Thursday, October 24, 2019

Cloud 9 (2000)

"(It'll Be Fine When You Reach) Cloud Nine"
From left: Diane Mull, Tracey Field, Nick Koesters, Alison Garrigan, self

“I hear you are considering Cloud 9.”

This was James Mango, Artistic Director of Charenton Theater Company. The other new theater start-up, creating professional work in funky urban spaces.

We were at an event at Fadó, an Irish-themed bistro in the Flats. It was late Spring, 2000. Standing out on the boardwalk, on the banks of the Cuyahoga. The weather was perfect, the city was on the rise. The Millennium had begun (don’t argue with me about numerology) and everything was possible.

James told me Charenton was also considering that title, and proposed a co-production. I was suspicious. Not skeptical, I was suspicious.

He told me that with their management and promotional skills, the show could be a blockbuster. I asked him, what does Bad Epitaph have to offer?

He said, “The best talent in Cleveland.”

Diane Mull as Edward
Photo by Anthony Gray
Well played. He flattered me, he came to me and made a generous suggestion. I told him I’d think about it, and immediately went into overdrive, figuring out how soon we could announce the Bad Epitaph 2000-01 Season, and to secure the rights to produce Cloud 9. On our own.

Why? Arrogance, I imagine. I was thirty-two. My company was a hot property. I didn’t want to dilute it. Co-productions were not yet a thing, but they would be and very soon. James was thinking outside the box. I was being territorial. That was my first mistake.

Most of our core company was involved in the production of Cloud 9, and I will say it was the best in Cleveland. Roger Truesdell was tapped to direct. He had helmed Sin the previous fall, presented at Inside Gallery (now the site of the Bourbon Street Barrel Room) a temporary forty-seat space which sold out every performance.

Most of the spaces we had already engaged were either unavailable or defunct for that fall. I can’t tell you how many interesting spaces we had considered for Lysistrata, including the Paris Art Theatre on West 25th Street, an abandoned pornographic film house.

We could have had the Studio Theatre at Cleveland Play House, an intimate thrust space. Just a few years later Dobama would often use the space before they found their present location in Cleveland Heights.

But I got it into my head we must have a proscenium, and we found one. A sweetheart deal with the folks at Tri-C East, in Highland Heights. They had a new, state of the art facility and wanted to draw attention to it. It was a six hundred seat auditorium.

"Come Gather Sons of England"
Company from "Cloud 9"
(Bad Epitaph Theater Company, 2000)
Well, that’s very big,isn't it. But I had high hopes for attendance. All of our productions caught fire and attracted large audiences -- Hamlet, Sin, Santaland, Lysistrata, they were all selling out shortly after opening.

Also, we were generating great press! Our new was nominated for a Northern Ohio Live “Award of Achievement” for Lysistrata, and in the awards issue was a feature written by Christopher Johnston, about the company, and me in particular. Surely, Bad Epitaph was ascendant. This production would attract even greater audiences.

From the beginning, however, my best instincts told me that all of our productions should be produced within the city of Cleveland. The original mission clearly stated we would be presenting classics and important contemporary drama in an urban setting. Now, we were moving into a cavernous space, way out at the intersection of Interstates 271 and 480. That was my second mistake.

The acting company included regulars Nick Koesters, Tom Cullinan, Alison Garrigan, Chris Bohan, myself, were joined by actors new to Bad Epitaph, Diane Mull and Tracey Field. A raked set was designed by Don McBride, spectacular light effects were created by Greg Owen-Houk, and our house composer, Dennis Yurich, created original music.

The production was set in both 1880 and 1980, nice round numbers. What had originally been a contemporary second act was now itself a period piece, which began with a news report on a London pop station (Sarah Morton as the DJ) and a brief snatch of the title song as though interpreted by XTC.

Our version of the complete song, sung by the company, was much more wistful. It begins with Gerry (Nick) singing the first verse solo, before being joined by Lin (Alison), then myself and Diane -- the Edwards -- and the song builds and builds until everyone is on stage, singing. During the climax we are all dancing, but we are each dancing by ourselves.

Roger created a beautiful picture postcard, exactly what I hoped the production would be. It closed with a signature Truesdell moment, with glitter and confetti showering onto Betty 1980 (Tracey) and Betty 1880 (Nick) as she has finally found herself.

And the reviews were positive, pointing up the strengths of our production, and also its failings. Tony Brown for the Plain Dealer commented that the “too-large theater ... dilutes the intimacy.” Imagine if we staged this at the Studio, or in another welcoming art gallery. Brown also called our production “a perverse sort of children’s theater for adults.” I’m not sure he meant that as a compliment, but I will take it as one.

The critics agreed that this script had come into focus into the intervening twenty years. Free Times critic James Damico claimed Churchill’s text, “never convincingly coheres or evolves dramatically … held together solely by the consistency of its anti-establishment criticisms." But he also said that time and our “resourceful and energetic production” had considerably “considerably depoliticize[d] and clarif[ied] the play’s properties.”

Which is another way of saying we took the rough edges off. The headline for the PD review was “Strong message is sugared in 'Cloud Nine'.” Indeed.

Now, and I can’t remember why I thought this was a good idea … we had a pre-opening night preview. That is not unique. However, there was no admission, In fact it was promoted as FREE. A free performance, the night before we opened!

Tracey Field, Nick Koesters
This is all well and good if you are only telling friends and family. But we promoted it. Because I felt we needed strong word-of-mouth, and what better way than to paper the preview? And people came! Our free preview was a big hit, all our friends and family came! It was the largest house we had for the entire run.

What the fuck? What was I thinking? Am I some kind of Communist? We had an entire weekend of previews for Lysistrata (I was terrified it would suck and I wanted time to make massive changes, which it turns out I did not have to do) but still we charged admission for them.

There were over fifty people there for the preview, their number dwarfed by a sea of seats. We didn’t even ask for a donation on the way out. This was my third and final mistake.

I loved this play, I wanted to return to a text that had so inspired me as I began my journey as a theater artist. And we did it just right. And audience size varied widely ... between ten and fifteen people.

One night, after another inspiring and poorly-attended performance, I drove to Cleveland Heights to catch the last half of Angst:84, a new play by my wife, Toni K. Thayer, at my old haunt, Dobama’s Night Kitchen.

I snuck into a seat in the back row on the far left side of the house, which was nearly sold out. An audience composed largely of teenagers and young adults, exactly the demographic for which I had created this project five years earlier. But I’d never produced such a popular show for the Night Kitchen.

I was happy for her. I was jealous. I was sad. I missed this. I was an adult, soon to be a father (or so I thought) and I had moved onto adult projects. But I still wanted to be back here, in the basement, in a great neighborhood, making exciting art for a young audience.

And yet, and you will have to take my word on this, over the years several have told me they did see our production of Cloud 9, and how much it meant to them. I get those comments about this show more than anything else Bad Epitaph produced.

Strong Message is sugared in 'Cloud Nine' by Tony Brown, The Plain Dealer, 10/23/2000
Clearing the Clouds; Bad Epitaph works wonders with 'Cloud 9' by James Damico, The Free Times, 11/1-7/2000

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