​Celebrating the Cleveland Play House

The Republican Convention will command center stage in Cleveland this week. But long after delegates have come and gone, the city's trademark theater will still be going strong. Scott Simon of NPR has saved us a front-row seat:

It's a world premiere: dimmed lights and hushed excitement as the curtain opens. The play is a farce: four tenors, two wives, and three girlfriends in a swank Paris hotel suite. Screams, sighs, double-entendres, and door-slams:

But this world premiere isn't in New York or London. It's in Cleveland. Ohio! Talk about Off-Broadway!

Playwright Ken Ludwig, loves Cleveland -- and it's true love, not a fling.

Ludwig, whose plays have won the top theater awards on Broadway and the West End, recently had the world premiere of his farce, "A Comedy of Tenors."

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The latest offering of the Cleveland Play House.

CBS News

"I've been lucky to have shows here," he said. "Cleveland audiences are my kind of audiences. That's the primary reason I love to start plays here. They're sophisticated. They're smart. But it's also a great cross-section of Middle America."

Actor Rob McClure -- one of the tenors -- was nominated for a Tony in 2013 for the musical "Chaplin." What's a hot young Broadway star doing sooo far from the Great White Way?

"You live in New York City, but you spend very little time working in New York City as an actor -- I mean, if you're lucky, you work there on occasion," McClure said. "But very few actors are living in New York City and not going anywhere else. We all go to where the work is, and this is one of those places."

And after a hundred years of giving life to great works, Cleveland Play House received Broadway's highest honor: the 2015 Regional Theater Tony Award.

"It recognizes what people in Cleveland have known for a long time, but now the national spotlight is on it," said the theatre's artistic director, Laura Kepley, displaying the award in the lobby. "And they say that it's very good luck to spin it!"

Cleveland Play House was the country's very first professional regional theater, founded in 1915.

An exhibit at the Cleveland Public Library shows a century of acclaimed productions with unknown stars who would be household names, such as Alan Alda, who came to Cleveland as an apprentice actor in the late 1950s. "Later on, obviously, he became Hawkeye Pierce," said Kevin Moore, the theater's managing director.

"Margaret Hamilton was a schoolteacher here in Cleveland. She's from Shaker Heights, Ohio, and she was in our company performing in the 1920s," he said. "Moved to Hollywood, obviously became the Wicked Witch of the West. And by all accounts, just a terrific lady."

Joel Grey (original name Joel David Katz) was part of a children's theater group at the Cleveland Play House called the Curtain Pullers.

His mother took him to see a play, and he found the love of his life: "These kids came onstage in makeup, with costumes," Grey recalled, "and my mother's right here and I said: 'I want to do that.' All I knew is I wanted to do it, and the Play House changed my life."

A life that's led Grey to a Tony Award and an Oscar for playing the Master of Ceremonies in "Cabaret," then "George M.," and "Wicked" -- a career he began as a pint-sized Curtain Puller.

Simon asked, "What was it like to be a little boy on stage there?"

"I felt powerful," Grey said, "when, as a kid, I felt like I had nothing to say in any choices. This was a place I could really bite into."

A lot of theaters across the country just take a touring Broadway show out of the box, plug it in, and pull the curtains. Cleveland Play House produces new shows, creates the sets, makes the costumes.

The Play House is a professional theater, but also a civic institution, with an education program that puts Play House professionals into 93 Cleveland area schools.

"We're not teaching children to act; we are teaching children to manage their emotions," said Moore.

Simon witnessed a training session. What starts as a game of musical chairs gets suddenly serious, as children learn to feel pride about a skill: "Everything we're doing in the room is going to help you feel better about yourself, look somebody in the eye and say, 'I have this skill, or I'm proud of this,'" said one participant. "That's so foreign for these kids. They walk in the room already in trauma. So our job is not to heighten their trauma, but to embrace it and figure out how to channel it."

Much of the last century has been hard times for Cleveland. The city has lost jobs, people and glamour. But Cleveland Play House has stayed.

"Attention must be paid," said Grey. "They have managed to keep telling the stories, and I think that's a great thing."


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