister Sarah Brown in “Guys and Dolls.”

The turn toward directing

But while attending Columbia College in Chicago, one of her professors – the late Sheldon Patinkin – pulled her aside after class one day.

Joanie Schultz, Associate Artistic Director, Play House in the Park
Joanie Schultz in a rehearsal

“He said, ‘Has it ever occurred to you that you’re a director?’” Schultz started crying. She was sure he was saying she wasn’t good enough to pursue a career as an actor. “He said that sometimes the way I talked about plays in class, I sounded more like a director than an actor.”

She’d directed a couple of plays in high school. But she’d never really considered directing as an option.

“And now, I love it so much,” she said. “I love looking at all the pieces and helping put them together. I love helping people come together as a team and getting the best out of them. I love seeing the big picture and creating worlds. It’s such an honor to have people come together and to create rehearsal rooms where people can be vulnerable and try things. It’s never about my big old vision.”

On Schultz’s website, she describes her upbringing and philosophy this way:

“I was raised by psychic hippies in Colorado and was taught that magic is real and that utopia is possible. These values have found their way into all of my work; my productions are full of mythic possibilities and hope, and my rooms are inclusive, collaborative, and invite a diversity of viewpoints to create a collective genius. I have a generous spirit and quiet confidence that encourages those I work with to bring out their best, and a discerning eye to distill that into a unified production.”

When I read that description to Amira Danan, who played the leading role in “Origin Story,” there was an audible sigh on the phone line.

“I can say without hesitation that Joanie is my favorite director,” Danan said. “Sometimes, directors can make the rehearsal space difficult for an actor. But Joanie really makes a rehearsal room a truly collaborative space. As an actor, you always have a say in what you’re doing.”

Then, almost as an afterthought, she added: “You have no idea how rare that is.”

Watching “Origin Story” you could almost sense that. Too often, you see plays where the acting may be good, but a sense of ensemble is lacking. In the best of plays, you have a sense that the characters you are watching have a history together. It’s not about the actors knowing one another. It’s about the characters knowing one another before you – the audience – wander into the room.

It’s very hard to achieve on the stage. It has to begin in the rehearsal room.

“Joanie focuses on building an ensemble,” Danan said. “It’s such an important part of the process of rehearsing. It is often overlooked because you have such limited time. But not with Joanie. She creates such a light in the room, such a sense of freedom. She really is the best.”

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