Cleveland Play House: Why Engagement Should Be Every Arts Staffer’s Job

Founded in 1915, the Cleveland Play House was America’s first regional theater.  In selecting a season, Associate Artistic Director Laura Kepley, says, “We look for plays that are contemporary in style and substance, that resonate with our community.”

After 86 years in another location, in the fall of 2011, the Play House moved to Playhouse Square in the heart of downtown Cleveland.  The move was motivated, in part, by wanting to connect with younger and more diverse audiences – the audiences of tomorrow.  Kepley says,

Cleveland Play House is in the middle of a huge transformation, so that we can be in a place that is sustainable.

According Corey Atkins, Artistic Associate, “The thing that’s been exciting about down here is that were seeing a much more multi-generational audience.”  The move was a joint partnership between Cleveland State University and Playhouse Square, so the new location is one block from Cleveland State University’s main campus, and according to Atkins “We’ve also seen a really great uptick in the number of people who work here downtown, who will end their workday, go grab a drink, and come see a show.”

In light of these changing conditions, one of their adaptive challenges has been to rethink their relationship to subscribers. Since the move, Kepley says, “While we continue to have subscribers that number dropped off a little bit, but we have doubled our single ticket sales.  So that’s really exciting for us, but that also presents new questions.”  This led the Play House to question their old way of doing things.  As a result, she’s asking, “How do we engage these people who may not be signing on for a whole season of work but who may just be coming to one or two titles that appeal to them?”

One of the responses they’ve tested out is the Show Plus program, which is a “series that targets certain populations — students, young Clevelanders in their 20s and 30s, and then the LGBT community and allies” by offering “a pre-show party and an after-party, and oftentimes a chance to Q&A with the actors as well.”  So far, the results have been encouraging.  “We’ve been really pleased at the diversity of backgrounds, of races, of gender, that have attended,” says Atkins.

Beyond new strategies, the team at the Cleveland Play House is also exploring ways of changing their underlying culture.  Kepley says,

“One of the things that we’re doing differently, and it’s really exciting, is that we have organization-wide started thinking about engagement.  It’s not just one person’s job, it’s not just one department’s job, it’s everybody’s job.”

The result of the move and this new way of thinking has been transformative.  Kepley says “There’s a saying that when you pack, you don’t want to take anything that’s not working.  So in this transformation, we’re not bringing the things that don’t work or the things that no longer work.”


Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Activating Innovation at EmcArts, where she leads the development of, an interactive online platform for arts leaders to learn and share stories about adaptive change and the power of effective innovation.