Mission and History
1977 - Center Repertory Theatre (Centerep) was formed at a time when there
was no professional theatre in downtown Cleveland. Ray Shepardson
was valiantly trying to save the theatres at Playhouse Square. Mayor
Ralph Perk was in the midst of a revitalization campaign for the city.
The Cleveland Play House still had a resident company under the artistic
direction of Richard Oberlin and Vincent Dowling had just become Artistic
Director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival at Lakewood Civic Auditorium.
I was an ambitious kid right out of college with great expectations,
not a little hubris and (as it seems to me now) an over-abundance of naivete,
optimism and energy. I went into this venture, along with many wonderful
friends and supporters (Michael Paller, George Stamatis, Tony Walsh, Leslie
Varnick, Michael Griffith to mention a few), believing that the city of
Cleveland and the arts community would welcome a new professional company
downtown. As in all things, it wasn't quite that simple. We
were adept at playing the challenging roles, but not so good at playing
the politics... Our lessons were tough and unforgiving. I
don't believe there is anyone of our original group that doesn't occassionally
rub the slight ache of those old scars. And yet, they were remarkable
years where our hearts, our passion for great theatre, our comradery grew
and matured. We spent many long hours in intensive care, learning
on the job, fighting outrageous battles, constantly scratching the earth
for a little gold that would sustain us another week, another month.
Centerep became controversial early on - not only in our unorthodox
fund-development sources, but also in our choice of plays.
"Mayor Plans to Start Theatre Using U.S. Funds"
(Front Page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 1976)
It's impossible to recount here how forcefully the s__t hit the fan
with that announcement. Suffice it to say, there wasn't an arts
organization in town that was happy to hear that city funds were going
to be used to start a new company - and that it was going to a young whippersnapper
fresh out of college... How it rankled them!
How did it happen? I was the only one who asked. I knew
Mayor Perk was trying to revitalize downtown. I knew there was a
beautiful theatre in public auditorium. I wrote a little proposal,
and asked for a meeting... He like the idea and tried to help us fund
it. I'll always be grateful to him for taking a chance with us....
"In founding a second resident professional theatre
in a city which has had but one for over half a century, and in beating
them to the stage with what may be the most anticipated new show, Fulton,
win or lose, has made the politics of regional theatre almost as interesting
to watch as the plays."
(Bill Doll - New York THEATRE Review - 11-1977)
Nonetheless, we were part of the theatre revitalization of Cleveland
and helped pave the way for other small professional theatre companies.
In 1975, there were no small professional theatre companies in Cleveland.
There were community theatres and the Play House and Great Lakes - and
a few dinner theatres. Centerep was the first to test these uncertain
waters. Today (2002), Cleveland has many SPT's and, compared to
the landscape 25 years ago, a thriving theatrical community.
From the beginning, our mission was to create a professional
theatre whose foundation rested on the idea of a resident company.
It is my belief that without the laboratory provided by an artistic home,
theatre artists are constrained and diminished. While there are
sometimes happy accidents, great theatre is more consistently born out
of the freedom to explore, discover and fail. That freedom is far
more likely to blossom under the artistic direction and mission of a resident
ensemble - rather than in the tense and often uncertain gathering of strangers,
Tuesday, March 15, 1977
CENTER REPERTORY THEATRE
is officially formed as a 501 (c) 3. We announce our opening production
of Anna Christie at an Open House at the
Little Theatre in Public Auditorium. The Little Theatre is a 600
seat art-deco jewel of a theatre - perfect for a small theatre company
like Centerep. The speakers at the open house were Mayor Ralph
Perk and Honorary Board Member, Actress Julie Harris.
"I think a theatre like this would add an enormous
amount to the cultural life of your city."
"Centerep is starting off with class!"
(The Plain Dealer 3-16-77)
Saturday, March 19, 1977
ACTING WORKSHOPS BEGIN
The first Professional Acting Workshops begin;
taught by Tom Fulton. These workshops have been refined and have
continued in one form or another almost every year for 25 years.
"Auditions cannot honestly evaluate an actor's full
potential, nor is there any substitute for a common language in the
(Tom Fulton, quoted in the Plain Dealer 2-14-77)
Thursday, May 26, 1977
ANNA CHRISTIE OPENS
Starring Carolyn Jeffords as Anna, James McLure (Author of Lone Star,
Laundry and Bourbon, The Day they Shot John Lennon and many other plays)
as Matt Burke, Richard Halverson as Old Chris and Evie McElroy as Marthy.
"Welcome Centerep! You did a fine job!"
(Bill Doll - Plain Dealer)
"Center Repertory Theatre opened for business last
night proving that it is a capable and professional group."
(Tony Mastroianni - The Cleveland Press)
"Tom Fulton's compassionate direction gives dimension
and life to O'Neill's play." (Herb Hammer - CV Times)
October 27, 1977
by Jack Heifner
This first in our minor controversies. It wasn't the play. The
play itself is a funny, sensitive, dark comedy about three cheerleaders
whose bright hopes of the future fail to be realized as we follow them
over a 10 year period of their lives.
The controversy began when I secured the rights to the play directly
from the playwright, Jack Heifner. Jack was a graduate of SMU,
where I had gone to school, and because of that connection, we were
able to nail down the rights in conjunction with him and the Chelsea
Theatre Center. A few months after we secured the rights, the
Cleveland Play House announced that it would be doing Vanities in its
1978-79 season. In most cases they would have had the right of
first refusal, but in this case, they didn't. It created a bit
of a stir. Peter Bellamy, a reviewer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer,
called me one day to get the scoop, and chuckled through the entire
interview... He was amused. Others were not.
"The laughter of the off-Broadway hit "Vanities"
will have to go far to equal the chuckles attendant upon its production
in a Cleveland Theatre this coming season.
"July 17 it was announced by the Play House that
it would present the comedy in its Euclid-77th Street Theatre March
22 through April 22.
"Yesterday the Center Repertory Theatre, based in
the Little Theatre of Public Hall announced that it had exclusive
rights to present "Vanties" for eight weeks starting Oct.
"We aren't at war with anybody, including Center
Rep (Richard Oberlin quoted). Whether we will continue with
our production of 'Vanities' depends upon whether Center Rep actually
has the rights and how well it does with it..."
(Peter Bellamy - The Plain Dealer 8-11-77)
(Note: 7 years later, Richard Oberlin hired me to work
at the Cleveland Play House and he I became good friends. I
had and continue to have great admiration for his good humor, his
humanity and his belief in The Cleveland Theatre Community.
His untimely death was a real loss to us all.)
The show was wildly successful. We were nominated for a number
of Cleveland Critics' Circle Awards, including Best Director and Best
Actress. (Cindi Snodgrass won for best professional actress.
It was the same year that Tom Hanks - before he was a movie star - won
for his work at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival) We ran for nearly
a year, in two venues, becoming the 2nd longest running show in Cleveland
History - 2nd only to Jacques Brel.
"These are three excellent and memorable performances"
(Tony Mastroianni - The Cleveland Press)
"Center Repertory Theatre is . . . destined to cause
a change in the theatre-going habits of Northeast Ohio. . . This production
is well mounted, well acted and well directed... You will laugh, you
will cry, you will be angry, you will be hurt. . . "
(Stu Levin - WCLV Radio)
"The first shining light of this theatrical season.
. . a wonderful and alarming compact, contemporary tragiccomedy. . .a
marvelous show, full of subtleties and brilliant moments. . . Centerep
has a real winner. It deserves to run forever. . . "
(Jackie Demaline - Sun Press)
"Tom Fulton's firm direction gives the play a gentle
rhythmic flow from its light comic beginnings to its sobering conclusion.
. . powerful, subtle performances of its three actors. . . "
(Herb Hammer - CV Times)
"A splendid, adult play... Cindy Snodgrass would steal
the show if it weren't for the Misses Joshi and Smith. . . beautifully
acted. . funny and touching. . ." (Peter Belamy,
The Cleveland Plain Dealer 11-13-77)
"Unified, Polished Performances. . . swept me
into the reality in which its character existed. . . a sparkling performance.
. . " (Mary Anne Dialesandro - The Observer 11-11-77)
Wednesday, March 8, 1978
VANITIES celebrates its 100th performance
in its new location at Kennedy's at Playhouse Square. When Mayor
Dennis Kucinich moved into office in November, he removed us from Public
Auditorium. We were forced to seek another venue. Ray Shepardson,
who was working hard to save Playhouse Square, stepped in and offered
us the small theatre, 'Kennedys'. It proved to be a wonderful
dinner-theatre location for the play. We played through
the early summer.
October 21, 1978
This remarkable play by David Rabe was a Cleveland Premiere. It
caused quite a stir. People either stood up and cheered or stood
up and left. A difficult subject - America's self destructive
presence in Viet Nam. Streamers established Centerep as being
a formidable artistic force in Cleveland Theatre.
Ten years later, Marianne Evette of the Plain Dealer called our production
of Streamers "one of the best plays I have ever seen
on a Cleveland Stage."
". . .A blazing evening in the theatre. It's
an important human document, sensitively directed by Tom Fulton."(Cecilia
Evans -WERE Radio)
"Streamers is a gut-wrenching drama, a theatrical
experience that assaults your senses and leaves you emotionally battered.
It's Center Repertory Theatre's opening show and it's a knockout. .
. Streamers makes a statement not only as an individual drama but also
as an artistic commitment by Center Repertory Theatre. . . Fulton lets
the power and emotion surge forth. . . Puts Centerep at the top of its
class. . ."
(Jackie Demaline - The Sun Newspapers)
"Unflinchingly honest.. . the gutsiest, bravest, most
gripping and truthful show you'll ever see. . . a fast-moving, nail-biting,
edge-of-the-seat night of unforgettable drama. . ." (Archie
Rothman - The Scene)
"That this production is so seamless, has such an
overwhleming central thrust, can only indicate that one of the strongest
directorial minds is in control. . .one of the most alive live theatre
presentations that you will ever have a chance to see anywhere.. . "(High
December 8, 1978
A CHRISTMAS CAROL Opens
My friend and dramaturg for Centerep, Michael Paller, wrote a delicious
and brilliant adaptation of Dicken's tale, which used only 8 actors
and took place at a dinner party in Dicken's attic. The guests,
who we meet briefly in the beginning, take on parts and reinact the
morality tale 'out of a box'. For the first time, I acted in a
Centerep Production playing Dickens and Scrooge.
This was the first professional production of A Christmas Carol in
Cleveland. Before The Cleveland Play House's wonderful production
with Wayne Turney - before the Great Lakes Theatre Festival's.
Everyone had a wonderful time.
"It reaches out and touches you, just as it is meant
to. . . Fulton's interpretation exudes warmth and good cheer.
Love and laughter bubble near the surface. It makes you feel good.
The ensemble is splendid! There is a freshness and eagerness
to Centerep's work that is as exciting as the plays. . . Michael Paller's
adaptation has charm, warmth and literacy among its assets. It
has a haunting, whimisical quality. Fulton's Scrooge is delicious
and wonderfully faceted..." (Jackie Demaline
- The Sun Press)
"Dickens Triumphs. . . A minor theatrical triumph.
. . It is a masterful thing . . . The playing throughout is thorougly
skilled and professional as befits a company that boasts of being Cleveland's
newest professional theatre. It deserves to be heard. It deserves
to be seen... It has been done with both respect and ingenuity..."
Tony Mastroianni - The Cleveland Press
"A gripping Christmas Carol. Dickens would have
been particularly intrigued by this version of a Christmas Carol...
The sight of Scrooge's repentance after he has lost all vestige of humanity
is as electric to childish hearts as the sight of the 14th Cavalry coming
to the rescue. . . " (Peter Bellamy, The Cleveland
April 24, 1979
WOMEN AND OTHER PEOPLE opens. Because we were experiencing an
on-going budget crunch and finding ourselves succeeding artistically,
but failing financially, we brought this show in. It starred Julie
Adams (a 'B' movie actress best known for her role as the 'girl' in
The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Marilyn Lovell. We hoped
that a couple of 'stars' would help revive our bank accounts.
It helped - a little.
The critics were lukewarm. It didn't represent our work - nor
did it represent our mission. It was 'board of directors' ploy
to 'save the theatre'.
October 10, 1979
Centerep officially went out of business.
The Plain Dealer and Cleveland Press both wrote obituaries essentially
saying "Centerep was to altruistic to succeed. . ."
"Fulton Vows To Return. It won't be downtown
and it won't be called Centerep. But the concept will remain the
same - an ensemble group studying and working together, doing plays
of significan worth..."
(quoted in The Cleveland Press)
The next year, I formed The
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.