Lynn Meyers keeps figuring out what's next for Ensemble Theatre and Over-the-Rhine

When Lynn Meyers was invited back to Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati in 1995, she knew it would be a tough gig. In fact, she was hired essentially to shut down the struggling theater company.
Meyers had become acquainted with several ETC board members when she directed Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in 1991 and Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart in 1994. The Westside native knew lots of local theater professionals and supporters from her time with Playhouse in the Park in the 1980s, where she eventually served as associate artistic director.
Like everything she’s done in life, Meyers threw herself into the job of saving the Over-the-Rhine theater. Her ongoing mantra has always been “Never compromise, never settle. Live each day as if it’s the only one you get.”
That philosophy kept her energized as she retooled an already announced season and began pulling ETC back from the brink. The board had been conducting an erstwhile search for a new artistic leader, but they eventually realized that they already had one — Meyers was officially appointed to the job in time for the 1997 season.
“When I came back in the summer of 1995,” she says, “I was just furious. Nobody was doing anything about Over-the-Rhine.”

"Wow, I wonder what's next?"

Meyers has deep Cincinnati roots. She was born and raised in Bridgetown. As a kid she spent a lot of time in Over-the-Rhine and downtown Cincinnati, since her grandparents worked in the city’s core; her dad was a police officer.
“I remembered walking from Findlay Market to Shillito’s when I was 8 years old,” she says.
The deterioration of OTR in the 1990s was shocking to her. ETC, situated at 1127 Vine St., was surrounded by empty buildings, a pawnshop, drugs and violent street crime. Across the street was a desolate parking lot.
“If I had a kid now, I thought, I wouldn’t let them out of the car,” she recalls.
But she saw the circumstances as a challenge.
“I don’t believe in lost causes,” she says. “If it’s a cause to begin with, then it’s not lost. If you recognize what something can be or that there’s a problem, then that means there’s an answer.
“Over-the-Rhine is an example every single day of the opportunity that’s in the world. For me, it’s a great metaphor for life. You’re going to take some turns in OTR that are gonna be, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ And then you’re going to take some other turns and be surprised. And then you’re going to take a turn and say, ‘Wow, I wonder what’s next?’”
Meyers still isn’t giving up. She never stopped believing in the neighborhood that today is thriving around ETC.
In fact, after two decades Meyers and Ensemble Theatre are stronger than ever. With ETC in the midst of its 30th season, her persistence was precisely what was needed.
She learned those attitudes at an early age from her favorite teacher at Mother of Mercy High School, Sister Mary Carlos.
“She forced me to do things I didn’t want to do,” Meyers says.
She remembers winning a speech competition, getting to the finals but then coming in second. Meyers was invited to the award ceremony, but only to be recognized. She told her teacher, “I don’t think I’m going to go.”
“Why not?” was the tough-minded nun’s quick response.
“Well, I didn’t win,” Meyers said. “I’m not going to give my speech.”
“Not only are you going to go, but you’re going to memorize your speech, because it’s a good thing for you to know,” Sister Mary Carlos said. “You wrote it, and you’ll own it more if you memorize it.”
Every day after school for the week before that event, Meyers worked on the speech, unconvinced it was a worthwhile task. She showed up on the rainy Sunday of the event and received a $50 savings bond. But the winner didn’t make it.
“So they turned to me and said, ‘Well, our runner-up is here. Could you deliver your speech?’ I got up there and did it without a paper because she had made me memorize it,” Meyers says. “That taught me a lot about being prepared and saying ‘Yes’ to things if you’ve got something to offer.”
After graduating from Thomas More College in 1978, Meyers was accepted at the renowned Yale Drama School to pursue an M.F.A. program in directing. But she couldn’t afford the tuition.
Instead, she talked Michael Murray, then the Cincinnati Playhouse’s artistic director, into hiring her as an administrative assistant.
“That job made me think about theater differently,” she says. “Suddenly theater was about raising money. That was an aspect I had never thought of — the business of selling tickets and working with a board. It was a different thing, but I discovered that I liked that business side.”
Taking on opportunities has been a path for Meyers throughout her career.
“A lot of my work came from just answering phone calls,” she says, laughing.
During her time at the Playhouse she fielded a call from a CBS-TV producer who was going to shoot a movie in Cincinnati. He needed someone who could cast local actors.
“Do you know somebody I can hire?” he asked Meyers on the phone.
“You need actors?” she responded. “I said, ‘I can do that.’ Of course, I’d never done it in my life. But I’d set up auditions for the Playhouse and I figured it’s got to be sort of the same. He hired me over the phone.”
They worked on an award-winning 1981 TV movie starring Johnny Cash, The Pride of Jesse Hallam. It’s an experience Meyers recalls fondly.
“It was a marvelous film about adult illiteracy,” she says. “It’s still shown today in camps and mining towns. I loved it. It was the greatest jigsaw puzzle I’ve ever put together, finding the right actors for roles in that film.”
Cash made a deep impression on Meyers.
“The kindness that coursed through his veins, the selflessness,” she says. “He was amazing. He and June did the wrap party, cooked a meal for 100 cast members. I learned so many lessons from him.”
Indeed she did. Today Meyers inspires her staff at ETC and the actors she directs in the same way.
“They put a ‘No’ button on my desk because they think I don’t say ‘No’ enough,” she says. “But if I’d said ‘No’ to that producer when he called about casting, I would never have done any of this.”

"I think anger was a good propelling emotion for me"
Meyers’ reputation as a casting director has involved her in numerous films shot in Greater Cincinnati, including the The Shawshank Redemption in 1994. More recently she handled all the local casting for the Academy Award-nominated Carol featuring Cate Blanchett and for Don Cheadle’s soon-to-be-released film about Miles Davis, Miles Ahead.
Meyers could certainly have said “No” about coming to ETC in 1995 or about hanging around for two years while the board decided whether to close down or move forward. Her freelance career had taken off, and she was busy producing audio books and casting films.
“But at ETC I was working, and we were doing stuff and it was fun,” she says, adding that the effort pays off every time someone walks into the ETC lobby and says, “Who would have ever thought that this could happen in Over-the-Rhine?”
“Well, lots of people did!” Meyers exclaims. “This really wasn’t a surprise to some of us. There were a lot of people before me. But I got angry, and I think anger was a good propelling emotion for me.”
Fueled by a powerful sense of commitment, she hung in, surviving Cincinnati’s so-called riot in April 2001, when police escorted Meyers and her actors out of the Vine Street theater. They were near the disturbance’s flashpoint, an alley where a Cincinnati Police officer had shot Timothy Thomas, an unarmed African-American teen. Those were hard times, and they led many people to question whether ETC’s future should remain in Over-the-Rhine.
No one asks that question today, with ETC in the midst of its 30th season. Meyers selected plays for the current 2015-16 season that weren’t all that celebratory, instead representing issues and concerns that epitomize her passion for justice and emotion, stories that have kept ETC audiences coming back again and again.
She opened with Luna Gale, a painful story about a family at war over custody of a child; it was followed by a delicious comedy, Buyer and Cellar, featuring Nick Cearley, a fine local actor — the kind of professional acting opportunity that’s become another of Meyers’ hallmarks.
For the holidays she reinvented Cinderella, a musical ETC had staged several times in the past. The current production of Grounded, about a female fighter pilot relegated to flying drones, digs into contemporary moral issues, and the upcoming Annapurna will be another show featuring actors whose careers Meyers has championed.
She’s capping the season off with a musical, Violet, that was produced at ETC in 1999, before OTR began its remarkable comeback. Meyers thought it was a show that many people never saw, and its messages about inner beauty and strength are themes she gravitates to repeatedly.

"I don’t want to do the same old thing"
A celebration is surely in order for the 30th anniversary. And so on Feb. 26 Meyers, ETC board members and her staff will celebrate three decades of theater artistry and offer a look at what’s to come.
“I’m thrilled my board was so supportive of this event,” she says. “They said we’re going to do it big or we’re not going to do it.”
The party, themed 30 Rocks!, will be held in the ballroom at Music Hall.
“It had to be in Over-the-Rhine,” Meyers says, “and it had to be at a time in the heart of our season.”
The event will also unveil final plans for an expansion of the theater’s footprint and facility on Vine Street, for which fundraising is complete.
“We’ll actually be showing a fly-around,” Meyers says, to let everyone in attendance see what’s going to change and evolve, enabling ETC to do even more of what keeps Meyers motivated. “Some things miraculously came into focus. We weren’t sure where we’d be in terms of our plans for the building, but now we know.”
30 Rocks! will be an evening of entertainment, too, including a performance by The Wonderettes, the girl-quartet featured in four wildly popular ETC shows. “Our homegrown group,” as Meyers calls them, will be featured in the 8 p.m. presentation about future plans. At 9 p.m. the evening’s headliners will be Over the Rhine, the folk music band that’s carried the neighborhood’s name around the world.
“I love the idea at the end of the day that the work I do adds up to making a difference,” Meyers told me a decade ago. “Cincinnati is a town that keeps reinventing itself. If I didn’t feel like the work was really challenging, I probably wouldn’t be here. I’ll wear the same old clothes and drive the same old car, but I don’t want to do the same old thing.”
Meyers continues to believe that Over-the-Rhine’s rebirth is a metaphor for life and the opportunities that the world holds. Day in and day out she brings her passion to ETC, putting powerful, entertaining stories in front of audiences — and we learn from her work.
Meyers likes to say, “Wow, I wonder what’s next?” You can bet she has a pretty good idea.

Read more articles by Rick Pender.

Rick Pender is an Over-the-Rhine resident with many years of writing, editing, fundraising and public relations experience. He is the theater critic and contributing editor at CityBeat and a regular contributor to WVXU's "Around Cincinnati." Follow him on Twitter @PenderRick.
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