Why Torie Wiggins fell in love with Cincinnati's "embrace of the arts"

Actress Torie Wiggins is a self-confessed ham who loves to perform.
She landed in Cincinnati in 1998 at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music to train for a theater career, heading to New York City after graduation. But 15 years later she’s made her home back here and is finding it possible to have an acting career in Cincinnati.
Attending the University of Cincinnati was a bit of an accident for the Atlanta native.
“My best friend, a year older than me, ended up at UC,” Wiggins says. “I wanted to visit her, but my mom said, ‘I’m not paying for any travel unless you audition.’”
Growing up in Atlanta, Wiggins had been onstage since the age of 2 and attended several performing arts schools.
“I asked my friend if UC had a drama program and she said yes,” Wiggins says. “I told my mom I would be auditioning there. That’s how I got the money to come and see my friend.”
Friendship brought her here, but it was CCM’s drama program that grabbed Wiggins and kept her in Cincinnati.
“In my four years,” she says, “I walked right into myself, the self that is a professional black female actress. At every audition, every rehearsal and each class I teach, I am confident that I got the best training there is. I learned about the business and who I am in it. I gained a toolbox of knowledge, and I reach into it every chance I get — in the business of acting and in life.”
She took what she learned to New York City, the mecca for many aspiring young actors.
“I was there for 11 years, finding work and supporting myself,” she says. “I never thought I would come back to Cincinnati.”
She made a brief appearance in 2007 at the Cincinnati Playhouse in its “alteractive” series of avant-garde one-off productions with Your Negro Tour Guide, a one-woman show she developed from the writing of outspoken CityBeat columnist Kathy Y. Wilson. That led to a one-night event at UC and more performances in the 2008 Cincy Fringe Festival. Ensemble Theatre invited her to perform it in rep with another show in 2010.
Wiggins got to know various Cincinnati theater professionals during these visits. Eric Vosmeier, then artistic director at Know Theatre, invited her to consider a role in his production of Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party.
“I was feeling kind of discouraged in New York, creatively blocked,” Wiggins says. “I hadn’t had any auditions. I hadn’t seen anything I wanted to do.”
So she came to Cincinnati for six weeks in 2011.
“They put me up and gave me a per diem, the way you should treat an actor,” she says. “I saw some friends and did a few master classes at CCM. Then Eric said, ‘I have this other script I’d like to use you for. Could you stay a while longer?’”
Wiggins stuck around for Collapse in February 2012 and several more shows at Know Theatre. Cincinnati Shakespeare cast her as Calpurnia in its 2012 production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Next she landed the title role in Ensemble Theatre’s 2013 staging of Black Pearl Sings.
Wiggins found herself thinking, “I’ve worked more here in a year than five in New York.”
“I had the sense that the art scene here was growing, and I really wanted to be a part of it,” she says. “This city was just big enough to find work and small enough to allow me to immerse myself in it.”
She gave up her Brooklyn apartment and found one in Norwood. Nearly three years later, she still lives there.
Wiggins has played some varied roles. She was the March Hare in ETC’s Alice in Wonderland in 2012. She played Cerberus, a dog with mythic dimensions, in the surreal play Pluto for Know Theatre in 2014. A few weeks after Pluto, she was a sassy hotel maid who evolves into a messenger from God in The Mountaintop, a two-character play at ETC about Martin Luther King Jr. the night before his assassination. Last summer she was featured in Know Theatre’s staging of Harry and the Thief.
She’s branching out geographically these days, performing in three recent productions at Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company. Next March she’ll be in the Cincinnati Playhouse’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Cincinnati has become a place that enables Wiggins to have a career as a professional actress without requiring a day job to support herself.
“It has a sense of community,” she explains. “The city embraces the arts. The arts are not just artists. It’s lawyers who sit on boards of theaters and CEOs and executives who donate support to the arts. It’s made up of people who make sure that kids are involved because it’s a major part of the community. That makes Cincinnati a really cool city to live in. It’s enough to make me say I wouldn’t mind staying.”
Beyond her onstage work, Wiggins teaches theater at UC and Miami University and works with the Playhouse’s outreach efforts to area schools. But performing onstage keeps her happy and satisfied.
Here’s something that sets Cincinnati apart for her: “I can be in a coffee shop and a lawyer will come up and tell me he’s seen every show I’ve been in. I don’t know that that happens in other cities. That attracts me to working here. I think it could be attractive to others. I never felt that way in Atlanta or New York. I’ve only felt it here.”
Wiggins might be a ham, but she’s dead serious about her love affair with Cincinnati.
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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.