In this 2006 interview, James Levin, a founder of Cleveland Public Theater, talks about his early life in Cleveland, especially his love of the Arts-- even while attending law school in Cleveland. In 1979, upon graduating from law school, he moved to New York to become an actor. His experiences in New York, including acting at Cafe La MaMa, inspired him to return to Cleveland in the early 1980s to create a theater for the Cleveland public. While working as a lawyer during the day, he and others formed "Theater 55" on the east side of Cleveland; later they put on free Shakespeare performances at the Cleveland Zoo; and finally in 1984 they found a permanent venue for the theater now known as Cleveland Public Theater in an old dance hall at 6415 Detroit--across the street from the Gordon Arcade. Levin primarily addresses the development of Cleveland Public Theater from the early 1980s to 2006, but he also talks about Ingenuity Festival and other arts projects.
Levin, James (interviewee)
Souther, Mark (interviewer)
Mark Souther [00:00:00] This is an interview with James Levin. My name is Mark Souther [at Cleveland] State University and the date is [audio garbled] 2006, and I'm here talking with Mr. Levin today about his background in theater and his involvement with Cleveland Public Theatre and the Gordon Square Cultural Arts District and Ingenuity, most recently. If you would, please tell me where and when you were born.
James Levin [00:00:30] I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in October of 1953.
Mark Souther [00:00:36] Where did you attend school?
James Levin [00:00:38] Family grew up... My family lived when I was born in Shaker Heights, and I went to the Shaker Heights public school system, graduated Shaker Heights High School in 1971 and then I bounced around a few colleges and graduated from University of Michigan in 1975. Then I went to... took some time off. Then I attended Case Law School and graduated from there in 1979.
Mark Souther [00:01:05] What got you interested in theater initially?
James Levin [00:01:12] Well there's kind of... Life is complicated and there was probably like a double track. One was, I think, from a social activist perspective, I remember being a little boy and my father took me to the Cleveland Play House and we saw a matinee of Ten Angry Men. Remember the Henry Fonda movie? The Play House did a very good theatrical version of that. It must have been 1963, '64. And I kind of had this idea of theater having significant impact. I was very affected by that play. And then I saw... My family took me to Broadway plays frequently when I was little. Like once a year, it was sort of a big deal we'd go to New York and visit Aunt Florence and Uncle Sid and we'd stay in their apartment in the East Side of New York and then we'd see a play. And I remember seeing Oliver and I remember seeing some other musicals and feeling very deeply affected by it. As I was growing up in Shaker Heights in the late 1960s and early '70s, I, like many 16, 17, and 18-year-old kids in that era, we became kind of very activist oriented with respect to civil rights and the Vietnam War. And I think I began to see theater as a means of expression of outrage and also as a possibility of... as a tool of social change. And that was really my interest in theater early on. It really wasn't from the theatrical point of view; it was more from an activist point of view. But then I have to admit when I was in... And I did just a little bit of theater when I was in college. Very little. However, when I was in law school, I was a terrible law student and I didn't like... Those books were just way too heavy to take home, and I decided that I needed to expand my social life a little bit. So I decided that the theater was a good instrument to do that. So I auditioned for a couple of plays and I did quite a bit of community theater in 1976, '77, '78 around cleveland. I was in a play at something called the Ohio City Players, and there was something at Dobama at their new plays festival, Ursuline College, and a couple other smaller productions here and there. But I was really bitten by the bug and then I took the bar exam in 1979 in July, and the day after I took the bar exam I hitchhiked in New York City to be an actor. So that's how... It was sort of like a double and a deeper kind of longer level. I saw theater as a way of like social change and changing the world. But as a practical everyday world, it was out of the boredom and tedium and distaste for law school and wanted to meet other people besides law students. [laughs].
Mark Souther [00:04:24] You mentioned social activism. Did you get directly involved or was it an interest that ended up finding an outlet, for the time being, in theater?
James Levin [00:04:36] I was definitely in my own small way, as one can't be in a very large way when you're a high school student or even in college, but I was sort of a social activist participating in demonstrations, helping to organize them before I got very involved in theater. When I was in New York, through really amazing strokes of luck I ended up in a resident company at a place called Cafe La MaMa, which is a very storied, acclaimed, off Off Broadway theater. Many well-known people had performed there, and I felt terribly honored to be in this company. And I was... La MaMa, which became a model for Cleveland Public Theatre for sure, had several stages. So if I was performing or rehearsing at La MaMa, sometimes I would peek in at a rehearsal or performance or something else going on, and I was very impressed by plays that were really about social justice and plays that challenged the status quo and plays that were being presented by groups from from the Philippines, and groups from Africa, groups from Argentina. It was just an amazing hotbed of ideas and activism and dialogue. And I think really at that point I began to really understand at a deeper level how theater could really function as a cauldron of social dialogue, if not social change, least a place that could call important questions about the status quo. So I think that kind of sensibility of mine matured and achieved a certain focus while I was at Cafe La MaMa from 1979 to about 1982.
Mark Souther [00:06:27] How unusual was Cafe La MaMa in the sense of being a forum for such ideas, social activist ideas, both in New York and nationally?
James Levin [00:06:40] Well, you know, theaters internationally have always been a place that challenged and explored new ideas. But La MaMa has sort of a history and gravitas of people who have performed there and plays that have evolved there. It's led by a woman named Ellen Stewart, who is still with us, who's just an incredible woman, who is their founding director and their executive director. And she has just created a multi-venue safe place for new works, to not just be presented but to be hatched, to be nurtured, to be in a long rehearsal process. She has created rehearsal spaces for this. I mean, little, little wombs of activity in the Lower East Side of New York that are just hatching this kind of work. And of course, some of it sucks, some of it, you know, is embarrassingly bad, but some of it is incredible. And just the fact that there was a place that can draw artists from all these different cultures and different strata coming together, converging, sharing ideas. I met some amazing people over the loft area where visiting artists stay at La MaMa. I mean, I would hang out there sometimes because some my friends who were in the company I was in were living there and I'd come in and I'd be making pancakes or French toast or something like that or pasta. And it's just amazing people from different cultures. We would have the most amazing, memorable conversations. And it was like going an international journey just standing at the stove making French toast. So that had a great impact on my career. So I'd say it was very unique, to answer your question.
Mark Souther [00:08:30] At what point did that find its way into the seed of an idea for creating your own such theater?
James Levin [00:08:36] Completely. There reached a time in my journey in New York after about three years of being in a resident theater at La MaMa called Cafe... no, sorry, called El Theatro DaDa named after its founder, Dario D'Ambrosi, who's a terrific actor from Rome. I had worked in his company for about two and a half years and for a variety of reasons, some of them family related, some personal, I decided to come back to Cleveland with a very specific idea of trying to launch a theater in the image of La MaMa. And Ellen has been to Cleveland Public Theatre two or three times and she says, This is one of my babies—Cleveland Public Theatre—and she's absolutely right. Cleveland Public Theatre was definitely inspired by Cafe La MaMa.
Mark Souther [00:09:33] So this is late 1970s or early 1980s that we're speaking of when you really got the idea that you...
James Levin [00:09:39] It was the early '80s.
Mark Souther [00:09:41] Early '80s.
James Levin [00:09:41] I came back to Cleveland and started a theater with a loose confederation of people. Kathy Wassel, Lenore Klein, Bill Beck, Jan Brummel, Chuck Kartali, who's a now well-known actor here. Now, we started a theater called Theater 55 because we were going to be at 55th and Euclid where the old WHK building is now, which is now where the Agoura Theater is located. And we had a handshake agreement and things sort of collapsed. So even though we weren't on 55th Street, we were officially called Theater 55 in our corporate papers for a while. Our first production was at the Cleveland Zoo. We launched our production part of our operations with a series of free Shakespeare at the Zoo production starting in 1983. And all this time I had been continuing to look for a venue and I looked... I wanted to be within the city of Cleveland. I wanted to be in a urban area that I felt was on the verge of or at least had the potential of renewal. And I was looking in the Collinwood area. I was looking at the old Commodore Theater. I was looking at the old Olympia Theater at 55th and Broadway. And then I found this space. Somebody told me that the Capitol movie theater was available over on 65th Street just, well, just north of here. And I looked in the Capitol movie theater. Remember, this is now 1980... late 1983, early 1984, and I looked at the Capitol and there was a very small stage with a raked audience area, meaning that there was a slanted floor downward, and part of my idea of the theater space that I wanted had a flat floor because I wanted a space that would be extremely flexible so we could have theater in the round or theater at one end or a theater thrust that would be completely up to the designer and director to configure for each production, similar to a space at La MaMa called The Annex. And I looked at the Capitol movie theater, and I thought, well, this space is cool, it's beautiful, it's falling apart. But the thing about it for me is that you have a raked floor. You can't move the seats around if the floor is raked, you understand, and you have a very small stage because it was built to be a movie theater. And so I said, well, unless we do some massive renovation here, this is not usable for me, but I thought, well, this is kind of a cool area. I'd never been to 65th and Detroit—ever. And I was walking around with a young woman who was involved in our efforts named Sandy Kish. And I remember very distinctly walking a little bit down west on Detroit, and we turned around, crossed the street, and walked east on Detroit across 65th, and there was a man on a folding chair with a large belly and a long white beard and kind of longish hair. He was sitting on this folding chair. And he said to me, I said, hello. He said, you must be looking for the space. And I said, Yes, I am. And he said, Well, it's right upstairs. I want to have a look. And I said, sure. So I went upstairs and this was the 6415 Detroit Avenue space, the second floor of that building, and there were some partitions. It was used... Store partitions like doors and kind of artificial walls. And there was no heat, no electricity, no water or anything like that. But the space was like... was amazing. It had high ceilings. You gotta remember after being in New York for a number of years, every space you worked in had pillars. And to find a pillar-free space was... was nirvana. And this space was an old dance hall that was built in 1919 called the O'Laughlin's Dance Hall back then, and it was incredible. And I said I'll take it. And he said, Really? You don't have to ask your board or anything like that? And I said, Well, I think I have some influence over my board. I think we can probably handle that. He said, Are you with the Boy Scouts, right? And I said, The Boy Scouts? I said, No. He said I thought somebody from the Boy Scouts wanted to look at the space. I said, no, I'm not from the Boy Scouts, I'm with the Cleveland Public Theatre. So anyway, we signed like within a couple of weeks a 10-year lease at very small rent. It's like a hundred fifty dollars a month. Now, you gotta remember that the space had no anything. So we had to renovate it with sweat equity. We had no money either. But we got the church to donate to us a heating system. I was practicing law at the time. I'm a lawyer, so I got clients of mine to come in and help with the plumbing and help with the carpentry and help with the plaster and the ceiling. And so the theater became slowly renovated, really built by mostly criminals. I think was sort of unique in American history in that it was a theater built pretty much by criminal labor. Anyway. So we signed a very cheap lease with very small increments every month. I mean, after every twelve months, it would increase by like ten dollars or fifty dollars. So it was like a hundred fifty dollars a month for twelve months. Then it would go up to two hundred a month for twelve months. And at the end of the five years it was maybe four hundred dollars. Still, four hundred dollars for [something] like that space is ridiculous. And then Halbert who was the landlord, Elmer John Halbert, said, Sure you don't want to buy the building? Why don't you just buy it? I'll sell it to you for like twenty-five, thirty thousand. I said, No. I mean, because we didn't have any money. We exercised the five-year option to renew. See, being a lawyer, I thought I was pretty smart by having these small annual increases, then a five-year option to renew. I thought I was like a very smart guy and I was getting [one] over on John Halbert. Well, at the end of the ten years, he says, Well, I think I'm selling the building. I said, What do you mean? He said, Well, I'm, you know, I'm tired of owning this property. I'm gonna sell it. And I said, Well, can I still buy it for like thirty thousand dollars? He said, Are you kidding? After all the work that you've done to make this building renovated, it's got heat, it's got electricity, it's got water, you got permits. I can sell its building to make a lot of money now. So I was so smart by building this lease in for ten years where we were paying nothing, but I was extremely stupid for not buying the damn thing when I could for thirty thousand dollars. He made me basically pay for the building twice, once for all work we did renovating it and once at the end where we paid, ended up paying a hundred and sixty thousand dollars for it, which doesn't seem like a lot of money in 2006. Back in 1994 though, it seemed like a lot of money. We raised sixty thousand dollars and the City of Cleveland gave us a hundred thousand-dollar loan to buy. That's probably more than you needed to know, but that's how I ended up in that space.
Mark Souther [00:17:23] So this is across the street then, in this space over here, or am I confusing that?
James Levin [00:17:30] Yeah. It's diagonally across the street at 6415.
Mark Souther [00:17:34] And what about the theater that's in this building. Was there ever any interest? Do you ever have an interest in that theater.
James Levin [00:17:41] The Capitol movie theater?
Mark Souther [00:17:42] Well, the one, yeah, that's actually in... That's the Capitol, right? Yeah.
James Levin [00:17:46] Yeah. Well that was the building that I first saw that first drew me here that I rejected because I couldn't use it as a performance space.
Mark Souther [00:17:53] I see, I just... Yeah.
James Levin [00:17:55] Yeah.
Mark Souther [00:17:55] Mm hmm. Okay. At what point then... How did the theater evolve in terms of finding talent initially? Where did the talent come from? How did you sort of build that network when you first came to Cleveland?
James Levin [00:18:12] When I first came to Cleveland, I had an open audition for the theater. The Plain Dealer had a little tiny article that about me coming back from New York. Of course nobody had ever heard of me. I don't know, you know, why they wrote about it, but I was starting a new company and I was holding auditions at Cleveland State at a space called Theater Bridge, which was kind of an unofficial theater at Cleveland State at the time. They let me use this space and I got some very... Some very strong people showed up at that audition, including the people that I had mentioned. Lenore Klein, Kathy Wassel, Bill Beck, Chuck Kartali, etc.. We decided that to get on the map so that nobody would ever... First of all, we didn't have our own space at the time. So here we are. How do we get on the map? Nobody knows we exist. We don't have our own space. What can we do to kind of get on the radar? And we were inspired by another New York event, which was Shakespeare in the Park. Joe Papp did Shakespeare in the Park for, I don't know, 25, 30 years in Central Park. Kathy Wassel I think had this idea and told me about the... what was then the Sohio Amphitheater at the Cleveland Zoo. I went out there and looked at it and I was blown away. You have 450 seats. You have a lawn behind the 450 seats that's reminiscent of Blossom. And you have no programming. You have like a jazz show every third Wednesday and you have kind of a kid's event where, you know, the elephants get up on stage and hiccup or something, and, you know, a little magic show every second Sunday. And I'm thinking, why is there nothing in this amphitheater? It's crazy. So we developed the idea of free Shakespeare at the Zoo as opposed to in the Park. And this is where we had some amazing luck. I had done quite a bit of theater in New York, but I didn't feel like I was equipped to direct Shakespeare. Kathy or Tina Sell who teaches now at Cleveland State, I think. She's at Cleveland State?
Mark Souther [00:20:40] Yeah.
James Levin [00:20:40] Yeah. She was one of the original members of this organization, you should ask her about it. [She] said, you know, there's a guy named Robert Tolaro who just won an Emmy for his work on Moliere. And he's from Cleveland. He's really kind of not doing anything during the summer. His parents live in Parma. Why don't we ask him if he'd be interested in directing? I said, wow, that's an amazing idea. And sure enough, I met with Robert Tolaro and he said, Oh yeah, this is great. Perfect idea. Love to help launch this thing. I don't really need much money because I got this day job. I can't remember, it was a theater-related job that he does during the September through June. And he came on board. We ran into another guy named Robert Stegmiller, who had his own production company, meaning sound and lights. Stegmiller died a couple of years ago. But he got involved, and again, he had state-of-the-art equipment. I mean, his stuff was used when the Rock Hall had their big concert on, like eleven years ago? They used Stegmiller. I mean, this guy can do stadiums, and here he is basically donating equipment and crew because he loved this idea. So then we said, okay, what do you want to do? So we decided we would start off with Midsummer Night's Dream. Midsummer Night's Dream is like sort of everybody's favorite Shakespeare play. But to do it outdoors in this amphitheater by the zoo with the animals bellowing and mooing, whatever they do, in the back, baying, in the background was unbelievable. And the setting of the zoo with kind of the trees and the woods around the amphitheater with kind of the grassy area behind it was just the most idyllic thing you can imagine. We had no trouble getting leads. We had five or six people audition for this play, like Jan Brummel, Bill Beck as Bottom. Jan Brummel played Titania, who was a leading actress, wonderful actor. We had a guy named Larry Seaman as the male lead. We had a young woman do Puck, whose name I can't remember, but these were like terrific actors, all because, you know, the opportunity to do outdoor Shakespeare in front of like a thousand people for a new company? Why not? So it was partly luck, partly because we gave the actors such an incredible opportunity that they were just not going to have anywhere else. And that first year, like so many things, when you really don't know all the problems you're going to deal with. We convinced the Zoo to let us use the amphitheater for free. You had to pay a little bit for security. We had to like... Anyway, we brought in the production equipment and we just had like a magical summer. The mistake I made is that we only had a three day run, a four day run. It was crazy to do all that work for three or four performances, but they were, you know, it was a magical time. The weather was perfect, perfect every day. The production was great. I'm not going to tell you that every single role of every single person was professional quality because it wasn't. But the leads were great. They carried the show Tolaro was an incredible director to work with, pulled it off. And it was the kickoff of Cleveland Public Theatre. We followed up in 1984 with a '50s rock and roll version of Twelfth Night, where we had my clients going up and down through the crowd on motorcycles, because they were all bikers, and we had a live rock and roll band doing Twelfth Night kind of a la Happy Days, 1950s style. We did a succession of free Shakespeare performances through 1988, I believe. And they were... It was great. They weren't all great. You know, some of them were not so good. But all in all... The problem was people had heard of Shakespeare at the Zoo. It was kind of like a brand that people had heard of. They didn't realize it was Cleveland Public Theatre that was presenting it. [laughs] They go, Oh, I've heard of Shakespeare at the Zoo. Cleveland Public Theatre. Was that you guys doing that? Yes. So that was before we understood marketing and branding.
Mark Souther [00:25:07] How did you get involved then in sort of branding this neighborhood? Speaking of branding as, you heard of the cooperative that was called The Arcadia Project at one point, and perhaps, I'm not sure, maybe tell me the connection between that and the Gordon Square Arts District, but it seems that one morphed into the other.
James Levin [00:25:29] Yeah. No, it did completely. Part of the reason I loved... that I wanted to move into 6415 Detroit was because of the space next door. The Gordon Square Theater, as you might know, is the oldest standing theater in Cleveland, built in 1912. Just an amazing space, was very decrepit and condemned back in the '80s and early '90s. And I didn't make the same mistake that I made with 6415, which is renovating it and then buying it. So I was able to obtain the Gordon Square Theater. So suddenly we had not just one building, but a kind of a complex of two spaces. We had so much programming at the time with our youth programing, our working with the Y-Haven guys in recovery with four or five plays in rehearsal and then another three or four in production. We actually came into a situation where even though we had two venues, I felt that we didn't have enough space. So I wanted to obtain the church property just to the east to Cleveland Public Theatre, the old St. Mary's Romanian Orthodox Church. So I'd been in long discussions with what was the warden of that church to secure that. So the idea at that time was to have those two buildings, the church and the parish hall, one as an acoustic music venue, the other as a cabaret theater and as an education venue for our outreach work, the parking lot that separates us, which would also house outdoor theater, and then the upstairs theater and the Gordon Square Theater. We're talking about four interior spaces, then an outdoor one. So I began to think of that, that Cleveland Public Theatre project as Arcadia. Kind of a, you know, environment of great creativity and wonder. Meanwhile, in trying to secure funds for the renovation of Cleveland Public Theatre, I had secured money in 1996, 1998, and 2000 from the State of Ohio, which every two years has a capital projects fund for larger capital projects, renovation projects. I got small amounts of money during these three years and then the idea was that I thought I could get more money and more leverage from certain funders. It was not just representing one organization, but an entire consortium of West Side arts organizations. So Arcadia kind of morphed into something called the West Side Arts Consortium. And by this point, Jeff Ramsey and Bill Whitney made it clear to me that the Capitol movie theater was targeted... was something that they wanted to renovate. Near West Theatre, which is located in Ohio City right now on Bridge Avenue, thinking that this area could become sort of a hotspot of the arts because of the success of Cleveland Public Theatre, decided to also move to this area just west of here at 67th and Detroit. So Detroit Shoreway because of the Capitol movie theater, Near West because of their desire to build a brand-new theater, Spaces art gallery because of some renovations that they had in mind, and Art House, which is an art gallery in the Archwood-Denison [Brooklyn Centre] area, became part of the West Side Arts Consortium as all West Side non-profits who wanted to participate in capital projects. In 2000, too, we got some money, fifty thousand dollars from the State of Ohio, for the West Side Arts Consortium. Then it became clear to me that after many discussions with state legislators and other funders that it wasn't so much these disparate arts organizations in different parts of the West Side that had leverage. It was specific. My argument was much stronger if it was identified with a specific neighborhood. So the West Side Arts Consortium sort of evolved into a three-member consortium of the Gordon Square Arts District, which include the Near West Theatre, Detroit Shoreway with its Capitol movie theater, and CPT. And that's where we're at today.
Mark Souther [00:29:59] Can you back up just for a moment? I want to know a little bit more about the Y-Haven project. From what little I've read about it, it sounds as if it's an outgrowth of your involvement in social activism and desire to work with disadvantaged people, particularly the homeless?
James Levin [00:30:18] Yeah, we've been working with disadvantaged people since the inception of CPT back in the early '80s. I used to do regular workshops with Free Clinic, which had a space called... I had a youth theater group that I used to work with. I live in Ohio City right across from where used to be the Y-Haven at 32nd and Franklin before the Y closed down. And we did a outdoor Shakespeare production in Ohio City next to the county archives building back in nineteen... I think it was '99, '98 or '99. And I went to various nonprofit service organizations in Ohio City saying, Hey, we're doing this free Shakespeare production down the street. I think by then we were actually charging a few dollars, but I said if you say you're from May Dugan [Center] or you're from Catholic Women's Center or from the Y-Haven, just come in and say you're from the center and you get in for free. No questions asked. So a group of guys from the Y-Haven came to see Measure for Measure. And then I ran into Chip Joseph, their executive director, and I said, How'd the men like the show? They said they liked it, but they want to perform. They want you to know, they want to know if you'd be interested in working with them. They're all actors. They're hams. They want to be on stage themselves. And I said, oh, OK. So we started a program. Raymond Bobgan helped me this time, who is now the artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre. We started working with the men in a very intensive way, two, three times a week, for several weeks, where we would just work on basic theater skills. Moving, speaking, telling stories. Then we kind of shifted it to telling their stories. So we did as something, we created a protocol of self-directed scenes where the men would tell their own story, but they weren't allowed to play themselves and we would set it up. So they would be telling very candid, poignant stories about their own... stories of how they became addicted or what they lost during their addiction or their deepest affliction point. And that point where they point where they discovered they had to turn their life around. So the men started telling their stories and we began to develop these stories in a very theatrical way. And then we would work with playwrights and then sculpt all of these stories into a play that we would do at Cleveland Public Theatre and then tour. And we've been doing that annually since 1999. It's one of the projects of which I'm really most proud. And they do beautiful work. And it touches the men very deeply and touches the people in the audience very deeply. So that really just evolved very organically out of the men wanting to get involved in theater.
Mark Souther [00:33:48] I want to move forward. This is sort of an overview. We perhaps in the future could come back and focus in on any one of these areas. I'm interested... I read the Cool Cleveland interview with you that Thomas Mulready did. And, for one thing, I wanted to ask, what year was that done? Do you remember? It's on the web, the Cool Cleveland...
James Levin [00:34:10] It was done... I think was done last year.
Mark Souther [00:34:16] Oh, just last year?
James Levin [00:34:17] It was done in early 2005.
Mark Souther [00:34:24] I was interested in knowing when it was because I was interested in your outlook about, you know, you talked about what the future might hold for Cleveland. You mentioned tourism, which is a personal interest of mine. I do research on tourism. In fact I have a book coming out on New Orleans this fall. I'm interested in your idea of Cleveland's tourist image, because you mentioned in that interview that Cleveland has really marketed itself as the rock and roll city. And you mentioned that you would like to see it moving in a different direction. So I'm interested in, you know, where you stand today on that.
James Levin [00:35:06] I think... I see with my work in the Ingenuity Festival, because I've been meeting more and more people, not so much in the arts field whom I've known already, but people in the field of the Internet technology and other sciences, the biomedical field and computer software and an amazing amount of creativity here. And I think I just wonder if people in most major cities, do they think that their city is somehow special and more gifted? I mean, maybe everybody thinks their city... Maybe that's why all like our own baseball teams. I don't know. But it seems that Cleveland has an inordinate amount of arts, quality arts, here and now I've become completely convinced that there is an amazing amount of entrepreneurial, creative spirit here across the board in science and technology. And I think Cleveland can recreate itself or is in the midst of recreating itself, not just as like the rock and roll city, but as a a place of heralded creativity in both realms of art and technology. And if... One of the missions or goals, I suppose, it's more of a goal, of Ingenuity is to foster an environment where artists and technology workers can collaborate, where technology people can showcase to the artists their creativity. What is going on in their labs right now, what's going on in their minds right now, and share it with people. Of course, I don't know, they might be worried about industrial secrets being stolen and this kind of stuff. I'm sure that's a fear. But if they could sure enough of that with the artist community. When I talk about artists I'm talking about video artists, sculptors, poets, cellists. It could be any type of art that can maybe go in and work with a technology worker and create something new, and these new somethings would then become really the skeletal base of the Ingenuity Festival. Of course, I want to have spectacular art and technology exhibits and I want to achieve a kind of an international profile. But I see the the bones of this festival being the potential collaborations between the artists here and the technology workers here and the industry here, you know, creating exhibits and performances that are even unfathomable right now. Now, if we can celebrate this creativity here, not the Rock Hall, I mean, I shouldn't say not the Rock Hall, along with the Rock Hall, because the Rock Hall's an important thing. Rock and roll is an important part of Cleveland's history. Terry Stewart and his predecessors have done a great job and they're bringing in a half million people a year or more, or two, I can't. I don't know what their numbers are, but a lot of people want to come to Cleveland because the Rock Hall. But I'm convinced a lot of people who want to come, are interested in Cleveland but maybe the Rock Hall isn't enough to bring them. They need one other something. And the museum and the orchestra to a lot of people are just too little, too esoteric. But if they can come here because of something like a festival that really celebrates the creativity here in ways that are educational and fun and mindblowing, like a world's fair kind of environment, they'll come. So I know I'm jumping the gun here, but I really see Ingenuity as a kind of an icon of the new Cleveland in a way where art and technology can really converge in ways that, you know, we can't know right now, and that can be showcased to people from this community and then eventually, like Spoleto, where people would come from all over the world to see what is going on in this crazy festival we do here.
Mark Souther [00:39:16] It seems too, in a way, that this really grows very organically out of Cleveland's tradition as an industrial city. It was always a city of entrepreneurs–
James Levin [00:39:23] Exactly.
Mark Souther [00:39:23] –and industrial activity and creativity.
James Levin [00:39:29] It's absolutely part of our tradition, that entrepreneurial creativity. And I agree and I'm so tired of people talking about, well, if only the steel people would come back, too bad about the car industry. You know, it is too bad. A lot of people lost well-paying jobs. But unfortunately, those jobs are not coming back. And our workforce has to understand this, you know, the new vocabulary and then people like Highland Software and Western Data Comp and Telarc and One Cleveland and Nortech will hire them. But, you know, we've got to move off the, you know, woe is us mentality.
Mark Souther [00:40:08] Can you describe for me the moment, if there was such a thing, when you saw Ingenuity in your mind?
James Levin [00:40:24] It is really... I don't know if there was like one eureka moment. There had been many conversations about arts festivals in Cleveland over the twenty-some years that I directed Cleveland Public Theatre, mostly in the form of, I wonder why there isn't an arts festival. Why don't you think there's an arts festival here? You know, I just came back from the Columbus Arts Festival, and why isn't there one [here]? So there was mostly that. And in 19... in 2004... I'm sorry, in the fall of 2003, I think it was, Thomas Mulready and I had gotten together to talk about the possible arts festival. We're talking about this on and off for years. And then in 2003, I got a call. I think I ran into Dave Gilbert, who is the director of the Sports Commission, and he said, listen, I'm going to be doing this, this amazing sports children's festival, international children's festival. There should be an arts component, don't you think? And I said, yeah. I mean, sure. So we were talking about maybe the arts festival piggybacking on an international children's festival. And then it turned out, as it does sometimes, that maybe there wasn't the funding that Dave Gilbert had imagined. And it turned out that there was no funding for the festival, so we had a great meeting. It became very clear that there was no money behind it. Part of my kind of tenet at Cleveland Public Theatre over the over the years is that I never ask artists to do work for free. We always honor the artist, even back in the old Shakespeare Productions. We gave the artist like twenty bucks even if we had no money. So for me to do an arts festival, no budget was impossible. So then that idea kind of died. Then I went to the children's festival in summer of 2004, just to kind of scope it out, because sometime in spring of 2004, it occurred to me that I still had a lot of interest in creating this festival. So I went down to the children's festival on a July night and I was blown away. There was something about the light off the lake in Cleveland on a summer night that is intangibly beautiful. It has a certain kind of luster in blue that is very hard to describe, but it's very special, magical in a way. And I'm thinking, man, I was not, to be perfectly honest, I was impressed with the International Children's Festival, with what they did with the athletics and the crowds they drew to the different arenas, but I wasn't all that kind of blown away by what I saw downtown that Saturday night. But I really saw great potential. I was imagining if we had really amazing art with high production values and different stages here in this light and we could actually draw people, people will look at Cleveland in a different way. People are not aware of how beautiful this space is on a summer night. And I've been going to Cleveland baseball games since I was like, you know, four. And, you know, so I have been downtown at night. But, you know, when you're on your way to the ballgame, you're on your way to the ballgame and you go to the ballgame and you're on your way back to the car and it's dark and you don't think about it. But just to be around on that Mall on a July evening was very, very special for me. I [suppose] that might be the eureka moment that you're there asking about. That's when I actually was able to envision a festival back in the summer of 2004. Careerwise, I had reached kind of like a pinnacle year in my own life, being 50 just before that. And so I was kind of actively thinking about maybe that it was time to move on from Cleveland Public Theatre. I had run that for over twenty years. It had developed a really strong board and some very strong artists behind it. I thought if there was a time for me to leave Cleveland Public Theatre and go on to something else, that that was the time. So that's when I decided that I was going to leave CPT in terms of running it and I was gonna take on two kind of ambitious projects, one of them being Ingenuity and the other was the Capitol aspect, the Capitol projects aspect, of the Gordon Square Arts District because I felt like you can't run CPT and nurture the renovation of all these spaces and make that happen. And you couldn't do that at the same time as run an arts festival. So the timing worked out very well. And I so I kept very involved, obviously, with the Gordon Square Arts District, and then I launched with the help of Tom Mulready the Ingenuity Festival.
Mark Souther [00:45:10] How did you choose the venues? I find it really interesting the way you were able to use, you know, abandoned buildings and alleys and things of this sort in a part of downtown that has such symbolic value for the city and yet is so widely viewed as beyond hope.
James Levin [00:45:29] I mean, well, Public Square was really easy in a way. I mean, for the first annual Ingenuity Festival, and if we wanted to be the icon of the new Cleveland, we want to celebrate in a way the old Cleveland, and Public Square, being the perfect symbol of the diversity and strength and beauty of Cleveland, was such a... was a terribly obvious place to have our first event. So that was sort of a no-brainer. You know, I remember Euclid Avenue when it was really beautiful and elegant and with all the department stores and... How did...?
Mark Souther [00:46:07] I'm thinking about the 1st Street alley and 668 Euclid and places like that. [cross talk and ambulance siren in background]
James Levin [00:46:09] Well, I spent a lot of time walking up and down Euclid Avenue, and every time there was an empty storefront, I perceived an opportunity as an exhibit space or as a performance space. I don't remember how I walked down that East 1st Street alley. I'm somebody that... I always take a lot of shortcuts when I'm walking or when I'm driving, so I'm sure I went down that East 1st Street alley because I got stuck in traffic and I said, oh, an alley. I cut down it one day and sure enough I became aware of that. Like, what's that? Oh, it's a garbage dump. Hmm. Note to self. I can't really explain it. I spent a lot of time down there. You know, part of my own sort of mindset is to look at spaces like the old dance hall or the Gordon Square Theater and sort of imagine them transformed in certain ways. So that alley seemed to me a very great potential for a performance space and [it] took a lot of arm twisting with the owner of that property and Fat Fish Blue and the City of Cleveland actually agreed to power wash that alley. But that's something that I think we're really building on in the second year because being on Prospect right now, there is even more little nooks and crannies that we're going to be transforming. That's the funnest part of the job is spotting these venues that are ripe for transformation and then making it happen. What could be more fun than that? [laughs]
Mark Souther [00:47:41] I'm interested in the use of the display windows in a way because that's part of the heritage of downtown Cleveland with all the displays that the department stores did, and I'm wondering if you see a future or more of a permanent future for, say, public art and innovation using windows until they become—or even once they've become—buildings that are... [cross talk]
James Levin [00:48:04] Oh, for sure. And I think that's that's already happening. I'm very proud of the fact that we were, I think, kind of instrumental with that happening. I saw in the article... There's an article in the Plain Dealer last Sunday about Exhibit Works, which transforms a lot of the windows in these department stores, and they're doing great work. I felt were were kind of overlooked in that article, but we took windows in Higbee's, in May Company, up and down Euclid Avenue from Public Square to Sixth Street, and put installations, paintings, sculpture in them. We're going to be doing the same thing on Prospect and East 4th. I think it's clearly caught on. I think there's two or three organizations now whose function and mission is to get into those windows and to transform them and I think it's great. I mean, it's such a huge win, makes the streets much more vibrant and viable and interesting, gives artists a chance to exhibit work, gives landlords a chance to draw attention to their empty storefronts. That's great.
Mark Souther [00:49:08] Would you consider it living in the past to have the occasional display that is reflective of, say, like a Halle's window, something that would take people back to the heyday of the department stores?
James Levin [00:49:25] I think that'd be great.
Mark Souther [00:49:26] Along with the innovative...
James Levin [00:49:28] Yeah, I think that I think a terrific idea to integrate some of the classical window displays that a lot of us might remember from our youth with the more innovative film/video dynamic stuff going on right now. I think it'd be great.
Mark Souther [00:49:44] Maybe a 21st-century retrospective of 20th-century windows.
James Levin [00:49:51] I think there is something afoot in that area that I got wind of recently actually, and there might be something like that happening. I think one of the really exciting things about Ingenuity of 2006 is that we're going to, as of right now, looks like we're going back to the May Company. So we're going to be using the Prospect end of the May Company as the performance venue and as an exhibit space. And that space is like Dresden. I mean, whoever went in there moved everything out—the marble floor, the granite. It's really just a concrete cavern right now. But for anybody older than 25, that has memories of going into the May Company with their parents or buying something there over the holidays or whatever, it would be a great thrill, I think, to go into the doors on Prospect Avenue and just walk into that space again and try to imagine what it was like when you were there. So I think the May Company's going to be kind of a magical space this year. And speaking of department stores.
Mark Souther [00:50:48] Why Prospect as opposed to other areas? Because I read an article I think in the Free Times, if I'm not mistaken, several months ago that suggested that it might be in the Flats.
James Levin [00:51:00] We were talking all the time about the Flats. All the time. We were talking about 2006 being the the Flats. We went... Soon after the '05 festival, we went down to the west side [of the river] and we were welcomed and embraced by Jacobs Group, who really wanted us there and were very cool. They showed us a lot of space that I thought was very workable. The problem is I was insistent on using both sides of the river. I wanted there to be activities on the east and west side, east and west banks because the contiguity with downtown I think is very important. So people could be downtown, they could be in the Warehouse District, they could walk down the hill and then being in the Ingenuity Festival. If we're only on the west side, you have that kind of difficult parking issue, like how do I get there, where do I leave my car? And I started envisioning these traffic jams from hell as you get a hundred thousand people, you know, maybe thirty, forty thousand vehicles like coming out of basically two or three thoroughfares. I thought would be a huge mess. But more important than that, I think the contiguity with downtown is very important. So we went to the east side owners and it was very clear that with the Wolstein development still in its nascent stages and the potential of litigation or eminent domain or whatever is going on with the other non-Wolstein property owners, that '06 just was not a good, welcoming time for the Ingenuity, that would be essentially a distraction there. I don't want to be a distraction. I want to be like the main gravitational pull. So we decided that it's just, the time just wasn't right. So then the question is, well, we really wanted to be in the Flats. The timing's not right. Where do we go? We had already made a commitment pretty much in '07 to be at Playhouse Square and Cleveland State campus and in '08 we've been talking to Terri Hamilton Brown and Chris Ronayne about University Circle, particularly if the Euclid Corridor Project—and you probably know more about that than I do—is finished. So by 2008, how cool would it be if we had something in the Arcade and something at Cleveland State and something at 55th and something at University Circle and you have like, you know, 25-cent Euclid Corridor Project cost or whatever, and you get like a dollar, whatever. So we're banking on that. So the question became like, where do we go? I didn't really like the idea of going back to Euclid Avenue, even though it was very successful. Because, A, we thought maybe they were going to be digging Euclid Avenue up because of the Corridor, and, B, if our whole idea is that we become a moveable feast, that could be problematic if we go back to the same place in the second year. Then there would be like this huge expectation that in the third year you'd go back to the same place. I like the idea of reinventing the festival every year. So Prospect is kind of like a little bit of a compromise. We're still in the middle of downtown, of lower downtown. We're able to use East 4th Street again, which was made for Ingenuity. We can use some of the venues we used last year, like the arcades. It still gives us all the nooks and crannies. It's still very available. The public transportation. We're still gonna be transforming what is essentially a lot of vacant buildings into something quite spectacular, I think. So Prospect became sort of like the happy compromise.
Mark Souther [00:54:19] Well, I think I should probably end the interview now. I know you have another meeting to–.
James Levin [00:54:23] Right.
Mark Souther [00:54:23] –get ready for, and so I wanted to thank you for taking a little bit of time to talk with me.
James Levin [00:54:30] You're very welcome. Glad to participate.
Mark Souther [00:54:31] Thanks.
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"James Levin interview, 2006" (2006). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 955018_999010.