Season of the Provocateur

Cleveland Public Theatre's new director promises more of the weird and wonderful.

Raymond Bobgan is thinking about breaking the rules. He sits behind a desk covered in Post-it Notes, staring at a thick binder: Inside are the guidelines for a workshop for leaders of nonprofit organizations.

“We’re not supposed to call the office while we’re away at this thing,” he says. “We can’t check in at all.”

His smile bears a hint of mischief. “They can’t mean not at all, can they?”

The new executive/artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre is already adept at rule-breaking. As one of CPT’s resident artists, Bobgan has directed a variety of buzz-worthy, boundary-stretching productions, including “The Confessions of Punch and Judy.” He has also served as CPT’s education director, producing programs such as STEP, a “job and life training program for teens.” Bobgan seemed like the natural choice to take over for former director Randy Rollison.
But to do that, he had to … well … break another rule. One of his own.

Bobgan had already served as co-artistic director with his wife, actress Holly Holsinger, from 1995 to ’97.

“After that, I said, ‘Never again. I will never run another theater,’ ” he laughs.

So what changed?

As his investment in the education program grew, “I found I really enjoyed the role of producer. There’s a sense of ownership, of being a stakeholder.”

The decision to take over may have been easy, but the job itself has posed challenges. Over the past decade, CPT, under the guidance of Rollison and founder James Levin, has undergone a remarkable evolution from a scrappy avant-garde neighborhood theater to one of the most respected small professional theaters in the city. CPT also has made a strong commitment to local artists, and many Cleveland-area designers, actors and playwrights (myself included) now consider the theater something of an artistic home.

But over the past couple of seasons, CPT has faced smaller audiences, some financial missteps, and, some would argue, a move away from the riskier programming that made it unique. Bobgan made money-saving cuts and changes to the rest of 2005-06 season. He then consulted with staff and local theater artists. And in June, he found time to direct “Fefu and Her Friends,” which played to rave reviews and sellout audiences.

The success of “Fefu” bodes well for CPT’s 2006-07 season, one that marks a return to the theater’s edgier roots. “We’ll be doing more productions, for shorter periods of time,” Bobgan says. “And the plays will address more of CPT’s constituents: the gay and lesbian community, women and people of color, political and social justice issues and those interested in edgy, experimental new work.”

Some of the more provocative attractions for this season include: “M4M,” an all-male version of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” which will “echo issues of religious hypocrisy, particularly around sex and the problems of repression.” CPT will also introduce the new “Not Quite Theatre” series: five “event-driven” weekends, featuring different organizations or performing artists in the Gordon Square Theatre.

It’s clear Bobgan still enjoys his role as the occasional provocateur. At a recent meeting with CPT’s board, amid some good-natured grumbling about CPT’s defiantly edgy programming, Bobgan announced, “I promise that there will be two plays that each of you really doesn’t like in this season!”

The Board’s response? Bobgan smiles, “There he goes again.”

(Oh, and he found a way around the “no calling” rule: text messaging.)

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