James Levin, Arts Innovator
2012 ROBERT P. BERGMAN PRIZE
Coming of age in the ‘60s, James Levin was motivated by the idealism embodied in John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, as well as literary icon Atticus Finch, to contribute something to his community and the world.
His rabble-rousing days began when he was a student at Shaker Heights High School and the University of Michigan, where he participated in anti-Vietnam War protests. But he wanted a more creative way to initiate social change.
When he came back to Cleveland to study law at Case Western Reserve University, he began acting at various community venues, including Dobama Theatre and the Ohio City Players.
Shortly after earning his law degree and passing the bar, he moved to New York City and became a resident company member at the avant-garde La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club under the tutelage of founder Ellen Stewart for several years.
“I realized you don’t have to be out in the streets or run for office,” he remembers. “It was possible to affect social, political, and cultural discourse through theater.”
Returning to Cleveland in the early ‘80s, James founded his own version of La MaMa in 1982, Cleveland Public Theatre, where he served as its founding Executive/Artistic Director for more than 20 years, producing experimental and cutting-edge theatrical events and developing socially oriented programs to give voice to battered women, homeless men, and people suffering from alcohol and drug addiction or mental health issues, or at-risk children.
He often allowed his indigent civil rights and criminal defense clients a chance to pay their bills by working at CPT.
Under his leadership, CPT also launched many regionally recognized projects such as the American Indian Festival, Danceworks, New Plays Festival, Performance Art Festival, and Vaudeville at CPT.
From the beginning James also saw CPT as an economic development anchor for the then run-down neighborhood surrounding the theater at the corner of West 65th Street and Detroit Avenue on Cleveland’s West Side. In 2004, he co-founded the Gordon Square Arts District to create a concerted effort to revitalize the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.
Massoud Saidpour, director of performing arts, music, and film at the Cleveland Museum of Art, who has known James for nearly 20 years, says: “Whether as the leader of CPT, where he produced so many young theatre artists, or at the helm of the Ingenuity Festival, where he infused vibrancy into downtown Cleveland, he has acted as a conscientious arts administrator who has always put the interests of people and the city front and center.”
In April 2011, due primarily to his time commitment as director of Wooster College’s Center for Entrepreneurship, James resigned from his position of Executive and Artistic Director of Ingenuity Fest, the annual downtown arts and technology festival he had co-founded in 2004.
The festival had taken place in several areas of downtown Cleveland, but by then, he had moved the event to the lower streetcar level of the Detroit-Superior Bridge, which had originally been used for streetcars. Similar to his other projects, Ingenuity Fest brought life to a neglected part of the city’s landscape.
“Part of my M.O. is transforming nontraditional spaces into cool urban exhibit or performance spaces,” he says. Despite the end of funding for his position at Wooster this spring, James always has plenty of projects in the bin to keep him busy. One of his primary projects currently is the Cleveland Bridge Project, in which he hopes to turn the bridge into a year-round facility that would be open to pedestrians and bicyclists. “My vision would be to incorporate some galleries, performance spaces, and maybe some small restaurants,” he explains. The nonprofit he formed to work on this project is now helping to coordinate traffic, parking, and marketing studies to determine its viability.
He is also in the early stages of exploring the potential for a baking company that would employ and train individuals recently released from prison. Additionally, he’s exploring other opportunities to continue teaching.
“I’m almost 60, so maybe my contribution now isn’t one more event, one more play,” he says. “If I could keep working with young people and inspire them to create and push the boundaries, that would be fine with me.”