Photo by Mikki Schaffner
When D. Lynn Meyers took the helm of Cincinnati’s Ensemble Theatre in the city’s historic Over the Rhine neighborhood, audience members would occasionally hear gunfire outside during the performances. As a precaution, bulletproof glass was installed in the lobby’s windows.
To say Over the Rhine—or OTR, as Cincinnatians fondly refer to the neighborhood—was a rough neighborhood in those days is an understatement. A thriving German immigrant community in the 19th century, OTR had begun a long, steady decline in the mid-20th century. By the 1990s, it was among the most crime-ridden and violent urban areas in the country.
What a profound difference a couple decades have made. Today, OTR, home to one of the largest collections of Italianate, Greek Revival and Queen Anne architecture in the U.S., is flourishing, its stunning buildings with elaborate cornices vibrantly painted and bustling with shops, restaurants and other commercial enterprises. It’s become one of the go-to places for nightlife in Cincinnati. And though a fair share of boarded-up buildings remain, most have large “For Lease” signs prominently displayed, signaling their renovation is soon to come.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
Photo by Hailey Bollinger
And, thanks in no small part to Ensemble Theatre, an explosion in the arts scene is taking place as well. On any given day, it’s possible to attend avant-garde theater, hear world-class music, see a ballet or opera performance, or attend a drawing or painting class—all within a few blocks of each other.
The Cincinnati Ballet performs at Music Hall.
Photo Courtesy of Bergette Photography
Ensemble Theatre itself has recently undergone a $7 million renovation. A remarkable 80 percent of its seasonal subscribers renew each year before they even know what the following season’s lineup will be; they’re confident they will see quality productions that reflect Ensemble’s mission to show plays with a social conscience, such as those touching on the opioid crisis or gender equality. Ensemble also specializes in regional or even national premieres of big-name plays, including next season’s production of the Tony Award-winning musical Fun.
Ensemble’s commitment to the neighborhood is unwavering, too. “Ensemble Theatre has been shaped and formed by Over the Rhine,” says Meyers. “We wouldn’t be who we are if it wasn’t for where we are.”
Taking the Stage
Just a block away, OTR’s Know Theatre of Cincinnati describes itself as an “artistic playground,” producing work that isn’t done anywhere else. It has followed Ensemble Theatre’s lead in showing edgy contemporary plays over the years; think such plays as Angels in America and The Handmaid’s Tale. But as the home of the Cincinnati Fringe Festival each spring, Know also specializes in plays that revel in sheer camp; a recent production featuring time-traveling lesbians serves as an example. And two blocks from Ensemble, the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is celebrating its 25th season of showing plays by the Bard of Avon and other classical works in the brand-new Otto M. Budig Theater. The intimate theater has only six rows of seating, with no seat more than 20 feet from the stage.
Know Theatre of Cincinnati
Photo by Zach Moning
A stone’s throw from the Budig Theater, the magnificent—and gigantic—1878 Music Hall is the home of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, but it also hosts performances by the Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and the May Festival, the oldest choral musical festival in the Western Hemisphere. With so many cultural entities using the building, Music Hall teems with activity throughout the year. An astounding example of High Victorian Gothic architecture, Music Hall immediately grabs attention with its sheer size—it covers more than a quarter-million square feet—but also its steeply pitched gable roof, pointed towers and huge Rose Window facing Washington Park, which hosts many warm-weather festivals. Music Hall has been the site of several important U.S. premieres, including Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as well as the world premieres of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Lincoln Portrait. The popular performers who have graced its stages include Janis Joplin, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Several U.S. presidents have spoken in Music Hall, and in 1880, it was the site of the Democratic Party’s national convention.
Cincinnati Music Hall
Photo Courtesy of the CSO/ Mark Lyons
That history will continue this fall as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 125th season, hosting during the month of October such luminaries as soprano Renee Fleming and even George Gershwin, who will “perform” via a player piano roll recording he made of Rhapsody in Blue. The orchestra will offer accompaniment.
The visual arts are also well represented in OTR with the Art Academy of Cincinnati serving as an anchor. A four-year college of art and design, it also offers community education classes for adults, teens and children and has three public galleries displaying students’ work. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, Washington Park Gallery offers several themed art shows annually, including an upcoming one in partnership with the Cincinnati Chamber Music’s Summer Musik Festival. From July 26 to October 28, prominent visual artists in Cincinnati will display works they’ve created weaving actual violins, cellos and guitars into the artwork. The Jack Ward Gallery sells vintage art posters from around the world, while Art Beyond Boundaries promotes the work of artists with disabilities. On the edge of OTR, inside a former shoe company warehouse, the eight-story-tall Pendleton Art Center houses studio space for more than 200 artists and is an especially popular destination during its Final Fridays event each month when studios are open to the public.
Animated light shows at the city’s BLINK Festival.
Photo Courtesy of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber
It could be argued that OTR itself is a work of art with its resplendent architecture adorned with murals sponsored by ArtWorks Cincinnati, which commissions local artists to create public art across the city. A sizable cluster of these murals can be seen on the walls of OTR, many with local themes. They include Cincinnati Strong Man: Henry Holtgrewe and Mr. Tarbell Tips His Hat, paying homage to a local peanut vendor who once sold his wares at baseball games attired in a tuxedo and top hat. From October 10 to 13, the buildings of OTR and elsewhere in downtown Cincinnati will be festooned with animated light shows for the city’s second BLINK Festival. The first festival in 2017 proved so wildly popular that even more stops have been added this year on the self-guided walking tour that features large-scale projection mapping, murals by international artists, interactive light sculptures and live entertainment.
Buildings come alive with lights during the BLINK Festival.
Photo Courtesy of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber
All of this had its start with a pioneering theater company facing the daunting challenges represented by a rundown, poverty-stricken neighborhood. “Over the Rhine has come so far in the last 20 years,” says Meyers, proudly reviewing the progress of the neighborhood where her grandparents grew up. “Who can guess where we’ll be in another 20 years?”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of AAA World.