The Tough Act to Follow
After nearly four decades at Playhouse Square — a visionary and unparalleled leader — Gina Vernaci (MS ’03) is set to retire in February 2023, but the impact of her work on Northeast Ohio and its performing arts community will be felt for decades to come.
To say she traveled far from where she started in life profoundly understates the scope of Vernaci’s success. She grew up poor in St. Louis, completed an undergraduate art degree against the odds and arrived at Playhouse Square in 1984, starting out so low on the organizational ladder that her feet hadn’t quite left the ground. Her first position had no title and no apparent future. It was a time of great uncertainty in Cleveland’s theater world. Performance spaces had gone dark, and Playhouse Square was running deep in the red.
Still, Vernaci committed to the organization, and that commitment paid off handsomely. As Playhouse Square built itself up from a struggling organization with a couple of theaters to a cultural powerhouse with 11 performing arts spaces, Vernaci rose through the ranks to become executive producer in 2014. Among other things (such as managing educational programming and outreach), she was responsible for overseeing programming for all Playhouse Square’s performance spaces, annually bringing to the stage 1000 shows that grossed nearly $50 million per year.
Interviewed by The Plain Dealer as she moved into that role eight years ago, Vernaci said she intended “to keep Playhouse Square alive and well.” Instead, she sent the organization into the stratosphere. Under her leadership, the organization’s KeyBank Broadway Series, which she launched, grew from eight to 24 performances per engagement, and the number of season ticket holders skyrocketed to 40,000, giving Cleveland the largest base of touring Broadway subscriptions in the country.
Vernaci rose still further at Playhouse Square, named the organization’s president and COO in 2018 and its first female CEO in 2019. Then, 2020 arrived, and with it perhaps the greatest challenge a CEO could face — steering her organization through the nightmare of COVID-19. When theaters shuttered, the losses were staggering. Yet under Vernaci’s leadership, all planned live performances went virtual and educational programming flourished, serving over 95,000 students, an unprecedented number.
Last summer, as Playhouse Square played host to the first post-shutdown touring production in the U.S. with a run of the musical “The Choir of Man,” Vernaci was interviewed for WKYC-TV’s “Boss Ladies of CLE” series. Asked what it was like to be putting live productions back on the stage, she spoke of the emotional impact it has on people when they can once again experience live performance together — how natural and at the same time profound the experience is — clearly still personally and deeply moved by the power of theater even after all these years.
Dr. Paul Infield (BS ‘09) is a chiropractor based in Euclid, Ohio, but his work took him to the other side of the world for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.