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Cleveland's Great Lakes Theater Shares Shows With Idaho And Nevada

The story began as a tale of two theaters, in two different states, more than 2,000 miles apart, and both were trying to save money.

For more than 15 years, Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland and Idaho Shakespeare Festival in Boise have been sharing shows.

A couple weeks ago, Great Lakes Theater resident director Victoria Bussert was readying Meredith Wilson's classic, "The Music Man," for opening night at the Hanna Theater in Playhouse Square.

Great Lakes Theater resident director Victoria Bussert directing "The Music Man" inside the Hanna Theatre [ideastream]

It was less than a month after closing that very same show in Boise, Idaho.

In 2002, Great Lakes Theater partnered with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival in an effort to balance its budget.

At the time, Charles Fee was the artistic director for Boise's summer theater. 

After taking a second job with Great Lakes, Fee was looking for a way to save money for the financially strapped company in Cleveland.

Great Lakes Theater's Hanna Theatre marquee [Playhouse Square]

"In looking at this problem with the board, we had to solve these things: How do we bring the cost of production down without sacrificing the quality of our work or the scale of our work?" Fee said. 

He came up with an idea that was simple enough.

"We looked at the seasons between Idaho and Cleveland, and we were producing essentially the same plays. We decided that we should experiment with creating all of our work as an artistic team but play all of our plays in both cities," he said.

Fee's new artistic team, made up of folks like Bussert, had to buy in and travel cross country in order to make the idea work,

"At that point we were willing to try anything. He is such a visionary leader that we all just jumped on board and said, 'Let's go for it,'" Bussert said.

Idaho Shakespeare Festival [Idaho Shakespeare Festival]

Today the process of transferring shows like "The Music Man" from Idaho to Ohio and vice versa is streamlined.

However, it takes a lot of tweaking to retrofit each show for two very different stages.

Inside the Hanna Theatre [Great Lakes Theater]

In Cleveland, Great Lakes is downtown in Cleveland's Playhouse Square district.

But in Boise, "our theater sits right on the Boise River, literally 35 feet from the river. While we're in the city you feel like you've left the city and you're in the country," Fee said.

The cast of Idaho Shakespeare Festival's "The Music Man" [Great Lakes Theater]

Great Lakes directors like Bussert must consider a completely different scenario in Boise than they do when opening in Cleveland.

"The first act of the shows in Boise are in sunlight. We don't really start seeing light cues until act two. So you really have to be aware of that. As a director you have to really control where the audience is looking far more than if you had lights that could help you with that," Bussert said. 

Harold Hill (Alex Syiek) and Marian (Jillian Kates) in "The Music Man" in Idaho Shakespeare Festival [Great Lakes Theater]

When working in Cleveland, Bussert must readjust the show's blocking to create better sight lines for the audience inside the Hanna Theatre.

"In the Hanna because we have all that light control, actually the actors don't have to work quite as hard in the Hanna because they are paired with the light effects. So they each have their own feel, and I think it's really exciting for the acting company to go from one theater to the other," she said. 

The cast of "The Music Man" at the Hanna Theatre [Ken Blaze]

The Boise stage is bigger than the Hanna stage, so Bussert works with the actors rearranging their entrances and exits.

The Hanna's backstage is also smaller than Idaho's, so one of the key props for the set of "The Music Man," the bridge where Harold Hill and Marian, the librarian, first kiss needed some adjustments.

Zeneeta (Ally Carboner) and Tommy (Andrew Nelin) on the footbridge in "The Music Man" at Idaho Shakespeare Festival [Great Lakes Theater]

"So when we got here, and because we have the walls of the theater and we're storing the other show 'Julius Caesar' at the same time, there was no space. So our bridge lost a couple of feet. We had to send it back over to the shop and had it reconfigured so that it would fit on the stage and actually be able to come in from the wings. That was not an issue we had in Idaho," she said.

Zeneeta (Ally Carboner) and Tommy (Andrew Nelin) on the footbridge in "The Music Man" at Great Lakes Theater's Hanna Theatre [Ken Blaze]

Idaho, however, has its own issues.

"We don't have geese flying over when we're doing the show in the Hanna. We do in Boise, and we often have to stop the show. The actors look up and aknowledge the geese or a jet flying over. Pause, wait for it to go by and then start the play again," Fee said. 

The partnership between Boise and Cleveland has become a point of pride.

"Truly there are theaters all over the country who look at Charlie and try to figure out how he did this," Bussert said. 

So much so that a third theater has been added to the fray: Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in Nevada.

Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival [Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival]

"They called me and said, 'hey, come up to Tahoe, and let's talk about how you do this thing between Boise and Cleveland and see if we might be part of it,'" Fee said. 

It is one company, in three states, with a shared vision. Audiences in Northeast Ohio get to be center stage.

Great Lakes Theater stages "The Music Man" until Nov. 10 and Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in repertory through November 3.



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