Ensemble Theatre’s D. Lynn Meyers shares her vision for Vine Street
By Betsy Ross, Contributing Writer
Photos and Video by Madison Schmidt
Ideas come from anywhere. For D. Lynn Meyers, the producing artistic director of Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, they might come from her morning coffee run. Because bringing in productions about subjects that people are talking about is important to her and to Ensemble’s mission.
As you wait in line at the Coffee Emporium on Central Parkway, beware that Meyers may be listening and thinking about how your conversation may end up on her stage a few blocks away.
This season, Meyers is celebrating 20 years leading the ETC.
Originally, she was hired for a three-month stint, just enough time to close the debt-ridden theatre down. Instead, she’s carved out a two-decade career while building ETC into an award-winning catalyst of the Over-the-Rhine renaissance, in the middle of a renaissance of its own.
The physical transformation may have just started a few months ago, but the vision for this next step has been in the works for years.
Meyers has flirted with offers to move the theatre over the years but always declined the opportunities. “ETC isn’t ETC if it’s not in OTR,” said Meyers when we chatted on a foggy weekday morning in the lobby of ETC. “It’s quite simply a different theatre, it has a different mission, it has a different purpose.”
Today, ETC stands as an anchor for arguably Cincinnati’s hottest entertainment district, on the line of the Cincinnati Bell Connector a few blocks from Washington Park, Music Hall and the construction site for the new Cincinnati Shakespeare Company theatre.
Even a visionary like Meyers couldn’t have envisioned that scene 20 years ago.
Meyers grew up on the West Side, where she quickly got an education on differing points of view. Deborah Lynn was raised in a multigenerational household with both her parents and her grandparents living under one roof.
The cast of her childhood would be interesting figures in a play that she might stage: a cop for a father, a trail blazing mother (“one of those women in the 70s who was breaking through glass ceilings”), a civil rights activist for a grandfather and a grandmother named Rosella, nicknamed “Rosie the Riveter” (seriously) who went to work in a war plant in World War II.
What’s up with the ‘D.’ in D. Lynn?
“My grandfather named me Deborah Lynn. When I got to school, there were like 200 Debbie’s and I said ‘nobody calls me Debbie. My name’s Deborah Lynn’ and the nun looked at me squarely in the face and said ‘no, you’re now going to be called Lynn because we have too many Debbie’s.’
“From that point forward, they started calling me Lynn, except at home, (my neighbor still calls me Deborah Lynn). When I got to high school, I realized that I really didn’t like not having any remembrance of my grandfather in my name, because he passed away when I was 9. So I thought well, I’m 13 I can do anything I want, so I put the ‘D’ on there. With the different theatrical unions and societies I belong to, it has actually helped me. I’m sure there’s plenty of Debbie Meyers’ and Deborah Meyers’ and Lynn Meyers’, but there’s not another D. Lynn Meyers.”
While at Mother of Mercy High School, Meyers earned scholarships to prestigious East Coast universities—scholarships that were later pulled when she stood up for a classmate who got pregnant during their senior year and she was later suspended. (Social consciousness is a recurring theme in her life.)
It was in high school that Meyers was first introduced to the arts and theatre--by a nun. At age 15, she was finding her writing chops in a speech writing class and later added a drama class to her schedule. It was in her drama class where she would meet one of the most influential figures in her life: Sister Mary Carlos, a classically trained heiress turned Catholic nun.
Sr. Mary Carlos pushed Lynn to be her best on stage, and off stage.
On stage, Meyers was auditioning and performing in plays with the constant prompting of her teacher. She also began participating in city-wide speech competitions where she would write and memorize her speeches—usually coming in second, losing out to a guy from St. Xavier.
Perhaps this is where Meyers began to understand the power of persistence. If you know Meyers, you know she is persistent in everything she does.
These speech competitions helped Meyers craft her stage presence as well as her preparation for live theatre. Still today, Meyers offers one of the most enthusiastic and welcoming speeches in town, always before each ETC performance.
Show biz was calling or was it?
Since East Coast schools now were out of the question, Meyers went to Thomas More College and graduated in 1977, and then got a job at Playhouse in the Park.
But show biz eventually led Meyers to Los Angeles, where she thought she would settle in.
She was making great money in LA working on films and had started directing in Canada. She was working on big projects. For example in 1994, Meyers cast Shawshank Redemption starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins.
And then the phone rang.
The phone call went something like this: “Come back to Cincinnati and shut down the ETC. You’ll be here for three months.”
Three months has now turned into 20 years.
Once she returned home, Meyers started thinking about her future, about more than just working on films, about making a difference.
And she was angry.
This wasn’t the Vine Street she remembered as a child. On Saturdays, Meyers recalls walking from Findlay Market where her grandfather had a second job on Saturdays to Shillito’s where her grandmother also had a second job on Saturdays. When she returned home, she was angry that children couldn’t safely walk their city streets like she had.
ETC, founded in 1986, had fallen on hard times along with its neighborhood. By the time Meyers came back, it was on its last legs and last dollars. So what to do?
And she had a vision.
Her vision of producing socially conscious theatre in a historic neighborhood began to take shape.
Long-time fans of ETC will remember when Meyers brought in Gary Sandy from WKRP in Cincinnati fame (more about him in a bit) to appear in Warren Leight’s Sideman, the winner of the 1999 Tony Award. The show opened ETC’s 1999-2000 season and put a stake in the ground that ETC would look to new, edgy, groundbreaking performances to build its audiences.
But the civil unrest in the spring of 2001 after the Timothy Thomas shooting ground to a halt any progress ETC had made in bringing people back to the Over-the-Rhine. In April of ’01, the theatre was playing to fewer people in the audience than were on stage.
And the long-term survival of ETC’s reinvention was very much up in the air until Meyers lobbied to bring in a musical based on the story of an East German transsexual for the 2000-2001 season.
Meyers will tell you that Hedwig and the Angry Inch saved ETC with the help of Dick and the late Lois Rosenthal.
She knew she had to shake up the corner of 12th & Vine or ETC wouldn’t likely reopen. Meyers persuaded Lois Rosenthal to listen to the CD of the music in Hedwig with the hopes that the long-time arts benefactors would sponsor the show. An hour later, Dick came downtown with a check to underwrite the entire production so ETC wouldn’t go further in the hole.
Her faith and persuasion were clicking and so was the risky programming. Audiences responded and came back to OTR for Hedwig and more.
Audiences (and donors) were starting to see Meyer’s vision.
That vision is literally being built at this moment, brick by brick, as ETC expands next door and renovates its present space to be more audience-friendly, including an elevator to the top-of-the-house seats. It’s a nearly $7 million project funded by donations, many of them from long-time theatre goers.
When Meyers arrived at ETC to close it 20 years ago, the theatre was $1.7 million in debt. Today, ETC is $1.6 million away from its fund-raising goal having already raised $5 million.
ETC has loyal followers and donors and they trust Meyers. In fact, 80 percent of the ETC subscriber base renewed their subscription last year without knowing what the titles were. That’s trust.
Now that 40 percent of the block will be occupied and utilized by Ensemble Theatre, they have room to grow. Meyers’ vision is a 24/7 ETC: A rehearsal happening in the new building with a production on stage in the main theatre, a party in the lobby while a reading is happening in the new office space; at the same time there’s a production meeting in the back of the offices.
And she’s responsible for Gary Sandy’s ‘smedium’ t-shirts
Meyers’ first job, at Playhouse in the Park, gave her connections she never saw coming. One day the phone rang at the Playhouse, a call from long-time soap opera actor and Dayton native Gary Sandy.
Sandy, a fan of the Playhouse, was trying to use his newly found fame to garner free Cincinnati stuff for his new show, WKRP in Cincinnati. Since Meyers worked most evenings at the theatre, she hadn’t seen the show nor did she know who Sandy was.
With her own money, Meyers sent a handful of Cincinnati shirts to L.A. only to receive a call the next week from Sandy: “The shirts are great but are the wrong size.” Out went another box of t-shirts from Cincinnati to L.A., starting a friendship between Sandy and Meyers that endures today.
Another call to the Playhouse resulted in Meyers’ current side job: Casting director for Cincinnati’s ever-growing motion picture business. From Carol to Miles Ahead to Gotti and more. That gig began with a phone call from the producer of The Pride of Jesse Hallam, a CBS movie starring Johnny Cash as an illiterate coal miner who moved to Cincinnati and eventually learned to read.
Meyers was asked to coordinate the local casting for the TV movie. It was her first casting gig and she had no experience in this role. All she knew was they were going to pay her to do it and she knew a bunch of actors who needed jobs. And that’s how her casting career began and now totals 25 casting credits.
Cincinnati’s deep local talent pool that helps Meyers cast major motion pictures also helps her develop talent for ETC.
The talent base here helps reassure Meyers that ETC will thrive and grow for decades to come.
Here’s to more phone calls from donors to help Meyers and ETC reach their goal of $1.6 million.
A national honor from the Casting Society of America
On Thursday, Jan. 19, Meyers was honored as a finalist for the Artios Award from the Casting Society of America for her casting work on “Goat,” one of Film Cincinnati’s 2016 representatives at the Sundance Film Festival. Meyers was nominated with Susan Shopmaker for their work in the movie, starring Nick Jonas and James Franco. Criteria are originality, creativity and the contribution of casting to the overall quality of the project.
Meyers has cast every feature film shot in the region over the last three years, including Oscar-nominated Carol, Miles Ahead, A Kind of Murder, UFO, Curvature, Gotti and The Public, the Emilio Estevez-Alec Baldwin-Taylor Schilling movie that just started production.
Fun fact: “Artios” comes from the Greek word meaning “perfectly fitting.”