Making Waves: Playhouse and Arts Centers Bring Neighbors Out to Play

Lily and Fans at Miami VOA

Mark Lutwak, Director of Education at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, recently sat down with ArtsWave staff to talk about the Playhouse’s “Off the Hill” program.

Conceived in 2009, Off the Hill brings Playhouse productions to local community arts centers for public performances, bringing neighbors together to enjoy a show for the whole family. Piggybacking on the Playhouse’s school touring program, the education department tours three plays each year: one for younger children (ages 5-8) and their families, such as this year’s original River Rat and Cat or adaptations of children’s classics such as Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse ; one for older children (ages 8-12), such as this year’s What’s Buggin’ Greg, a transformational comedy loosely inspired by Kafka’s Metamorphosis; and one for teenagers, including radical adaptations of classics such as Cyrano, and original plays dealing with provocative themes, such as this year’s WAR. Shows are cast primarily from the Playhouse’s acting intern company of young professional artists.

In the 2010-2011 season, Off the Hill partnered with 18 community arts centers to bring three professional plays into 19 neighborhoods, including Anderson, Oxford, Clifton, Mariemont, Sharonville, West Chester, Kennedy Heights, Covington, and more. Over 4,500 adults and children enjoyed the performances and activities at the arts centers—many of whom do not regularly attend Playhouse. “Off the Hill” is supported in part by ArtsWave Presents, a program that connects arts organizations and regional audiences.

“What we’ve discovered is that there’s no one way to do this,” says Mark. “Each arts center is different. They have different resources, histories, and different relationships to their communities.” As a result, each performance becomes a unique community engagement event.

Playhouse has discovered that one of the keys to success is expanding the event beyond just a performance of a play. Mark works with each arts center’s staff and volunteers to find ways to involve other groups directly in the event—“cross-pollinating” the community with people from different backgrounds and interests and giving them all a stake in the success of the event.

“We’ve had Greek dancers, fencing schools, martial arts demonstrations, you name it,” says Mark with a smile. “They bring their own audiences from the community and create a festive atmosphere.”

Food is an important component, too, and a great chance for local restaurants and bakeries to show off their skills and attract new business. For a performance of Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse at The Grove Banquet Hall in Springfield Township, a neighborhood family-owned business, Meals-To-Go, served purple iced cupcakes and offered two amazing door prizes—special cakes designed like Lily’s purple purse and her red boot—to promote their new cake line.

Cupcakes at Springfield

Kim Flamm, Springfield Township’s Projects, Events and Communications Coordinator, said audiences loved the extra treats. “This was a win-win for our local business. It added “a little extra something” to our performance, and Meals-To-Go received two birthday cake orders at the event! Especially during these tough economic times, we like to showcase our local businesses and promote shopping local whenever possible. It was wonderful to know that Playhouse in the Park supports the same mission.”

DisTroy at Springfield

As Off the Hill begins its third season, Mark is enthusiastic about the future of the program. “Every play presents new opportunities. Each has a different inherent appeal and marketing strategy. The approach must be fresh each time. Beyond that we need patience, because we are trying to build something new.”