June 17, 2017by madcap

When I was a kid (back in the 1950s) a short opera with a Christmas theme was broadcast on TV for several Christmas Eves: Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. It was the first television opera, an unusual holiday item, serious and uplifting without the usual treacle or commercialism that seep into Christmas entertainment today.

The premiere of the work about a crippled shepherd boy and his mother and their life-changing encounter with the Three Wise Men was conducted by Thomas Schippers, who served as the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony from 1970 until 1977. In 2012, Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra began a holiday tradition of presenting the work for several evenings in a compelling co-production with Madcap Puppets. It’s become a popular family outing (it’s just 50 minutes long); tonight is the final performance at Xavier University’s Gallagher Center Theater.

Madcap performers bring to life the Wise Men as visually expressive, larger-than-life characters — approximately 10 feet tall. Four dancers from Pones Inc. add a merry element as Amahl (Eric Riedel, 13) dreams of their miraculous encounter — one that eventually restores his crippled leg. Maria Miller, studying voice at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, sings the dramatic role of Amahl’s mother, and four other trained singers give voice to the Wise Men and their Page. Tom Merrill conducts the CCO, and the performance also features a choir of current and alumni members of XU’s Edgecliff Vocal Ensemble and Mason High School.

I attended the Thursday evening performance, a full house. There were lots of children with their parents, all thoroughly enjoying the show. It’s lovely addition to Cincinnati’s holiday offerings. The production, staged by Madcap’s Dylan Shelton, is entertaining and moving. Shelton moderated a brief Q&A after the performance that let kids ask questions about the puppets. Tickets: 513-723-1182, x102.

With Christmas landing on Sunday this year, theaters are dark for Saturday and Sunday. But things pick up again on Monday with a few more performances of A Christmas Carol at the Cincinnati Playhouse and Cinderella: After Ever After at Ensemble Theatre. The Playhouse’s second production, The Second City’s Holidazed and Confused Revue, has been extended to Jan. 7, and Cincinnati Shakespeare’s Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some!) continues through New Year’s Eve. OTR Improv has two more nights of The Naughty List (Dec. 26 and 27) in the Courtyard at Arnold’s Bar & Grill.

If you prefer to stay home but want some theatrical entertainment, tune in to the rebroadcast of Hairspray Live! on NBC on Monday evening, 8-11 p.m. (It aired live on Dec. 7.) The ebullient performance features Kristin Chenoweth, Martin Short, Jennifer Hudson and Harvey Fierstein; a recording of the soundtrack was recently released by Masterworks Broadway/Epic Records.



June 17, 2017by madcap

Melanie was nervous about being a patient at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

But after a behind-the-scenes exploration of the hospital with her Aunt Mel, she realized she had nothing to be afraid of.

Now, through a series of videos, Melanie will share that comfort with every patient who is admitted to the hospital.

Melanie is actually a puppet. She was created by Dylan Shelton, the artistic director for Madcap Puppets, who approached the hospital about producing videos using a puppet to help put children’s minds at ease.

“I know kids often have anxiety before a procedure or surgery; the hospital can be a scary place,” Shelton said. “But when they see a puppet go through something similar, it can calm them before going through whatever it is they have to go through. I’ve worked with Children’s for a number of years, but making videos like this is a first.”



March 15, 2017by madcap

A former Cincinnati Bell switching station, once bustling with operators connecting callers with fat cords plugged into switchboards, is about to receive a second life as the $4 million headquarters of Madcap Puppets.

Mayor John Cranley and a host of officials will offer details at a press conference Thursday of Madcap landing new market tax credits that vault the $4 million project to 90 percent funded – up from 20 percent funding – which gives backers the confidence to announce the project will move forward.

The building is in the heart of Westwood’s business district on Urwiler and Epworth Avenues and a short distance from Westwood Town Hall.

“It’s been a long trip, but in the end we’re going to have the best possible product to go in there,” John Eby, co-founder and board member of Westwood Works. “It’s really going to bring some attention to the community not just from Westwood and the West Side but from all over the region,”

Cincinnati Development Fund, which specializes in funding neighborhood revitalization projects, is providing the federal tax credits, which the U.S. Treasury funded.

“The Bell building will get on the front burner,” Rodger Pille, MadCap’s communications and development director, said. “That tax credit piece is going to start to really move some cogs.”

Madcap, founded in 1981, bought the grand old building in 2012 from the Westwood Community Urban Redevelopment Corp. (WESTCurc) for $1. Pille said that Madcap had raised about $1 million to rehab the building, but the tax credits will make the project a reality.



November 17, 2016by madcap

Dylan Shelton, artistic director, Madcap Puppets


Dylan Shelton is a hands-on leader. Literally.

He has his hands on hammers, paint brushes, construction material and fabrics as he helps build sets and costumes for Madcap Puppets, the 35-year-old theatrical troupe he took over in March.

Fortunately, he says, his hands are clean enough to pick up his phone during an afternoon of shop work and talk about the organization he has been a part of since 2002.

“I actually was interim director for a time in 2005,” said  Shelton, a Wilmington College graduate with a master’s degree in theater from Ohio University. “I then transitioned into creative director, writing our touring shows, designing sets, training puppeteers all that time. That’s still a big part of my responsibility, but I am delegating more.”

Letting go of some of this hands-on puppetry to do more administrative work is proving to be tough.

“It’s a bit of growing pains when you leave behind things you enjoy doing, like training puppeteers, hiring actors from across the country, introducing them to the craft of puppetry,” he said.

This will be his first stint as director in a production the troupe has become well-known for, the chamber opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Performances featuring Madcap puppets, singers and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra are set for Dec. 21-23 at Xavier University.

Shelton performed as one of the larger-than-life puppets in previous productions of “Amahl,” and he has a special affection for the show.

“I see ‘Amahl’ as a sort of emerging tradition,” he said. “We will probably do it every other year, collaborating with Xavier.”

Shelton sees a couple of main goals for the company. “First, to maintain the art of puppetry in the public eye,” Shelton said. Then, longer term, Madcap wants to transition into a permanent space in the revitalizing Westwood business district, possibly to be called the Madcap Puppet and Education Center.

“We want to be building an audience for puppetry in Cincinnati in our own space,” he said. “We want to bring puppet theaters and artists from all over the world and introduce our audiences to them. We want to host puppet festivals, maybe ‘open mic’ nights for artists to create puppet pieces.

“And we’d like to get schools involved. I know there are high schools around here excited about doing their own puppet shows.”

Shelton hopes his company will expand the circle of artists it collaborates with, helping to strengthen Cincinnati’s arts community.

“It’s all about building a puppet culture in Cincinnati,” Shelton said.



January 15, 2015by madcap

Puppets are leading the way to a revitalized Westwood.

Cincinnati’s largest neighborhood aims to transform its historic business district into a “Family Arts District” anchored by headquarters for Madcap Puppets in the old Cincinnati Bell Exchange Building. When the new theater, classrooms and exhibit hall open in 2016, Artistic and Executive Director John Lewandowski says, Madcap expects to draw 40,000 people annually to the space.

Even before it opens, the project is fueling new investment and energy in the business district, which is in the shape of a triangle formed by Montana Avenue at the base, Harrison Avenue on the east and Epworth Avenue on the west.

The City of Cincinnati gave Madcap $500,000 toward its $2.2 million project last spring. Why such a sizable investment?

It’s “art-onomics,” says Mayor John Cranley, riffing on a favorite topic of Cincinnati Parks Director Willie Carden, who talks about “park-onomics” — a park’s ability to attract people and new developments to the area around it.

Cranley says arts-led neighborhood revitalization has worked in Mt. Adams, where audiences are drawn to Playhouse in the Park; in West Price Hill, with its Covedale Theater; and at Music Hall and Ensemble Theatre, which pulled audiences into Over-the-Rhine long before the most recent wave of economic activity there. It’s happening now in the Price Hill’s Incline District, where the 220-seat Warsaw Federal Incline Theater will open in June, and in Kennedy Heights, where a major expansion of the Kennedy Heights Arts Center is under way.

Arts leader to community leader

Lewandowski arrived at Madcap Cincinnati in 2006 from Geneva, Switzerland, knowing one of his jobs would be to find the growing group of puppeteers a new home — something bigger its current space in a former bank on Glenmore Avenue. He put together a sales pitch and shopped the Madcap project around to different neighborhoods.

“We have a lot we can offer a neighborhood … we can be an economic driver,” he told prospective partners.

Though Westwood had been Madcap’s home for all of its 30-plus years, staying there was anything but a sure thing.

Then Westwood became interested in filling the long-empty but architecturally significant 20,000-square-foot Bell Building. With assistance from a $340,000 city grant, Westwood Community Urban Redevelopment Commission (WestCURC) was able to acquire the building and turned it over to Madcap in late 2012.

“It offered us the potential to expand and to have the kinds of series, a theater, an exhibit hall in one location,” Lewandowski says. “And the community was strongly behind us, which was critical for a theater.”

Along the way, Lewandowski became not only Madcap’s advocate but Westwood’s and one of the architects of its Family Arts District. He’s now president of the board of WestCURC.

“One of the many exciting things about the project was that John has stepped so much out of his traditional role as leader of his organization and adopted the role of being a visionary for a community,” says Alecia Kintner, president and CEO of ArtsWave, “and taken on all the challenges that went with that.”

Momentum building, patience required

The old Bell Building where Madcap will make its home is at the top of Westwood’s business district triangle. Westwood Town Hall, with a large green plaza area, sits at the triangle’s base across Montana from Westwood Elementary School and the Westwood Library Branch. Top to bottom, the distance is only about one-tenth of a mile.

The decline of district began as far back as the 1980s. The surrounding neighborhood experienced a loss of population, home ownership and property values and an increase in crime rates.

WestCURC Executive Director Elizabeth Bartley says that when she came to the project as a consultant for Madcap several years ago there were signs of disinvestment and, among neighbors, discouragement. But the Bell Building/Madcap deal produced optimism and renewed community activity.

Her role initially was to create a longitudinal study that would map over time the impact of Madcap’s acquisition of and move into the old Bell Building, along with subsequent changes.

“From a university researcher point of view, it was an amazing opportunity,” says Bartley, part of the School of Planning at the University of Cincinnati. “You rarely get where you can go in and see something where nothing’s happened yet and you can set that baseline and really be able to start understanding specific actions and how they affect change.

“If you have 40,000 people a year coming to one spot in one neighborhood who weren’t going there before … what would that mean?”

Personally, Bartley, a Walnut Hills resident, became excited by what was happening in Westwood and stayed involved. Last summer, she became the first-ever executive director of WestCURC.

Spaces in the business district are beginning to fill in:

• WestCURC recently acquired the old firehouse at the corner of Epworth and Junietta avenues and hopes to attract a restaurant with appeal to families into the space.

• Jim Gunnarson expects to begin construction soon on Westwood’s second brewery, Bridgetown Brew Works, at a large site at 3044 Harrison Ave. once home to Wullenweber Motors. Gunnarson says that when he opens his tasting room he’ll offer four to six of his own beers, along with his own root beer. There’s space to grow into several different phases of the business.

“We searched a long time for an ideal location and ended up in Westwood with a friend’s help,” Gunnarson says. “We are excited to be part of the future success of the community.”

• The brewery will be across the street from the Henke Winery and Restaurant, 3077 Harrison Ave., considered one of the country’s top urban wineries. Henke has been the district’s mainstay for a dozen years.

• The Broadhope Art Collective, with classes for children and adults and artists’ work for sale, moved to 3022 Harrison Ave. in late 2012, around the same time Madcap took possession of the Bell Building.

• The plaza outside Westwood Town Hall is primed for even more activities. The sixth annual Westwood Art Show last September experienced its largest crowd ever, while the second annual Deck the Hall event in late November featured a choral concert showcasing five neighborhood churches. The neighborhood group Westwood Works was involved in both.

Seeing a bigger impact for the arts

Cranley believes an arts-fueled renaissance can be replicated in neighborhoods across the city.

“I think there’s an opportunity in places like Price Hill, Westwood, Madisonville, Evanston, if we can make them safe and offer a destination reason to come there,” Cranley says. “That’s where art is so powerful. It almost acts like destination retail.”

Bartley’s study quotes Americans for the Arts data from 2012: On average, every ticket sold to an arts event generates an additional $26 in spending in the neighborhood, provided there are amenities.

While people are willing to bring restaurants and coffee shops to a neighborhood, Cranley says, the owners will need a steady source of customers to survive.

“It’s these arts institutions that can bring in new customers,” Cranley says. “That’s the essence of art-onomics.”

ArtsWave’s Kintner wants arts groups to understand the role they can play in leading and catalyzing economic activity.

“Any time an organization is looking at facilities, there’s an opportunity to look around at existing buildings … and to see who unlikely partners might be,” she says. “There’s an opportunity to take stock of other community assets we can leverage.”

In Westwood, it starts with the Madcap puppets, their stories and kids giggling at their antics and joining them on stage. What ultimately creates that more vibrant neighborhood is when visitors and residents can eat, shop and participate in activities in and around Town Hall.

Bartley says more young families are moving into Westwood, attracted by strong housing stock at reasonable prices and more places for families to go just makes sense.

“I can’t wait to go to a Family Arts District,” Kintner says.

Where to see Madcap Puppets: The next public performances will feature “Under the Bonsai Tree” at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center March 21 and Cincinnati Art Museum’s Fath Auditorium March 28-29. Tickets are $8. Madcap also tours to schools and to 15-20 states each year. Get more information here.

Madcap’s free shows are a longstanding favorite during ArtsWave’s Sampler weekends, which in 2015 returns as a single weekend of free arts activities March 7-8.



March 14, 2014by madcap

Cincinnati is likely to give $500,000 to the Madcap Puppets for its plan to remodel a Westwood building into a new performance space.

Artistic Director John Lewandowski said the project at the former Bell Telephone Exchange Building on Harrison Avenue will also benefit the community.

“How the arts can lead revitalization in a neighborhood like Westwood and how the arts are a critical part of the fabric of our community that helps keep us together and give us pride in our neighborhood and pride in what we’re doing,” Lewandowski said.

When the building is complete it will have a 200 seat theater, a community education center and an exhibit hall.

Work on the $2 million project is expected to be complete sometime next year although there will be some limited events there this year.

Mayor John Cranley introduced the city funding legislation this week, and the full council could consider it by month’s end.

“The theory for the last 20 or 30 years is that families with kids go to the suburbs, that’s been the theory,” Cranley said.  “Here we’re putting a headquarters for children, for the wonderful activities that are going to happen here in this theater.  We’re going to use that to help repopulate our city, repopulate Westwood and take it to bigger and better places.”

The group said the main stage theater will offer performances every weekend with school shows through the week.

The first Madcap season was in 1981 and it was incorporated as a non-profit in 1984.  Each year more than 200,000 children and their families see a Madcap production.