There was a time, not so very long ago, that people viewed The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati (TCT) as little more than a feel-good field trip option for elementary-age kids.
TCT was successful, mind you. Four times a year, parents would be asked to sign a permission slip so schools could load up students into school buses and send them off to Emery Auditorium—one of the TCT’s many homes over the years—to see the likes of Rumpelstiltskin or Jack and the Beanstalk.
And lots of parents would do just that. In 1950—TCT was founded in 1924—attendance was estimated at just under 50,000.
In some ways, little has changed. TCT is still producing musicals with familiar titles in a downtown theater, though it’s now the Taft instead of the Emery. True, ticket prices are higher—$5-$7 for field trips versus 25¢ back in 1950. But then, so is attendance, which hit 97,000 last season.
But in nearly every other way, TCT is a completely different ballgame than it was when the good women of the Junior League of Cincinnati founded the Junior League Players so many years ago.
When TCT was founded, Cincinnati’s schools were abundant with arts education. Every school had an art teacher. And a music teacher. Some had dance teachers, as well. And since nearly every school had an auditorium they needed plays and musicals to fill those huge spaces.
But things are different today, says Kim Deaton, TCT’s CEO and managing director.
“Arts education has been decimated in American schools,” says Deaton. “Today, only 4 percent of public schools in the U.S. have a theater program, even though we know all the benefits of theater education. It helps children develop more confidence and higher self-esteem. It helps with reading comprehension.”
Deaton goes on with a long, long list of value-added benefits. She says she’s shocked by the shortsightedness of politicians and administrators turning their backs on the arts.
It’s one of the reasons TCT has put so much emphasis on TCT On Tour, a touring program that brings theater to an additional 60,000 kids every year.
“Basically, it’s four actors in a van,” says Jay Goodlett, artistic director of TCT’s education and outreach programs. “But they carry scenery, too. And music. And they have enough energy and talent to keep a huge roomful of kids entertained.”
TCT on Tour, it turns out, is a huge operation.
“They keep a crazy schedule,” says Goodlett. “But they’re very, very good. That’s why they’re always in demand.”
Consider this year’s touring schedule. It began after Thanksgiving with a version of A Christmas Carol. In January, they launched two shows aimed at Black History Month celebrations: Martin’s Dream and Harriet Tubman. Finally, at the end of January, they added The Ugly Duckling, which will run through the end of May.
“What’s most impressive, I think, is that all four of the scripts for these shows were written by local playwrights,” says Goodlett.
It’s impressive. But it’s not surprising. Glance through the staff list on TCT’s website and you’ll find not just administrators, but a full array of creative staff. There’s a resident designer. And an arts integration specialist who doubles as a playwright-in-residence. There’s a costume designer, too, and a carpenter and a couple of stage managers.
Gone are the days when TCT hired other companies to do their creative bidding. In the earliest days they presented productions created by the University of Cincinnati’s Mummers Guild or touring troupes out of New York City. One production a year was reserved so that Junior League members themselves could get on the stage.
Today, the entire operation is much more professional. Nowhere is that more evident than in the mainstage shows, those high-profile productions that take place at the Taft Theatre.
Inevitably, they’re big-time titles, many familiar from Hollywood versions. This season, for instance, consists of Alice in Wonderland, Elf The Musical Jr., Tarzan the Stage Musical and The Wizard of Oz, which opens Feb. 11.
The titles may be familiar. But these are not the same as the two-hour-plus shows you might catch at the Aronoff Center.
“These shows are made to accommodate a younger audience,” says Producing Artistic Director Roderick Justice, director of three of TCT’s mainstage shows this season. “They compress a show to about 70 minutes. But they do it so seamlessly that there are very few times when I look at a script and can see where they made the cuts.”
He’s not just giving it the company spin. These are full-bodied professional shows. No, they’re not at the level of a National Tour you might see at the Aronoff. But they are very, very good.
Despite their tremendous success, though, it’s not the mainstage shows where Deaton is looking to find growth for the company.
In January 2016, TCT began a gradual move of all its operations from a workable but limiting space on Oaklawn Drive in Madisonville to an all-new facility on Red Bank Road on the far eastern edge of Hyde Park. The move tripled TCT’s space, from 10,000 square feet to nearly 30,000 square feet.
“Now, we have eight studio spaces instead of just one,” says Deaton. That has allowed the company to radically expand class offerings and summer theater camps. And, in a move that could prove the biggest artistic game-changer, it enabled them to build a 150-seat studio theater.
“We’ve never had a small theater like this to work in,” says Justice. “We’ll be able to do all sorts of different things here. We don’t have to limit ourselves to commercial titles. We’ll be able to workshop new shows. Or consider shows that dive into heavy social issues that are relevant in the world of a child.”
They’ll also be able to stage shows that are geared to a specific age group, a luxury the one-size-fits-all Taft Theatre doesn’t permit.
“At last, we will be able to be a place that offers a holistic arts experience,” says Goodlett. “People think of us and they think acting or singing or dancing. We’ll have all of that. But theater is so collaborative that it involves many other sorts of skills that are just as fulfilling. Now, we can bring young people in here and focus on costuming or lighting design. We could get into instrumental music, too. Or technical theater, which is incredibly important. What our new home has given us is possibilities. Now, the sky is the limit.”