Blake Robison Chats with 55KRC's Brian Thomas About the State of Cincinnati Arts

April 27, 2020
Natalie Hulla

On Monday, April 20, Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison was a guest on 55KRC THE Talk Station, hosted by Brian Thomas, to discuss the state of arts organizations in Cincinnati right now. Listen to the full audio segment or read a transcription of the interview below.

BRIAN THOMAS: 8:40 right now at 55KRC THE Talk Station. Beautiful morning out there – there’s something to smile about. And something I’ve always praised the city of Cincinnati over … We moved to Chicago right after I graduated from law school – we were there for eight years – and living there had a profound impact on my perception of the city of Cincinnati. I took so much for granted when we moved up there – I mean Cincinnati I took for granted. So, when we moved back, I was like, “Oh, my god.” One of the things that we’ve got in this town – and it is amazing, given a town that’s our size – we’ve got every form of art that you can think of. And it’s really superior-quality stuff – from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to the Shakespeare Company, Ensemble Theatre, we’ve got some great little theatres. And of course, we have the Playhouse in the Park as well, and I have Blake Robison – he’s the Artistic Director for Playhouse – to talk about what’s going on now amid this coronavirus shutdown. Blake, thanks for everything you guys do throughout the year, but it’s a strange year going on right now. Welcome to the program, sir.

BLAKE ROBISON: Nice to be here, Brian. It is strange indeed, isn’t it? You know, like most of the other groups, we had to cancel the very end of our season, and people were looking forward to those shows. But I guess the silver lining there is that it gives us a lot of time to plan for a very busy and active new season. We’re hopeful that everybody will be back in the theatre enjoying the arts after Labor Day.

Blake_02 Mikki Schaffner

Photo of Blake Robison by Mikki Schaffner.


BRIAN:
Yeah, I hope so. And I was looking at some of the budgets out there — thanks to the Business Courier for doing some reporting on this — the arts organizations’ annual budgets range from on the order of half a million dollars up to five million dollars, and they all employ staff and part-time workers and contract artists and things of that nature. You, at least, at Playhouse said you fortunate enough to get through most of your season. How much revenue is the Playhouse out? Are you guys financially stable to make it into the next season?

BLAKE: Yeah, you know, we’re very fortunate to have a significant rainy-day fund that’s been built up over years and years of success. Every time we end with a little extra, we’ve been socking it away. And look outside, it’s pouring now. We had to cancel three shows at the end of the season, and for us – who perform every night – that was a big hit. We were looking at about two million dollars lost. But we’ve been able to shave all that back. We’re applying for one of these SBA loans that many small businesses are going out for, and I think you make a great point: These arts groups are businesses. We have 80 full-time employees and an annual budget of over 12 million dollars. So, these are real jobs for people who live in the Cincinnati area.

BRIAN: Yeah, no question about it… Again, reading these different stories about how coronavirus has impacted this shutdown generally — maybe it’s not the virus itself, it’s our reaction to it (logical or not) — but we don’t think about that or the ripple effect. I mean, who knew that your budgets were so big and that you employed so many people before this kind of thing hit the fan? You’re like, “Oh, my god, I thought they just showed up and practiced, and the next thing you know, the lights are on and I’m sitting there enjoying a show, Blake.”

BLAKE: That’s right, it’s so many people behind the scenes that you’re not aware of, and you’re not supposed to be, but we’re talking everybody from ticket-takers to carpenters and costume-sewers to the administrative people who are doing that work behind the scenes — and that’s before you even get to the actors and the directors and all the creative people onstage.

BRIAN: So, what are those people doing to bide their time right now, Blake?

BLAKE: Well, you know, some of them essentially have a longer summer than they thought they had. This crisis has challenged all of us to think a little more smartly about what we do online. And so, all the arts groups have a very robust online presence right now. Here at the Playhouse, we wanted to find a way to support local artists, local writers, local actors. So, we commissioned 10 local playwrights to write monologues — hopeful monologues — about what’s going on in the world, and then we also used some of our money to hire local actors, give them a little work during this pandemic, and they’re recording those monologues, and you can find them on our website, which is cincyplay.com. You could go to almost any arts group in the Tristate area — go to their website or their social media sites — and you’ll see there’s a lot of content online. So, we are staying busy. We’re trying to give people something to look forward to in the coming months.

BRIAN: We’ll pause for a minute, we’ll return with Blake Robison, Artistic Director of the Playhouse, and before I do that, I just want, on behalf of all my listeners out there, those who plan ahead, those who have I think sound guidance and wisdom insofar as how they treat their hard-earned dollars, I gotta applaud you. I want to applaud you on behalf of my listeners at the Playhouse for having a rainy-day fund, Blake. What a smart — I’m serious, my friend, it’s a good thing, and obviously you’re enjoying the fruits of your frugality over the years. Hold on, we’ll continue more with Blake Robison, Artistic Director at the Playhouse, after these brief words. Be right back.

View more Monologues of Hope here.


BRIAN:
It’s 8:49 right now, 55KRC Talk Station, a very happy Monday to you. Didn’t get a chance to listen to my dad? Pull it up on our podcast, 55KRC.com, the Monday Morning Spleen Vent. Also talked to Jeff Mordock, he’s a justice department reporter at the Washington Times about all these prisoners being released under very, very questionable circumstances. In the meantime, Artistic Director for Playhouse in the Park, Blake Robison on the phone, talking about what artists are doing out there amid the shutdown. We’re gonna find out how we can help out, but going back to your virtual content, Blake, I know you mentioned that you had some monologues that were prepared to talk about how we’re dealing with this, and you have some of your actors reading those. I noticed the Know Theatre is also putting their plays online, or at least they’re doing some virtual content. I’m just curious, Blake, are you charging for it? Because there’s a lot of people in the world who are willing to throw, like, $2.99 at some random movie on Netflix, or rather Amazon. Not a whole lot of money, and sometimes it’s $2.99 well spent, sometimes it’s wasted. But if we could buy a play and watch it home, that’s gotta be better than a movie, with our local artists performing in it. Is there some way you can maybe charge for it, Blake?

BLAKE: Yeah, you know, we did that in the spring. When the pandemic hit, we had to cancel a really, really fun and joyous play we had going called Destiny of Desire. It was a spoof of Latin American soap operas and just an absolute stitch. We were only halfway through the run, so we got some cameras in there — we did a three-camera shoot, just like they do on many TV shows — and we put that out there for a modest fee, so that the people whose tickets got canceled could still see it. Or, if you’re just finding out about it, you could indeed sign up for it online. It was a limited release, so you can see that anymore. But you’re absolutely right — all the other companies in town are doing that sort of thing. There’s a lot of great stuff on YouTube. A lot of great stuff nationally and internationally. Look for some of the local stuff first, that’s really what helps our community.

BRIAN: Yeah, no doubt about it. I’m just thinking, you might even be able to have some fun with it. Like social distancing theatre, where you have a regular play but none of the actors can be within six feet of each other. The lovemaking scenes would be hysterical, Blake, you know?

BLAKE: I think you’re right! You know, a lot of places are now doing stuff on Zoom. You get everybody up there and they’re in their little Brady Bunch boxes —

BRIAN: Right!

BLAKE: That would be a hard way to do a love scene, too, right?

BRIAN: Right! Willy Loman, you know…

BLAKE: Hey, you know, I just want to go back to your comment about our rainy-day fund and make a really important point. We’re only able to do that because of a loyal Cincinnati audience.

BRIAN: Yes.

BLAKE: We’ve got 12,000 season ticketholders. That’s about as many as the Cincinnati Reds have. And the fact that our audiences come back year after year after year — that’s what makes an organization stable.

BRIAN: No question about it. And, of course, you’ve got a lot of patrons of the arts who are willing to of course support organizations like yours because they have an appreciation for the value that the arts bring to our community. That’s the next place I wanted to go — what can people do, other than maybe participating in the virtual events? Perhaps leave their unused tickets with the Playhouse, for example? I presume you’ll be offering a refund for the ones that got canceled, but people don’t have to get the refund back, right, Blake?

BLAKE: That’s right. I mean, we’ll do the refund if you want, but if you can afford it, certainly the best thing you can do for the arts groups is turn that ticket into a donation so that we can turn the money around and support our employees during this difficult time. Another great thing to do is to support ArtsWave. That’s the local, united arts fund that’s sort of United Way for the arts. They’re in the middle of their campaign, and they’re trying to raise $12 million to distribute to all the arts groups, and they do it year after year after year. But of course, times are tight now during this surprising recession. So, if you’ve got a little bit extra, send it to ArtsWave and you can help the entire arts and culture sector.

BRIAN: Blake Robison, Artistic Director for the Playhouse, I appreciate you coming on the program today and talking about what’s going on in these goofy times, and I’ll certainly encourage my listeners to get over to ArtsWave and maybe make a donation if they can, or help in some way. I know there’s a million ways to help out. I have a musician friend who’s a one-man electrical band, he regularly performs around town — he’s doing online concerts from his home, Blake. So, local musicians also — think about it! The Menus – I went to high school with the lead singer for The Menus. I think about him, he can’t do live shows either, so there’s a lot of people hurting in very different ways, but clearly a way to help out with ArtsWave. Blake, thanks for your time, I really appreciate it.

BLAKE: My pleasure, thank you.

BRIAN: Take care of yourself and stay well.