One of the biggest things for us with making this kind of theater has always been to shine light in dark places. Long story short, to feed the famine of the spirit that we feel like is at work in our country, my state, my region, our Western society, all those sorts of things.
We feel very strongly that theater has a power to do both of those things and to give a voice to those who might not normally be heard. In a short, messy way, that’s our reason for being.
Then, our mission is to reach out to those people and to give them that space to make that voice heard.
We hate using words like “a safe environment” or “a safe place”, but when we work with young actors, we create a safe place where they can be free from judgment to express themselves. Also, they explore their own ideas and personalities and their own ever-involving individual identities.
When it comes to adults and peers, we explore the depths of their capabilities and what they need and want to say to others. Then, when translating that to an audience, audience viewers get a space to feel and experience things that we maybe don’t give ourselves permission to feel and experience.
Cliffview Players, while a homage to our humble beginnings — I grew up on Cliffview Avenue – sounds like an antiquated sort of name. The name feels very 1950s stock theater to us.
I taught my actors the term in bocca al lupo, which is how Italians say good luck. It means “Into the mouth of the wolf,” which is just the most fitting explanation of what it means to perform that we’ve ever heard. When you wish that to actors, they’re supposed to respond, “Crepi lupo,” or “Crepi il lupo,” which means, “The wolf is going to die.”
You’re wishing the actors that they dive into the mouth of this incredibly dangerous, frightening thing, and the actors say, “The wolf is going to die. We’re going to take it down.” To us, the phrase empowers our actors.
Our performers love the phrase because it’s like this cool, secret thing they get to do that nobody in Kentucky or Cincinnati is teaching them. They all learn “Break a leg” so in bocca al lupo is something really special that young actors associate with us.
Right now, In Bocca’s staff includes myself and stage manager, Rachael Hawkins.
In 1997, even prior to that, my friends and I decided to do a play about the nativity in my basement. We put Baby Jesus in a cooler because we didn’t have a little crux to put him in.
A few years later, hearkening to that, I decided I wanted to do summer writing theater. In 1997, with a bunch of neighborhood kids and a couple friends, we created a version of the Phantom of the Opera in my basement. We fashioned The Phantom’s mask out of a paper plate. The chandelier was made from a basket filled with fake jewels that we hanged from the ceiling.
We performed a couple more basement shows. One year, we wanted to do Robin Hood. As that is a very outdoorsy story, I realized that my backyard was shaped exactly like a proscenium stage, so we decided to move outside and start creating shows outside.
Another year, we chose to do a musical and from there on, we started doing musical theater. We found the sheet music and people who would play the electric keyboard for us. Since we were working with kids who were in a homeschooling network, they started inviting their homeschooling friends to participate. Then, other kids from the community, some homeschoolers, and others from the local school system, got involved.
We started doing full-scale musicals in the backyard. We were doing Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar, and 1776. All of these really advanced stories edited only for content. We only edited them to keep them appropriate for young people, but other than that, we took nothing out of them.
Then, in 2006 or 2007, one of my former teachers, who became the superintendent for the Fort Thomas school system, came and saw our production of Les Miserables.He loved the production and suggested we do a production for the summer enrichment program. He asked me to be a part of that and to come and direct the summer enrichment program at Highlands High School for the school system.
Being ambitious, we decided to stage Peter Pan because it’s a beloved story and is one that you can cast a lot of people in. We actually flew the kids, which was incredibly beautiful, really amazing….and something we will never do again because of the logistical nightmare. The production turned out well and there are no regrets about doing it.
The production turned out to be a really cool thing for the community. Audience members related their stories about the first time they saw Mary Martin playing Peter Pan. We cast a four-year-old for the Tinker Bell role. Initially, we weren’t going to put any kids that young in the show. Then, she showed up to the auditions with a poem memorized. We couldn’t resist that she prepared herself for auditions at the age of four, so we cast her as Tinker Bell.
We produced three musicals with the schools. Then, opting to broaden our range of what we were doing as a company, we left the school system. We began renting space from the Village Players, the local community theater Fort Thomas, Kentucky.
We started doing devised and deconstructed work in their basement theater, which was kind of like starting all over again. Our previous productions had involved casts of 70 to 90 kids. Our first show at Village Players, I had 12 young performers, which was a huge change.
The following year, we featured 15 young actors in a production titled The Maid of Orleans. It was an incredibly beautiful, really moving production of which I was absurdly proud. We explored the challenge of casting Joan of Arc with a female who’s the same age as Joan of Arc. The end result captured something in the character I’d never witnessed and was amazing to watch.
In 2013, we tackled Shakespeare and Spanish language with a production titled Romeo y Margarita. The production featured 30 young actors and had sold-out houses every night. While Village Players is not a huge venue, the theater seats about 100 people and selling out the house is a big deal to the kids.
Which brings us to the present. We’re branching out to produce theater with more than young actors and moving beyond only productions.