For over 50 years, Cleveland Play House held standing residency at Chautauqua Institution. Each summer from 1930 to 1981, before the advent of Chautauqua Theater Company, the Play House staged multiple productions for Chautauquan audiences.
Laura Kepley, the current artistic director of Cleveland Play House, hopes to revive the historic connection between Chautauqua and CPH. She came to the grounds this summer to direct Into the Breeches!, the final mainstage play of CTC’s 2018 season that opens this weekend.
During Cleveland Play House’s centennial season, Kepley took a “deep dive” into the archives and found several images from when the company performed at Chautauqua.
“There’s a famous picture of K. Elmo Lowe, who was the artistic director of Cleveland Play House … (where) he and a bunch of the actors are on the grounds of Chautauqua,” Kepley said. “As I was leaving to come here, I was thinking ‘Oh, I would love to recreate this picture in some way to make that connection from the past to now.’ ”
Kepley has visited the grounds at least four times before this summer, but this is her first season as a director at Chautauqua.
“All my other trips were just weekends to come up here to see the theater, to do the new play readings,” Kepley said. “Viv Benesch, who used to be (CTC’s) artistic director, is a very good friend and colleague of mine, so it’d be fun for us to come have a Chautauqua weekend because Cleveland is only two hours away.”
Although Kepley was unable to direct the world premiere of Into the Breeches! last January at Trinity Repertory Company due to a scheduling conflict, she said she has been involved with the project’s development workshops and is excited to direct the play’s second production.
“What’s fantastic about being here in Chautauqua is that we have the chance to fine tune the play,” Kepley said. “A lot of people may think that once the play has its world premiere, its first production, that it’s done. It’s not, because there are so many things that you discover during the run of the first production, but it’s too late to change it.”
Kepley was accompanied in the rehearsal room by playwright George Brant, who arrived each day with script changes to enhance the comedy. Frequent collaborators, Kepley said the two join forces on at least one project each year.
“I think we’ve worked on about 20 to 22 different projects together in the last 20 years,” Kepley said. “We first met actually doing theater, and I have directed him as an actor as well as directing his work as a playwright.”
Kepley said her partnership with Brant extends beyond the theater world, as the two are a married couple.
“Early in our relationship, I directed him in not one, but two solo plays that he had written, and we figured out that if we got through that, then maybe we were going to be collaborators for a long time,” she said, “and so we are collaborators in art and in life.”
With Into the Breeches!, Kepley said she is also joined by several familiar faces in the cast.
“We have five guest artists, four of whom I’ve worked with on many other productions, and then one who is brand new to me, Carol Halstead, but she is a longtime Chautauqua favorite,” Kepley said. “It’s great to bring her into this group of collaborators, and then of course, we have the three conservatory actors, who are all doing a fantastic job.”
Kepley said that the mission of CTC aligns in many ways with CPH’s goals to inspire, stimulate and entertain. She said both companies value stories with social relevance that reflect community issues and concerns.
“I think we also have in common a commitment to a variety of plays, so you’re going to have these stories that matter, but one might be a comedy like Into the Breeches! and one might be something like An Octoroon,” Kepley said.
CPH’s 2018-2019 season opens in September with Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, a play that ran on the West End for over 28 years. In October, Kepley will direct Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about factory workers who are struggling to survive in the changing steel industry. Chelsea Marcantel’s Tiny Houses will also be performed in March, two years after its New Play Workshop at CTC in 2016.
To further cement the connection between the two companies, CTC Artistic Associate Sarah Wansley will be in residence with CPH for nine months as the artistic directing fellow. During this time, she will direct MFA students in a production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, which will star CTC conservatory actor Alex Brightwell as Konstantin. Later, Wansley will direct The Wolves and Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.
“I sort of have a full Cleveland season,” Wansley said. “When I’m not in rehearsal, I’m going to be working with Laura and (Associate Artistic Director Robert Berry Fleming) on everything from marketing, fundraising, season planning, board development, really learning how to run the organization, so I am very excited that Laura is here and that I get to follow her home.”