A Lasting Legacy
In 1961, president of the Lakewood school board Dorothy Teare sought a tenant to fill the high school's vacant auditorium. She read of the departure of theater director Arthur Lithgow from Stan Hywet Hall and the cancellation of his summer season, and contacted him. A deal was proposed: in exchange for providing the auditorium rent free, Lithgow's company would perform matinees of William Shakespeare plays for students at no charge. Teare became president of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Association, and Lithgow the company's first artistic director.
Georgia Nielsen, first president of the volunteer Women's Committee, coordinated many of that group's start-up details, including ticket sales, sewing costumes and constructing stage armor. That first season Audrey Watts was in charge of housing and would go on to launch the Festival's first Fashion Show, a fundraiser which ensured the undertaking of a second season. She chaired the Women's Committee and numerous benefits, and was instrumental in conceiving the Festival's annual London Tour.
Yet were it not for banker Carl Dryer, it is unlikely the company would have survived. Dragged to a history play by his wife in the inaugural season, he was hooked, and agreed to become chairman of finance. Dryer brought in Ernst & Whinney accountants, got early loans forgiven, and connected the Festival with The Cleveland Foundation, one of Great Lakes' most significant supporters to this day.
Lithgow departed in 1965. Lindsay Morgenthaler, a trustee who joined Great Lakes in 1963 and a key player in cultivating community support for the company, brought a professor of drama from Carnegie Tech to Great Lakes as its second artistic director: Lawrence Carra. Carra broke Festival tradition of performing Shakespeare in Elizabethan style by producing a contemporary Hamlet in 1968 informed by the shooting of Robert Kennedy. The production mesmerized a drama instructor at St. Joseph Academy, Mary Bill.
Bill joined Great Lakes part-time, crafting grants to underwrite youth tickets. In the tradition of these efforts, Eaton Corporation continues corporate support for this cause, as well as provides ongoing trustee representation on the Festival's board. In 1970 Bill was granted funding by The Martha Holden Jennings Foundation, a dedicated supporter, to expand the education program. She became GLSF's first full-time year-round employee and in 1974 brought Bill Rudman to intern at Great Lakes. He would become instrumental in the development of the education program, expanding the in-school residency program, helping launch the theater's adult education program and in 1997 drafting the company's mission statement. In 1975, Carra's final season, Great Lakes' budget of $300,000 was six times the inaugural one, and included grants from The George Gund Foundation, the Festival's largest long-term educational supporter.
In 1976 Vincent Dowling, former deputy director of his native Dublin's Abbey Theatre, was named Great Lakes' third artistic director following a search led by board president Marilyn E. Brentlinger. A trustee for 43 years, Brentlinger co-wrote a best practices book on producing not-for-profit benefits which became an industry standard. Her Festival participation was always a family affair: her children played onstage extras, volunteered in the box office, and her husband Paul's support is ongoing.
In 1977 Dowling encouraged Tom Hanks to join Great Lakes as an intern. Hanks worked three seasons at the Festival, building sets, hanging lights, and acting on stage. It was at Great Lakes that he earned his Actors' Equity card. Since making his mark in Hollywood, he has thrice returned to support Great Lakes and dazzle audiences.
In 1982, Dowling's The Playboy of the Western World was taped by PBS and won a local Emmy Award. Its scenic design was by John Ezell, who joined Great Lakes in 1976, later becoming Associate Artistic Director. Ezell designed award-winning sets at the Festival for decades, collaborating with every subsequent artistic director.
The Festival was outgrowing its Lakewood home, and in 1980 board president Natalie Epstein, a passionate theater lover who joined Great Lakes in 1977, took a tour of the vacant PlayhouseSquare theaters. Standing on the stage of the dilapidated Ohio Theatre, she fell in love with it. She and Mary Bill teamed up to obtain funding for a renovation, and on July 9, 1982, Great Lakes opened its new home with its inaugural play, As You Like It.
After Dowling's departure, the Festival named Lorain, Ohio native Gerald Freedman its fourth artistic director in 1985. With New York credits including the artistic directorship of the New York Shakespeare Festival, Freedman brought celebrated actors such as Olympia Dukakis, Hal Holbrook, and Jean Stapleton to Cleveland. Several landmark education programs were launched during these years, including community Surrounds, notably "Festival Fantastico!" in 1988, co-produced by Bill Rudman and Margaret Lynch. Lynch served as an usher in the 1960s, worked in the costume shop in the '70s, and later became Great Lakes' dramaturge, writing program notes, lobby exhibit materials, the company's exemplary 25th Anniversary history (to which much material from this narrative is indebted), and eventually directing adult education programming.
In 1985 Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival was renamed Great Lakes Theater Festival to reflect the broader body of work produced, and rotating repertory yielded to performance in stock. In 1991 the production calendar was changed from summer to September-May. To help manage this momentous undertaking, Anne DesRosiers was hired as Managing Director, a position she held through 1998. DesRosiers' strong fiscal sense helped the Festival through some challenging times, with no shortage of artistic, educational, and financial accomplishments along the way.
Offstage, several key board members who would play an essential role in the success of the Festival emerged during the Freedman era. John Collinson joined GLTF in 1981, and in the '90s put together a bank consortium to have Great Lakes' debt forgiven. William E. MacDonald III came aboard in 1990 and served for nearly two decades. Retired Vice-Chairman of National City Corporation, a longtime major sponsor of the Festival's work, MacDonald chaired Great Lakes' committee on trustees and mentored numerous board members. Ellen Stirn Mavec, president of the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation, joined GLTF in 1986. Her long-term support, including significant support of the Hanna Theatre capital campaign, have been instrumental in the company's success. Michael J. Peterman, a trustee since 1992, has shared his real estate expertise as Executive Vice President of North Pointe Realty on all property and leasing issues facing the Festival. James O. Roberts joined Great Lakes in 1984. When business obligations prevented his continued participation, his wife Georgianna T. Roberts stepped in, filling his vacancy. Jim was able to return in 1997, and both husband and wife served together as trustees. Their partnership, in personal life and in their relationship with Great Lakes, embodied love of life, love of the arts, and love of education. John D. Schubert, an art and literature aficionado, has been a trustee since 1979. He has provided steady, constant support of the company for over three decades. Laura Siegal first joined Great Lakes in 1989, and along with her husband Alvin Siegal, have been staunch Festival supporters. The Siegals are passionate about education and theatre, are deeply committed to the production of professional Shakespeare and exposing students to the classics
Ernst & Young Partners have long played important roles at Great Lakes. John E. Katzenmeyer, Thomas G. Stafford, and Robert D. Neary are among them. A retired E&Y Partner, Katzenmeyer's watchful fiscal eye and generous support of Great Lakes since he first joined the Festival in 1974 have seen the theater through many tough times. His good humor, personal generosity, love of the classics and deep support of education make him a treasured trustee. Stafford, also a retired Partner at E&Y, joined Great Lakes in 1977. He memorably signed Tom Hanks' first Equity paycheck, recalling it to be "somewhere in the mid-two figure range." Neary, a trustee since 1995, is a retired Co-Chairman of E&Y. He was brought to the board by his wife Janet E. Neary, whose commitment to Great Lakes began in 1987. Bob's strong financial oversight and his leadership in inaugurating the company's Legacy Society have proven invaluable. Janet's strategic behind-the-scenes work on the Hanna Theatre campaign exemplifies her continued guidance and commitment. As a couple, the Neary's dedication to the company's mission, and their generosity on every level makes them one of the primary forces behind Great Lakes' success.
Victoria Bussert was hired by Freedman in 1985 as his assistant director, and made her GLTF directing debut in 1988. She served as Freedman's Associate Director through 1997 and is presently Resident Director. Bussert has become the region's premiere director of musical theater. She has directed 32 productions at Great Lakes, including staging Freedman's adaptation of A Christmas Carol a dozen times and working with numerous actors of great talent, including the Festival's inaugural Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley: William Leach and John Buck, Jr.
Leach portrayed Scrooge in the first seven productions of A Christmas Carol. Capturing the true spirit of transformation, his onstage gifts were apparent to all fortunate enough to be in his audience. Leach's acting partner in the famous Ghost of Marley scene was John Buck, who portrayed the fettered spirit fifteen times from 1989 through 2003. Buck's acting gifts are many, but among them are his precision as an actor, his presence in the moment and his masterful vocal tone.
In 1989, Mark Cytron joined Great Lakes as a carpenter. He worked his way up the backstage ranks to become Great Lakes' Technical Director, a position he also holds at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival (ISF) and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival (LTSF). In 1997, Christopher Flinchum was hired as assistant stage manager, later promoted to Production Stage Manager, and is now the Festival's Production Manager, overseeing all elements of production for Great Lakes as well as ISF and LTSF.
After Freedman's 1997 departure, Bussert and Ezell served as the Festival's Co-Artistic Directors in 1997-98, and in time for the following season the board hired Great Lakes' fifth artistic director, James Bundy.
Bundy broadened the Festival's aesthetic and cultural definitions of classic, embracing diversity onstage and off, and initiated discussions with the board and PlayhouseSquare about moving Great Lakes to the Hanna Theatre. Programming in this period featured Shakespeare and musicals, included contemporary adaptations of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan and Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck, and promoted newer works with classic structures and themes such as Thunder Knocking on the Door, From the Mississippi Delta, and the musical Lone Star Love.
In 2001 Bundy promoted Daniel Hahn to the position of Education Director. Hahn's love of the company's rich history and his personal dedication to Great Lakes' mission began in 1995 as an actor-teacher in the school residency program under Kenn McLaughlin. Four years later, Todd S. Krispinsky was hired as Outreach Tour stage manager and made himself indispensable to GLTF, wearing many hats while rising through the ranks. In 2005 Krispinsky became the Festival's Director of Marketing and Communications, overseeing double-digit sales increases and garnering national coverage in American Theatre magazine and The Wall Street Journal.
The 2001 season began under the leadership of new board president David P. Porter, who joined Great Lakes in 1998. Bundy had accepted the position of Dean of the Yale School of Drama, and the search for a new artistic director was underway. Porter's governance during this era of transition and financial challenge, as well as his personal generosity and dedication to the Festival's artistic and educational core values, helped sustain Great Lakes at a time of uncertainty.
In the spring of 2002, the Festival landed Charles Fee to helm Great Lakes. Producing Artistic Director of ISF, Fee brought a wealth of experience producing and directing the classics, as well as leading a successful capital campaign for the Boise theatre. With Great Lakes' working capital funds exhausted, an accumulated deficit looming and merger talks with the Cleveland Play House in progress, Fee immediately inserted a second Shakespeare play into GLTF's schedule: his A Midsummer Night's Dream, originally conceived in Boise. Great Lakes' future production model had begun: creatively sharing work between companies led by Fee, which now include ISF and LTSF.
Fee's production of Midsummer saw the Festival debut of Cleveland favorite Andrew May, who would continue for eight seasons at GLTF, acting in 17 productions, directing, and serving as Associate Artistic Director. That same year, Heather Sherwin joined Great Lakes as Director of Development, helping to set the company on secure financial footing, and then serving as chief strategist and manager of the Hanna Theatre campaign. Working closely with Sherwin was trustee Robyn Barrie, who joined the board in 1998. Time and again Barrie has chaired annual benefits and worked tirelessly to ensure goals were achieved and fun was had by all.
The culmination of Great Lakes' capital campaign, chaired by Timothy K. Pistell, a trustee since 1997, came in 2008 with the opening of the completely reimagined Hanna Theatre. As Executive VP & CFO of Parker Hannifin Corporation, Pistell drew significant corporate and individual support, resulting in a campaign that exceeded its goal. Featuring the Parker Hannifin hydraulic thrust stage, the Hanna retains all of its historical legacy while enjoying the most modern theatrical amenities. In partnership with PlayhouseSquare under the leadership of President and CEO Art Falco, whose unwavering support and advocacy for the project was instrumental, the Festival's historic move into its new home is the culmination of an extraordinary team effort.
A key player on that team is Bob Taylor, who joined Great Lakes in December 2000 as Development Manager, was promoted to Director of Administration in 2001, and named Executive Director in 2003, a position he also holds at LTSF. Along with Fee, Taylor has led the financial turnaround of the company and the move into the Hanna Theatre.
As Fee embarks upon his tenth season as Producing Artistic Director and Great Lakes Theater honors the 50 Stars whose dedication make this celebration possible, we save the final distinction for you: The Great Lakes Theater Audience. Over 4 million adults and students taking in over 300 productions spanning five decades have made this journey a reality. Thank you for your continued support, and here's to the next fifty years!