‘Whimsical’ groundbreaking marks new future for Emery Theater

After years of planning, The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati officially began its nearly $52 million transition of a historic Over-the-Rhine venue into its permanent home.

On Tuesday, an enthusiastic group of theater leaders, community partners and supporters of the arts gathered outside the Emery Theater for what TCT staff described as “whimsical groundbreaking.”

The celebration began with a door chain-cutting ceremony meant to symbolize a major step in TCT reclaiming its former longtime home.

Members of the Children’s Theatre team pose outside their future professional home. (Photo by Casey Weldon)

As part of the festivities, an actor dressed as Peter Pan tossed “fairy dust” – colorful ribbon, really – into the air to add a touch of enchantment to the occasion.

Following brief formal comments, the group went inside for an informal final look at the dilapidated facility before the start of its 18-month rejuvenation.

“This is a dream come true,” said Roderick Justice, TCT’s artistic director.

“To be able to program a theater year-round means we’re going to be able to reach more children and families,” he added. “This move means bringing more arts for more people in our community.”

A long, shared history

At 104 years old, TCT is the oldest professional theater company for young audiences in the United States. It has called many venues home over the decades, including The Emery for a period of time.

For the past 52 years, TCT has hosted its MainStage productions at Taft Theatre in downtown Cincinnati.

While appreciative of the space, Justice noted that just being a renter makes it difficult to retain full artistic control over programming.

TCT Disney’s “Descendants The Musical”
(Photo by Mikki Schaffner)

Justice has worked with TCT for 16 years and the company has had him on staff for the past 14. During that time, he’s seen his theater and those in similar situations forced to produce “big title after big title” over more unique works because they’re likely to generate more revenue.

On the other hand, perceived “revenue risks” – such as shows geared toward very young children and teenagers or independent works – are less likely to make it to the stage, Justice said. 

TCT only has control of the Taft Theater stage about 40 days each year. Late next year, that number will jump to 365.

“Now, we can control our own destiny,” Justice said.

Right place, right time

The Emery opened in 1911, built as a concert hall for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and has had many tenants over its storied history, including the Children’s Theatre. Since TCT departed in 1969, however, the venue has been used only sporadically for arts performances. As such, the Samuel Hannaford & Sons-designed building has fallen into a state of disrepair

While the theater remains acoustically superior, the interior of the space is rundown.

“(The Emery) is a project that others have attempted without much success in the past,” Kim Kern, TCT’s longtime executive director and CEO, reminded those in attendance on Tuesday morning.

Kern mentioned that her organization had even considered the facility a time or two in recent years, However, the poor condition of the performance hall and limited stage and backstage space made it an impractical option.

About four years ago, the TCT reevaluated the situation in light of some new technology that could help make the space more viable. Beyond aesthetic improvements, TCT plans to lift the stage and address limited backstage and wing areas. They’ll also install an automated fly system, a massive video wall and projection mapping equipment and other high-tech elements to enhance storytelling capabilities.

To accommodate the upgrades, the Emery is going to end up losing a few hundred seats. The performance hall should seat about 1,600 once the project is complete.

“This moment is crucial for the theater’s future and we’re eager to see the impact it will have on the city’s cultural landscape,” Kern said.

Bringing a Cincy icon back to life

While Kern and her team have looked into the Emery concept for the better part of four years, a capital campaign to pay for the $51.5 million project only began last March. TCT took ownership of the facility on Dec. 22.

To date, TCT has raised nearly $46 million, including Federal Historic and New Markets Tax Credits allocations, Kern said.

Rendering: The audience looks at a performance on the stage of a remodeled Emery Theater.
Rendering of the new-look Emery Theater

While the bulk of the financing is complete, Kern stressed that theater-lovers still have plenty of ways to show support for the project. One option is to name a seat in the theater after your family or friend.

What that idea isn’t new, what is novel is the ability to add the signature of a child or grandchild to the nameplate so they can come back and see it with their children 35 years from now, Kern said.

A formal timeline for the project isn’t yet available. In July, the company stated a desire to debut the new-look Emery Theater in time for the start of the 2025-2026 season.

While there’s going to be a lot to do on and off stage between now and then, it’s going to be difficult to keep Kern, Justice and the rest of the TCT team from thinking about fall 2025.

“I’m already dreaming of opening night,” Justice said.

TCT Emery Theater project