D. Lynn Meyers: Looking Impossible in the Eye
It takes us a few minutes to find the working entrance to the Ensemble Theatre office; construction warnings and orange cones crowd the scenery up and down the 1100 block of Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine. The street is quiet, but behind the door, the air fills with the sounds of a $7 million dream being built. The noise of drilling and hammering is slightly dulled as Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers leads us to a fluorescent breakroom. On the table is a pile of programs for the theater’s new 2017-18 season and a bag of mini M&Ms.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a native Cincinnatian. I went to Mother of Mercy High School, Thomas More College, and then was accepted into the master’s program at Yale and had no money. So I ended up at the Playhouse – spent 10 years there. Worked my way up to the associate artistic director’s position, where I did all of the casting, and I directed a show or so a year, and then I left town. I was in New York and LA and Canada and freelanced and directed and cast. Then I got a call on July the 3rd, 1995, to say, “We’d like you to come back and help us close Ensemble Theatre.”
So I said, “Okay, I think it is really sad to come back to close somewhere,” but they wanted me to come back for three months. So I left LA, said “I’ll be back in three months,” and that was a long time ago.
We were a wonderful opportunity in the middle of terrible circumstances. The theater had an enormous amount of debt, and frankly, I blame a lot of it on the fact that people just wouldn’t come to Over-the-Rhine. It wasn’t about bad work or not wanting to see theater.
We just took it like you take recovery: one day at a time. We’d get one show up; we’d try to control the energy around us; we spent 10 percent of our operating budget on security. I made a deal with the crack dealer on the corner that he’d go away half-hour before and half-hour after our show if I gave him a case of Heineken every Friday, and we did that for three years. It was about making practical solutions to really big problems.
It had really taken a huge upswing in ’99. We were flying. My board did this really cool thing. At that point, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna stay, because it’d been enough to save it, and things were getting better, but I said, “If we become a theater that has a social conscience, that really sets us apart.” Because the Playhouse is awesome. The Broadway series is awesome. There are great community theaters. This wasn’t about competing. This was about giving people another opportunity. So we changed the mission to “dedicated to original world premieres, often with a social conscience, so that we enrich and enliven our neighborhood.” So what they did was they turned the whole purpose of the theater into being about and for where we are. That excited me.
Our work now really looks in the face of what our community needs. It really is about, you know, what are you talking about on a Saturday night with your friends? What do I hear if I’m walking next door to Taste of Belgium to pick something up? What’s happening in our schools?
Gradually, after a while, our neighborhood started to improve, and I do think ETC deserves credit. I think it’s really cool that other places are moving into the region. I think that it’s awesome what’s happening with Washington Park and with Music Hall, but in the 1100 block of Vine Street, there was Ensemble Theatre and a pawn shop, and a bunch of vacant properties that were being used for meth labs and crack houses and transients. There was no displacement on this block because there were no people that wanted to live here.
But also right behind us is Tender Mercies. We became friends with Tender Mercies through a wonderful story:
There was a great woman named Ruth Sawyer who was one of the founders of this theater, just this effervescent, amazing person – who happened to be a little scattered. So she was unloading stuff out of her car one day and she realized she left her purse hanging on the front door of the building. Well, this was Over-the-Rhine, I mean, come on. So, it was two hours before she noticed, so just as she was about to call her husband and the doorbell rang, and here it was a caregiver from Tender Mercies with Ruth’s purse. Not a penny was taken. And I’m like, “What’s Tender Mercies?”
So from that day, I called David Kisor and said, “We’ve gotta do something.” Dave is a wonderful composer, and we decided to do a holiday show to benefit them, so for 19 years we’ve been doing a thing called “Expectations of Christmas,” which this year is December 11. David wrote songs, I wrote stories, and the proceeds all go to our neighbors.
So I don’t know…it’s little things that end up adding up over time. We did “Brownsville Song,” which was about an unarmed black 20-year-old who got shot on the corner just because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. You do that, and then suddenly people come and they’re like, “Oh. I don’t look at the news the same way.” Or when you do “Luna Gale,” which was about two young teens that were addicted to meth and what happened to their baby, it allows you to have a discussion about what’s going on in our society, and without that, I just don’t think we’re valid. I think there’s too many people that do too many good things in town. I think what sets us apart is the fact that we’re kinda looking it in the eye.
So, that’s an encapsulation of 20 years. [Laughing.]
I want to return to that moment in ’99: You talked to the board; you said you wanted to be a socially conscious theater. They took a risk and it paid off. Was there a moment after that when you knew it had been the right choice?
Yeah, I think there was a moment. It was around that same time, the spring of ’99. We did a production of “Violet,” and “Violet” is a story that takes place sort of Vietnam era. It was about an interracial love story that unraveled throughout the course of it. It was a story about a young woman who had no self-esteem. She had been injured through an accident, and an ax blade cut her face so she was scarred. She is doing this journey across the country to get healing from a televangelist because she believes he can heal her. She meets these two soldiers who are going off to war; she meets different people; and at the end of it, she comes to realize that healing has to be from inside.
That play hit me personally on so many issues: What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a woman who’s facing an obstacle? What does it mean to be a woman who feels she has no identity except as one of a victim? What does it mean when you think you’re in love with someone that it’s impossible for you to be in love with?
It’s this gorgeous musical written by Jeanine Tesori, who’s also a woman, and Brian Crawley, who was from Cincinnati, originally. It was a big hit in New York – a big enough hit that it was a really cool thing for us to get it. And it was right around that same time that we had gotten that “Side Man” premiere while it was still on Broadway, and that led to “I Am My Own Wife,” which had won the Tony and the Pulitzer – we were the first theater in the country to get it. So that “Violet” turning point – there’s a song that starts and ends the show called “I’m On My Way” and you know, it starts with her getting on the bus and it ends with her recognizing she’s on the way to the rest of her life. And it just changed things. There was a hope. When people left the theater, it wasn’t “Oh, cool, we got in with no trouble.” It was, “This is really good theater.”
I really believe “Violet” was an inspiration, which is why I did this show for our 30th anniversary season. I did it because we needed that infusion of hope just as much now as we needed it then, and it touched me even more now than it did when we did it then, because it was so filled with honest hope. It wasn’t about blind hope or happily-ever-afters. It was about “This is gonna be hard, but we’re gonna do it anyway.” That was a huge deal.
That is so Cincinnati, that phrase.
It is! Our city has enormously low self-esteem. I’m so tired of hearing people go, “Oh, you’re from Cincinnati. Me too.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” They don’t even think about being a stop on the Underground Railroad. Our city doesn’t get credit for firsts, like the baseball stuff and all that. We get blamed for Pete Rose. And it’s not okay.
And I do believe we’re a city that’s going through an enormous renovation and renaissance, so it’s absolutely no coincidence that we’re spending $7 million to change our facility – which is the scariest thing I’ve done. I mean, this is scarier to me than walking past the dead guy next to my car when I first started here. Because I couldn’t control that. All I could do was not get frightened, and show up. This renovation’s all on me, [laughing], so we gotta make it work.
We had to do it. We were running out of seats. We were running out of accessible seats. If you’re going to serve a community by having a social conscience and bringing these works to the stage, then you gotta make sure that people can come in and see it. I think the whole thing started with an elevator. How do we get people to the top of our house that can’t get there? We did a survey, and at any point in time in any city, you might have 30 percent of your population with some type of infirmity or disability. Some have it forever; some sprained their ankle over the weekend. It was preposterous to not be able to serve them. So it started with “What do you do?” and it ended with this.
It’s really important for people to know that, before anybody thought OTR was hip and cool and the place to spend millions of dollars, we were here. And when we got an offer to move over to Covington, which would’ve paid off all our debt, we stayed here. And we are the gateway. We start that entertainment district. I firmly believe that without ETC holding its ground, I’m not sure that the Art Academy and the Know and the new SCPA…I’m not sure where all of that would’ve landed, because what they all did before they came was they talked to us and said, “Are you staying? What do you think? Is there progress?” And of course there was progress. Maybe it was coincidental, but I think that, when you look at the restaurants that started here… When Lavomatic first opened, they worked around our performance schedule. Because we were bringing 100-plus people down, so they knew their servers would make money. So for the economic impact of bringing now 200 people eight times a week – 1600 people coming to this destination – that feeds the streetcar and the parking lots and the restaurants and the bars, so you don’t have to survive on a Saturday night crowd.
The day the ATM went in across the street…I don’t cry easily. You get a little tough after awhile. But when that ATM went in, I sobbed, ’cause it was such a statement, that people believed you could visit an ATM in OTR without getting shot. I always believed that.
But you know that place where the ATM is, during the April unrest, that’s where police fired rubber bullets into the crowd to disperse them. And now we’ve got condos and an ATM. And I’m thrilled that we can say that over 80 percent of our subscribers renew their subscription before we tell them what the plays are. This theater’s been built on that kind of loyalty. Cincinnati doesn’t hold its head up high, and it should, because Cincinnati showed up to a theater in Over-the-Rhine. Not only did they show up; they kept showing up; they brought their friends; and now 80 percent buy it without knowing what the shows are. That is a huge statement on this city and how much faith is in this city. Cincinnati does not give itself credit for having hope, but in fact, it does. I’m not a sports person, but the whole thing that’s going on with FC Cincinnati is so amazing. It’s not replacing the Bengals or the Reds…ETC never wanted to replace the Playhouse. We’re just adding. You add good theater, you get more good theater. You add more sports, you get more people going to sports. It’s that kind of growth that will take us into this century – a century that started really tenuous for our city with ’01.
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is probably the reason we stayed open. It’s this phenomenal rock musical about a guy who had a botched sex change operation and is now living in a trailer park and singing rock songs with his band, The Angry Inch, which I think you all know what that means. So we did that in the summer of ’01 because we could not get people to come here for anything. I was offering to go drive people to the theater. After April of ’01: ghost town. All that work was gone. So I heard about this play and decided, “What did we have to lose?” It was this highly interesting piece about gender identity, and the score’s just a great rock show. So I called [the Rosenthals] and I said, “I need $20,000 to put on this show. If it doesn’t work, we’re out of business. If it works, I can start next season.” And God bless ’em, they came through. We hired the best indie players out of the best indie bands in town. John Curley (Afghan Wigs) was our music director. Todd Almond, who’s a sensation now around the country, was Hedwig. We put that group together and this place sold to 94-percent capacity. And it saved the theater. And so we’re ending next season with it because you know what? Sixteen years later, we need it now. We need a discussion now about gender identity, and that show is gonna impact our audience completely differently now than it did then. Now it's gonna be, “What makes a man? What makes a woman? What makes a person? How do we accept and how do we understand?”
“Hedwig” is a perfect example of something I was thinking while looking through your 2017-18 season: You’re tackling these really huge, serious issues, but there’s an infusion of humor in almost every play on the schedule. Can you talk a bit about that?
I think that if we were to sit and just stare at the pool of problems we have to solve, we would drown. So I’ve tried to make it more of a reflective pool where we can see what lies on top of the water. These plays are written with a humor about ourselves, so “This Random World” looks at a woman who’s coming to the end of her life, but the choices and bold decisions she makes to prove to all of us we are in control of our destiny... That whole play is about missed and taken opportunities. “The Dancing Princesses” has a very strong message about acceptance and about the fact that we are all universally one family, but it’s funny. And “The Humans” is creepy, but it won the Tony and it has the undercurrent of “we have to laugh at ourselves.” “Red Velvet”: the first black actor to play Othello, 300 years after it was written? Come on. Seriously. I didn’t know that story. And then you get to Ethel Waters’ story with “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and it’s very funny, and deeply disturbing. And then, we will have free earplugs at the box office for those who are faint of heart for “Hedwig,” because if I don’t hear “Hedwig:” on Vine Street, it’s not a success. That music has got to rock this place and all the renovations so hard that we make sure everything is bolted down.
Tell us about Meals 4 Monologues.
I’m a member of Casting Society for America, so CSA after my name, which I’m really proud of. So Claire Simon is a Casting Society member, and years ago she had this great idea. She knew all these people always wanted to do auditions…well, quite frankly, you don’t have time. So she did this thing called Meals for Monologues where you come in and you do a monologue and they ask you to please bring a nonperishable food item for the food bank in Chicago. Well, I heard about that, and I thought, “That is the greatest idea.” So we put it out there and we didn’t know if anybody would respond, and the first year there were over 100 people.
Fortunately the film industry in Cincinnati has been so great, and we’ve been able to cast “Carol” and “Miles Ahead” and all these big films. When you do Meals 4 Monologues, which we always do in December, they can audition for plays, for films, just to be an extra. They can come in and do whatever they want, so people will do everything from monologues from Sam Shepard’s plays to “Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer” – literally somebody sang that for their audition, and that’s okay, ’cause it’s their two minutes. Then Freestore Foodbank brings us over barrels and we fill ’em and we fill ’em and we fill ’em. I think there were almost 1,000 items of food donated last year.
Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
Her name is Sister Mary Carlos and she taught at Mercy High School. She taught speech and drama and she directed the plays. I wasn’t all that interested in theater. I was going to be a writer who was a lawyer, until I met Sister Mary Carlos. Speech was an elective, and I wanted a credit hour, so I took it. And this woman was really tough. She was non-compromising. So I wrote this speech; it was a Voice of Democracy contest, and I came in second. A guy from Xavier came in first, so I went to her and I said, “Well, you know, thanks for your help. I came in second.” She goes, “Okay, so now we’re gonna work on the speech.” And I’m like, “What do you mean? I came in second.” She goes, “Well, isn’t there an event where they give out awards?” And I go, “Yeah, but I came in second. I’m not gonna go.” She goes, “Oh, yes you are. And you’re gonna memorize your speech.” She made me work every day for two weeks after school to memorize this speech that I was never gonna give. And she also told me I was gonna go to the event. So I did. And I sat there and I was angry the whole time. And it was raining, on top of it, and it was outside, on top of it. So I’m sitting there. The guy doesn’t show up to give the speech. So they look at me with disdain, because no woman had ever won this contest. And they go, “I don’t suppose you know your speech,” and I went, “Yes, I do.” And then they were stuck and they had to let me give it.
So I went back and I’m like, “How did you know?” And she goes, “I’m teaching you that it isn’t the win. It’s about being prepared for what life throws your way.” So then about a year later, she got bone cancer, and I went to visit her. And she was in so much pain. And I said to her, “Aren’t you angry at God? How can He do this to you?” I mean, this was a woman who came from wealth. She was an educated woman. She chose to go into the convent. I’m like, “Aren’t you sorry you became a nun? Don’t you regret that?” And she laughed out loud, with all the strength she had.
She said, “Regret? Why would anyone ever regret? You get the opportunity to make a choice, and then you get the opportunity every day to continue to choose. I have never regretted a moment in my life.”
And that changed my life. I never thought about life that way. I was always like, “Oh, what if I’d had the money to go to Yale? Oh, what if I’d stayed in LA, written a TV series?” This woman was someone who gave up everything for God and wasn’t angry at Him when He decided to take her out that way. So that changed me.
Ensemble’s newly renovated theater will be open to the public October 7 from 10-3 as part of ArtsWave’s Re(NEW)ed Community Celebration. Visitors can enjoy tours, light refreshments, and community pop-up performances throughout the space.