It all started with an empty auditorium and a group of concerned citizens. The hall was fastened to the public high school in suburban Lakewood. The citizens were members of the Lakewood Board of Education who wanted to fill the auditorium during the summer months with cultural offerings. The year was 1961 when Lakewood Board of Education president Dorothy Teare persuaded a peripatetic Shakespeare troupe to make Lakewood Civic Auditorium its home. The troupe had been founded a decade earlier at Antioch College by a then-English professor named Arthur Lithgow, and had been wandering the state of Ohio.
Dubbed "the Johnny Appleseed of Shakespeare" by his son, actor John Lithgow, the senior Lithgow specialized in the Bard. His focus suited the educational mission of Teare, who became the new theater's first board president, and her army of stalwart volunteers. The theater that opened its doors on July 11, 1962 as Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival presented six Shakespeare plays in rotating repertory. Student matinees were offered from the start.
These were the pioneering days of American regional theater, when resources and audiences were shifting from commercial houses to the nonprofit theaters springing up across the country. Lithgow envisioned an interlocking network of regional theaters. The company's trustees also had regional ambitions, reflected in their choice of name. Great Lakes Theater (GLT) was unusual for an American company in that its founding was driven by a community rather than an artist or manager.
As a seminal figure in the regional theater movement, Lithgow was able to attract talented actors to the company despite the rough-and-ready performing conditions that then prevailed. Great Lakes Theater alumni from this era include his son, John, the distinguished character actor Donald Moffat, and television star Larry Linville (later of M*A*S*H fame).
The repertory was expanded in 1965 to include non-Shakespearean classics as a result of an exchange of productions with Princeton's McCarter Theater, where Lithgow was by then educational coordinator. Lithgow saw such exchanges as the future for regional theaters and wanted greater financial resources for productions GLT would originate. Protective of the company's hard-won identity and stability, the board instead opted for a prudent autonomy.
Lawrence Carra, a man of broad theater experience, an early television director, and drama professor at the prestigious Carnegie-Mellon University, was an ideal choice to consolidate GLT's growth. An astute theater business person, Carra made financial stability a priority. Volunteers from GLT's Women's Committee remained a sustaining force in the theater's operations. Carra combined the glamour of Broadway and Hollywood - Celeste Holm and Wesley Addy starred in Shaw's Candida - with the talents of professional hometown actors, writers and directors.
With a verve for marshaling brisk comedies, Carra continued to expand the repertory. Reaching young people was one of his chief priorities - whether by supporting special programs for students, by mounting politically charged productions of classics ranging from Sophocles' Electra to Shakespeare's Hamlet, or by introducing new works such as John-Michael Tebelak's Godspell, which broke GLT box office records and kept the theater afloat financially.
By 1976, when the company was touring productions across Ohio, it needed a year-round artistic director. Vincent Dowling, a veteran actor and director from his native Dublin's renowned Abbey Theatre, became a tireless and charismatic evangelist throughout the community for GLT.
Dowling was committed to creating a company of actors who would be tested by a repertory stretching from Shakespeare to light comedies such as Peg O' My Heart to modern classics such as Playboy of the Western World (televised on PBS in 1982). Also included in the lineup were one-person shows featuring virtuoso performances by Geraldine Fitzgerald and Dowling himself. A future virtuoso made his first appearance in those years: Tom Hanks performed at GLT for the three seasons beginning in 1977.
Growing artistically, administratively and financially, Great Lakes Theater was outgrowing its home at Lakewood Civic Auditorium. GLT desperately needed the professional-quality space and technical facilities necessary to do justice to its increasingly ambitious productions. Just when GLT's leadership was considering a move, the push was on to revitalize the downtown PlayhouseSquare complex. GLT now had a unique opportunity to position itself more visibly than ever before as a citywide and regional resource.
Civic support for a move to the Ohio Theatre in PlayhouseSquare was enthusiastic. A Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts spearheaded a major fundraising campaign, whose success was celebrated on July 9, 1982, the Festival's opening night at the Ohio Theatre. GLT rose to its new artistic challenges that season with the world premiere of A Child's Christmas in Wales and, most spectacularly, with the first American production of Nicholas Nickleby, a mammoth undertaking involving 46 actors in 300 roles - Dowling's sense of company writ large.
In 1985, the challenge of recreating the Festival in its new downtown milieu fell to Gerald Freedman. Freedman came to GLT with an extraordinary record in American theater on and Off-Broadway and with the New York Shakespeare Festival, the American Shakespeare Theatre and The Acting Company. A native of Lorain, Ohio, he was attracted by GLT's mission as a classic theater.
Like his predecessors, Freedman's company included actors - such as Piper Laurie, Jean Stapleton, Hal Holbrook and Olympia Dukakis - with whom he had built relationships over 30 years of working at the highest levels of American theater. Freedman continued to expand the definition of "classic." From his lush inaugural staging of Twelfth Night to 1997's Antony and Cleopatra, Freedman richly upheld the Festival's abiding commitment to Shakespeare. Ibsen and Chekhov, the wellsprings of modern drama, were explored in depth. Freedman exercised his forte for lyric theater, running the gamut from a classic American musical comedy, The Boys from Syracuse , to Federico Garcia Lorca's haunting, symbolic Blood Wedding. Plays that recorded the American experience took a prominent place, from George Abbott's Broadway and George Kelly's The Show-Off to occasional new plays that tackled timeless ideas in contemporary idioms, such as Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate and Adrienne Kennedy's Ohio State Murders.
In an effort to re-engineer the theater in an increasingly competitive environment, the Board decided in 1997 to redraft GLT's mission statement and to hire a resident artistic director. After a nationwide search, James Bundy was named to that position, effective July 1, 1998. Bundy brought extensive experience as an actor, director, and producer in the non-profit theater, including three years as managing director of Cornerstone Theater Company, known for its innovative adaptations of classic plays involving the residents of rural and inner-city communities in every aspect of production. The theater under Bundy's leadership committed itself to its mission, "to bring the pleasure, power and relevance of classic theater to the widest possible audience." During his tenure, James continued to test the boundaries of "classic" theater, producing contemporary plays with classic form (From the Mississippi Delta in 2001) and classics with a twist, such as the musical Lone Star Love: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas, and a Cleveland-specific Peter Pan (which closed the 2001 season, one of the highest-attended seasons in the company's history). His commitment to community, education, and cultural diversity effected all aspects of the theater's operations. James left GLT in June 2002 to become the Dean of the Yale School of Drama and Artistic Director of Yale Repertory Theater.
When Producing Artistic Director Charles Fee was hired in July 2002, he brought with him a commitment to staging classic works of dramatic literature and a proven understanding of the business of producing theater. Charlie led a reexamination of the organization at every level, resulting in a new management model and a new business plan. In his first season, he refocused programming on the traditional classic canon, allowing GLT to produce two Shakespeare plays for the first time in eighteen years (Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night's Dream) and return Shaw to the Ohio Theatre stage (after an absence of fifteen years) with Arms and the Man. Under Charlie's leadership, Great Lakes Theater has developed a bold, compelling, sustainable new model for the company, one that acknowledges our roots in Shakespeare and the classics and a commitment to a core company of actors and theater artists. His deep interest in exploring partnerships with other theaters (including Idaho Shakespeare Festival and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, where he is also Producing Artistic Director), and organizations such as GLT's longtime partner PlayhouseSquare continues to prove vital to the future artistic and institutional health of the company. Under Charlie's guidance, Great Lakes undertook the first capital campaign in its history, the Re-Imagine a Classic campaign, which transformed the Hanna Theatre in downtown Cleveland into a new permanent home for GLT and has created an endowment for the future. Great Lakes Theater's new home at the Hanna Theatre opened in September of 2008. Since the 2008, attendance has increased by 15%.
Launched on a shoestring budget of $50,000, the festival is now a $3.7 million-a-year operation that anchors Cleveland's vital PlayhouseSquare complex with five (six in 2011-12) full length productions and the Cleveland Metropolitan school District's annual All-City Musical each season September through May. Great Lakes Theater strives for the highest artistic quality, and it remains a distinctive and significant cultural resource in an extraordinary American city.