Playhouse Square is a lot of things to a lot of people. Entertainment district, cultural center, home to seven professional resident companies, steward to the City of Cleveland, host of the Broadway series, and a powerhouse of education and community engagement. Playhouse Square’s education projects are beyond extensive, with over a dozen programs for all ages and abilities, and almost all take place year-round. Running these programs are 13 full-time and 13 part-time artists and administrators, all led by Daniel Hahn, vice president of education.
Hahn had the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of the legendary education director, Colleen Porter, who died in 2011. Hahn considers her both a friend and colleague. In his role as education director for Great Lakes Theater, at first, he was giving recommendations for friends who were applying for her position. But the search landed squarely in Hahn’s lap. He was pursued, and multiple conversations with board members and staff were conducted. The lure of creating new programming was strong, but Hahn’s first thought was to be sure his employer would be unharmed by his departure. “Great Lakes hired from within, which is a testament to how good their staff is. I think their education programs are better and brighter than when I was there,” Hahn states. He accepted the position with Playhouse Square, and he celebrates his 10-year work anniversary in April.
His enthusiasm for education programs old and new bubbles over as he describes audiences and opportunities. He points to data that indicates today 200,000 people are served annually by the education programs.The ten live performances for student audiences alone serves 50,000, and many of those students travel to the theater from school via one of 700 free buses. During COVID, programs went virtual. “We took our time and created the highest quality work, tying all the curriculum together, and made it accessible to teachers for $20 per classroom,” Hahn says. “We went from 40,000 participants to 118,000 by the second year of the pandemic – our seven-county area grew to include 23 Ohio counties.”
But at Playhouse Square, education goes much further than an audience populated by students who may or may not be exposed to theater in any other way. The Disney Musical in Schools program is a great example. Here, teaching artists from Playhouse Square go to four underserved public schools every year. “Disney came and trained us on this,” Hahn says. “There’s an application process. Any school in Cuyahoga, Lake or Lorain County with 50 percent of their kids below the poverty line with no theater program can apply.” The kids, third to fifth graders, are part of a 30-minute version of a Disney show like “The Lion King” or “101 Dalmatians.” The teaching artists work for 14 to 15 weeks as they guide volunteers at the school to produce the musical. The schools receive a show kit with scripts, of course, but also a DVD for choreography, and a guidebook with suggested staging.
“For the first couple of weeks we do the heavy lifting,” Hahn says. “By the last week we’re standing around advising. This program is sustainable, so we move on to a new school, leaving that school’s team in place to produce another musical the next year and beyond.” The participating schools are invited to the Ohio Theater to perform one song from their musical immediately after the March board meeting. “You have to be there – 150 performers from each grade school in the lobby, with Simba, and the warthog in the mix. We’re at our best when we open our stages to our community,” he adds.
Another program Hahn is excited to offer is Sensory-Friendly Programming. “I didn’t invent this, but I talked about it in my job interview as something I wanted Playhouse Square to offer,” Hahn says. This program is a way for people with developmental disabilities to attend a live performance. Volunteer experts watch a show and suggest how to make changes to accommodate this audience. Playhouse Square sets up tents and runs pipe and drape to section off the lobby into private areas. Lighting is dimmed. Sound is muted. “We buy tons of supplies – fidget toys and headphones for hearing protection, and we’re able to offer these to parents as needed,” Hahn says. The program serves 9,000 people. Playhouse Square received the Ohio Rehabilitation Award for Excellence, and in 2015 they were recognized at the national level for this program as well.
There are also programs for another special population –kids who have been bitten by the theater bug. Playhouse Square offers master classes not only in acting but in dance, as well as the technical side. Pros from productions like “Beetlejuice” share information about lighting, sound and more. “These are 90-minute master classes from the theater professionals who work on Broadway,” Hahn states. “These are the kind of experiences I wished for when I was in high school.”
Playhouse Square also coordinates the Dazzle Awards, where high school musicals and actors are nominated in a Tony-like award ceremony, and winners go on to compete at a national level. Three thousand kids from 33 schools have participated so far.
The list of education programs goes on: theater fun for preschoolers, for children with Down Syndrome, for homeless Cleveland School District students and their families, plus Family Theater Day. There are Broadway surrounds, special presentations, and don’t forget about producing new work and supporting that work through partnership with Ideastream, the PBS-affiliated television and radio studios in the Playhouse Square complex.
It’s clear Hahn and his team believe in theater for everyone. More, he points to Playhouse Square’s unwavering support of these programs. “I’m blessed to go around the country for conferences at performing arts centers, and always you see these huge posters – images of the upcoming Broadway shows. At Playhouse Square, when audiences walk in from the garage, the first floor-to-ceiling display is about Disney in Schools, Sensory Programming and the Dazzle Awards. It’s the first thing every guest sees, and I don’t take that for granted. Giving away valuable ‘real estate’ to education, it’s clear we’re seeding the next generation.”