Michael Barakiva is the new Artistic Director of The Cleveland Play House

By RITA KUEBER
Those of us with friends in dazzling locations from LA to London are used to describing the charms of Northeast Ohio to those who may listen, but most likely remain skeptical. Well, we have a new champion for living in the CLE. He’s Michael Barakiva, the new Artistic Director of The Cleveland Play House and the area’s most recent and most enthusiastic convert for living in The Land.
Barakiva, an Armenian/Israeli American director and writer, was born in Haifa, Israel, and raised in suburban New Jersey. He attended Vassar College (Drama/English double major) and then the Juilliard School as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Directing. He has lived in New York City while directing at regional and off-Broadway theaters. He was the Artistic Director of the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY, and the Founding Artistic Director of the theater company Upstart Creatures. He also founded the Leadership Initiative Project which offers support to historically excluded artists, giving them tools to succeed in leadership positions.
Barakiva came to Cleveland to co-direct “Ken Ludwig’s Moriarty: A New Sherlock Holmes Adventure” with Mark Brokaw in April 2023. He returned to direct Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” last October. By early December 2024, he was named the new Artistic Director, taking over from Mark Cuddy, now retired in Rochester, NY, after serving as the Interim Artistic Director for sixteen months.
When asked about living in Cleveland, Barakiva is more than excited. “First, it’s so easy to get from one place to another,” he says. “There’s a big city culture here, a food scene, and there’s diversity. It’s hard for me to live in a city without different people. When I got here, I was so moved. I knew so little about Cleveland,” he states. “I have friends in LA, and when I say I’m coming to see them, they respond, ‘Well, I can leave before 2 or after 6:45.’ People schedule their lives around the traffic.”
A major foodie, he has regularly cooked for 100 guests, knits, practices yoga, and CrossFit, and is a huge gaming enthusiast. He and his husband have been married for eleven years. Rafael Ascencio, an international trade specialist, was a Fulbright scholar at Princeton and currently imports food from Central and South America. “We met online and once in person before I left to direct a tour of “Dirty Dancing,” Barakiva says. “We wrote. Rafael was in New York while I was in LA, Chicago, and Berlin. Now we’re both proud New Yorkers and Clevelanders,” he adds. The couple is working on buying a home in the area.
In addition to the creative forum of the theater, Barakiva is the author of three YA novels, His first novel, “One Man Guy” spent over a year as Goodreads #1 LGBTQ YA Novel. The sequel, “Hold My Hand” was published in 2019. His third book, “Keepers of the Stones and Stars” will be published next month.
What does he tell those friends who live in cities perceived to be more glamorous? “I say come and visit. The city itself will persuade you. I look forward to bringing my New York friends and other national artists to see the glory of this city. We’ll be hiring artists from all over the country, and I’m excited to know the theater artists in the area. I’ve been to Karamu, Dobama, and the Case Western graduate program. I’m deeply impressed by the quality of the artists here.
“We’re starting a residency program,” he adds. “We want theater artists to spend a week here, for the community and to get a mix of ideas in here. And I’m also figuring out how to engage local actors beyond hiring them. How will the institution invest in the artists that call Cleveland home?”
Barakiva believes every theater is free to do whatever production it wants. He points out that CPH doesn’t have an aesthetic mission other than to serve the community. He hints at a possible collaboration with the other large professional theater in town, Great Lakes Theater. “This is a tough moment for our field,” he says. “We’re talking about what a co-production might look like, something that would be good for everybody.”
Other than that he is working on how to bring people back to live theater after the pandemic. “What titles does the community need to see right now?” he asks. “We want people back, and we want to engage them, and thrill them.”
The 2024-25 Cleveland Play House season includes Jane Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice,” “What the Constitution Means to Me,” an Obie-Award-winning comedy, “A Christmas Story,” “Fat Ham” (a Southern queer interpretation of “Hamlet”) “King James” that centers on fan reaction to the success of basketball star LeBron James, and the timeless “Fiddler on the Roof.”