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"To be or not to be, that is the question," says Hamlet in Shakespeare's oft-performed drama. Cincinnati Shakespeare Company chooses to 'be.' Hamlet the artificial pig sits outside the front of the theater inviting patrons into the building.

Amidst all the changes in the Over-the-Rhine arts corridor comes a brand new $17.5 million building for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, at 1195 Elm St., formerly the home of the Drop Inn Center. Although modern in design with state-of-the-art features, the theater joins newly renovated 19th century Music Hall originally created by Samuel Hannaford & Sons, 19th century revamped Memorial Hall, also a Hannaford building, the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and the Art Academy of Cincinnati with a vista of rejuvenated Washington Park. Music Hall and Memorial Hall are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Designed by local architectural firm GBBN in conjunction with CSC board, staff and actors, the 40,000 theater is intentionally modern, according to partner Steve Kennard. The purpose was to have transparency in making a connection with the community. Kennard said that GBBN has a history of experience with performing arts architecture as well as a knowledge of Over-the-Rhine. Move Committee members visited several sites in Greater Cincinnati before selecting the 12th and Elm St. location with the help of 3CDC.

In their research, the committee also reviewed interior and exterior features of the Royal National Theatre in London, the Swan Theater in Stratford-on-Avon and The Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. In addition, they visited New York and Chicago to look at theaters. The committee debated various aspects of a new facility.

Often known as Cincy Shakes, CSC moved from their previous location on 719 Race St. with limited space and opened a facility designed with more features, including 233 seats, an increase from 150. Patrons now will attend a production with a thrust stage and sit in six rows less than 20 feet from the stage.

Producing Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips noted, "How close to the action you get... you can see every nuance. That is energizing." There is one row of seats installed in the upper gallery, decorated with reclaimed barn wood from the Tri-State area. This feature provides a visual experience reminiscent of the 'Wooden O,' Shakespeare's name for the original Globe Theatre, a wooden structure built on the south bank of the Thames in 1599.

Glass windows and walls are transparent, showing the lobby as well as an upstairs practice room called the Bridgeland Performance Studio. The upper level may double as an event space for patron dinners, opening night receptions, community organization meetings, outside performances and various other functions.

Other aspects of the theater also reflect historical themes. The 63 cast-glass globe lights hanging from the lobby ceiling represent stars above Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in England. The high, slate blue lobby ceiling imitates the sky above the Globe and is comparable to the tented roof of the Stratford Festival theater in Ontario. This writer, however, found the new building cold and impersonal.

Carved into each step of the grand stair from the lobby to the second floor, the titles appear of the 38 Shakespeare plays. In 2014, CSC became one of the first five Shakespeare companies in the United States to offer the complete canon. It is also the only classical theater between Pittsburgh and Chicago, according to Kennard.

Now, there is ample wing space, a fly loft and an increase in women's stalls in the restroom. Five wheelchair accessible seats are available in the new theater.

Inside the entrance are the Linneman Family Lobby and Bob's Bar in the round designed for socialization before and after the show as well as intermission. At the close of a performance, actors are often available to chat. Space for classes, summer camps and administrative offices are also in the adjacent building.

CSC's outreach program has touched over 50,000 young people and underserved community members each season by taking Shakespeare into schools, parks, community centers and by hosting matinees of mainstage productions.

Its new home is called the Otto M. Budig Theater, reflecting a generous $3 million gift from the local benefactor. Budig is a well-known philanthropist.

Phillips said of the new theater, "One of the things we are known for is a high level of intimacy. Our audience feels that with our resident company of actors as well as their proximity to the stage." Phillips mentioned that action will take place on the thrust of the stage as well as deep into the stage space. Actors will also perform in the aisles and upper gallery.

In his 19th season, award-winning Phillips was named to his current position in 2010. He serves on the executive committee of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, an international organization. Phillips married actor Corinne Mohlenhoff and decided to stay in Cincinnati, making a career at CSC as well as a home with two children.

Executive Director Jay Woffington, former board member who joined the staff in 2012, headed up the design, construction and fundraising for the company's new home. Woffington said, "It's hard to find a space with such attention to the number of details in this region. The challenge is how we make it more inviting."

Directed by Phillips in his first time to stage his vision of the play in twenty years, A MIDSUMMER'S NIGHT DREAM runs from September 8 - 30. It stars CSC mainstays and Equity actors Caitlin McWethy as Helena, Kelly Mengelkoch as Quince, Matthew Lewis Johnson as a hilarious Bottom, Giles Davies in his usual strong rendition as Oberon, Miranda McGee in a signature role as Titania and Sara Clark in an outstanding performance as Puck. In the opening night production, several actors flew around the theater like Peter Pan. ZFX, Inc., provided flying effects.

The rest of the 2017 - 2018 season will include DRACULA, THE ADVENTURES OF Tom Sawyer, GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, OTHELLO, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and NOISES OFF. The Otto M. Budig Foundation sponsors the season.

Several actors, such as Jeremy Dubin, joined the company earlier in their career and worked their way up through the ranks. Dubin is now associate artist and director of creative education. He married Kelly Mengelkoch, CSC ensemble and company manager, in her 13th season. Dubin and other actors will offer an educational presentation before each Shakespeare production on a Thursday evening. He kicked off opening night with a talk about many aspects of A MIDSUMMER'S NIGHT'S DREAM, including passing around a mock-up of the theater set created by resident scenic designer Shannon Moore and renderings of costumes used in the production designed by Amanda McGee.

Another highlight of the CSC 2017 - 2018 season is the weeklong conference of the Shakespeare Theatre Association January 17 - 30 to be held in Cincinnati. This will give CSC some exposure nationally and internationally. Attendees are expected from Shakespeare companies in Chicago, Washington, D.C., London, Ontario, New Jersey, Orlando, Chicago, Australia, Brazil and PraguE. Phillips noted that guests can attend tracks for artistic staff, management, educators and board members.

CSC is a professional resident company dedicated to bringing both Shakespeare and classics to life for audiences of all ages, according to Phillips. "We believe Shakespeare has something for everyone even 400 years after his death."

The theater is a 501 c (3) non-profit organization. Most actors are members of the Actors' Equity Association. CSC is a member of the Shakespeare Theatre Association and the Theatre Communications Group. Approximately 350 performances are done annually.

Adult subscriptions are $266, senior subscriptions are $237 and student subscriptions are $142. A preview subscription is $163. More information is available on the website or by calling 513-381-2273, ext. 1.

Phillips concluded, "A play about the power of love to transform is the best way to celebrate."

Picture: Mikki Schaffner

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From This Author Laura A. Hobson