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Boss Ladies of CLE: Playhouse Square CEO Gina Vernaci

Vernaci started as an intern in 1984, before launching the KeyBank Broadway Series - now she is the organization's first female CEO.

CLEVELAND — "A boss lady is somebody who boldly chooses her own direction. She gets stuff done, she often strays from the conventional path and blazes her own trail. She often works towards a higher purpose outside of her own personal success." - Maggie Sullivan, author of "Boss Ladies of CLE" 

Gina Vernaci may be running the show now, but her path to Playhouse Square was an unexpected one.

"I am so proud because it was it's against the odds that I'm here," Vernaci reflected.

"Coming out of a challenging childhood...my siblings and I raised by a single mom who's whose earnings were well below the poverty level...I had no plan. I was an academic disaster. But nonetheless, I knew that I had to figure out my way.

Vernaci's journey took her from that St. Louis childhood to center stage here in Cleveland. She started with Playhouse Square as an intern in 1984. She worked her way up the organization, becoming instrumental in launching the KeyBank Broadway Series- a national success story, before being named CEO in 2019...the first woman to hold the job.

Credit: Playhouse Square/Keith Berr
Gina Vernaci

"My undergraduate degree was [as an] art major, but it led me to finding a small renovated theater in Kansas City, which is where I began my journey, which led me eventually to Cleveland, Ohio, and the chance to just grow up here for the last 37 years," she said. 

But it wasn't all smooth sailing. When she joined Playhouse Square, the organization was going through a difficult period - theaters had closed and were even in danger of demolition.

You can watch the entire interview below:

"The [CEO] said to me, at that time...you know, we're a million dollars in debt. We're not really sure if this is going to work, I can only pay you for three months. There are no guarantees. You really need to think about this. And I, when I got home, I called him and said, I'll see you Monday. This is where I want to be. I just, I just knew it."

Credit: Playhouse Square/Daniel Milner
Gina Vernaci interviews Sara Bareilles during "An Evening with Sara Bareilles" in 2017

Vernaci shared these memories with3News' Sara Shookman recently in a conversation on the Mimi Ohio Theatre stage - where "Choir of Man" continues it's extended run - the first tour in the US to open after the pandemic. And after a challenging year of closures, furloughs, and pivots, it's clear theater is back in Cleveland. Next up is Disney's "The Lion King" in October.

"The opening of that particular musical. It makes me cry any day of the week. You know, when the sun rises, right. It's a new day....the symbolism of what that actually means now," Vernaci said. "It's going to be wonderful, highly emotional and a tremendous privilege that, of all the places that Disney could have gone to...they asked if they could come here because they said, we want to be at Playhouse square. We want to be in Cleveland, Ohio, it's the best place to do this work."

It’s just the start of an exciting rebirth during the venues' centennial season. And Gina is focused on their future stories as well as her own. She says she's excited to get back to spending time with extended family and traveling with her husband. 

Credit: Playhouse Square
Gina and her husband Bill Hilyard with Beverly Bass, the real pilot on whom the character in "Come From Away" is based.

"My personal bucket list…because my name is Gina Maria Christina Vernaci, I've been trying to figure out how to speak Italian. So I've been listening to tapes…wondering if someday I could, you know, spend some time in Italy."

Her 'Boss Lady' advice for anyone else starting out on their own journey?

"Be willing to start at the bottom...I fetched cups of coffee. I took minutes and meetings, like whatever it took to be a part of this, cause this is where I wanted to be...because if I'm going to help you, that's going to also help me learn more," she said. 

"I'm so proud of what Cleveland has here and what we've had the chance to be a part of that."

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