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Ensemble Theatre to produce winning PLAY/write! contest script

Steven Strafford's "The Match Game" included in ETC's 2023-24 season.

I can see Jackie Demaline smiling. ThePLAY/write collegiate playwriting competition,funded by her estate after her death in 2018, has produced a play to be staged next season by the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati in Over-the-Rhine.

The Match Game, by Athens resident Steven Strafford, is scheduled to run April 13 through May 5, 2024, says Dee Ann Bryll, Demaline's longtime friend and liaison with the ETC, which administers the contest.

"I am so excited about this and grateful to Lynn Meyers (ETC producing artistic director) and Jared Doren (ETC programming and events manager) for their commitment to this program that was so close to Jackie's heart — something she could give back to aspiring young playwrights and to the Cincinnati theater community that she loved," Bryll says.

Demaline was the Enquirer's theater critic/arts reporter (and my colleague) from 1994 until 2013, when her position was eliminated in a budget cut. She died in June 2018, after a four-year battle with cancer.

Steven Strafford
Courtesy Steven Strafford
Steven Strafford

Strafford, a finalist for the 2021 PLAY/write! prize for his play called Greater Illinois, says he wrote The Match Game as a tribute to his sister-in-law Kimberly Strafford, who died of breast cancer. "She was one of the funniest people I'll ever know," he says.

The Match Game is a comedy about the risk of asking for what you need from your family. The central character, Steph, a woman in her 40s with cancer, needs to find a match for a bone marrow transplant.

"Steph has taken in her estranged father to live with her because he shows signs of dementia, but she doesn't know if he's faking or not. He's a life-long liar and grifter, and it smells like maybe he's making this up. The play follows Steph, her precocious daughter, her mostly absent husband, her truth-telling mom, and her unlucky-in-love brother . . . as they prepare for her mom's birthday party which goes about as far away from what's originally planned as possible," says Strafford, who was encouraged to enter the competition by his Ohio University mentor and advisor, associate playwriting professor Erik Ramsey.

John Kiesewetter
Jackie Demaline

Strafford, an actor and playwright, has just accepted the job as the head of the musical theater program at Ohio University. He lives in Athens with his husband and son.

His first play, a solo show called Methtacular!, premiered at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival in 2012. Greater Illinois will have its world premiere at Playhouse on the Square in Memphis a few months before The Match Game opens at ETC, he says.

"I'm so excited to be working with the people at ETC, and I'm so grateful for the Jackie Demaline Award for being a part of getting this show to the main stage. I'd love for the show to be seen by as many people as possible," he says.

As an actor, Strafford has worked with directors Mike Nichols, Casey Nicholaw and Mary Zimmerman, and performed with Tony Award-winner Lea Salonga, Cathy Rigby and John O'Hurley. He also has done TV, films and commercials.

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.