They call it “Off the Hill.” It’s not just some cutesy name. It’s a statement of philosophy. And, in its own way, it is one of Playhouse in the Park’s most important theatrical undertakings.

At the heart of OTH are nine Playhouse interns—eight actors and one stage manager.

For the actors, the ultimate goal is to score a role in one of the mainstage productions. But for most of the nine months they spend in Cincinnati, they perform in touring shows geared at young audiences. We’re not talking about those flashy, high-tech touring shows that occasionally pop into the area’s largest theaters.

No, this is the nitty-gritty front line of theater.

They’re up before dawn, clamber into a minivan by 7 or 7:30 a.m. and then make their way to as many as three performances in a day. If they’re lucky, they’ll be in an auditorium. But more often than not, the day’s venues will be gyms or lunchrooms or, that wonder of modern educational architecture, the cafetorium.

Compared to the shows that subscribers see in the Playhouse’s two hilltop theaters in Eden Park, these productions aren’t very glamorous.

But for the vast majority of kids who see them, these modest shows are their first encounter with live theater.

And just possibly, if the actors do their job well enough, says Mark Lutwak, the Playhouse’s director of education, it won’t be their last.

“When I started doing work for young people, I was drawn to the need for much higher quality plays for them,” says Lutwak, the former artistic director of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth who left the dreamy climate of Hawaii— “I loved living there,” he says—to come to Cincinnati. “Young people are an amazing audience: sensitive, easily impacted, smart. For all of us who have ever had fantasies about the importance of theater, this really does have an impact.”

Productions like those the interns tour with represent a future for theater, says Lutwak, especially in an era where school involvement in the arts continues to decline.

Performing for children is still looked down on by many actors. They don’t regard it as serious enough. Or demanding enough. And it’s true that shows like the ones OTH do may not become a resume highlight.

But Playhouse interns aren’t called to do fluffery like Pinkalicious or School House Rock. The plays they do are more challenging, more complex.

Britian Seibert admits that she was a little uncertain about doing “children’s theater” when she came to Cincinnati. She is a graduate of Boston University’s vaunted School of Theatre, after all, and she had already spent nine months in a 27-state tour of Romeo and Juliet.

In February 2013, her tour took her through Memphis, Tenn., site of the annual UPTA auditions.

UPTA stands for the Unified Professional Theatre Auditions. Each February, between 80 and 90 professional theaters send representatives to Memphis to see aspiring professional actors, directors and theater technicians.

Seibert auditioned. And soon she was contacted by Lutwak and Playhouse artistic associate Michael Haney, who would later cast her in the Playhouse’s production of A Christmas Carol.

She was intrigued by what she heard.

“I realized that if I came to Cincinnati, I was going to be performing constantly,” says Seibert. Just as important, she would be exposed to dozens of theater professionals who come to Cincinnati to work in the 11 major productions the Playhouse stages every year. The connections, she knew, would be invaluable.

Indeed, she has hardly stopped working since she finished her season at the Playhouse. First came the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. And then, thanks to Haney, she was cast in a production of Lend Me a Tenor at the renowned Lyceum Theatre in Arrow Rock, Mo.

You might think she was eager to put the shows for young people in her past. Hardly.

“It was amazing how enthusiastic the kids were,” she recalls. “And I think the shows were more influential than we realized at the time. I can’t tell you the number of times I had teachers say to me ‘I don’t think you realize what you just gave our students.’”

Typically, the group presents 50 performances each of three different productions.

“Each production has a different age focus,” says Lutwak, noting that the company’s schedule is defined by school schedules and testing. “In the fall, we have a tween-age focused play. They’re pre-adolescents. They’re great audiences. They are smart and understand the world, but they’re not yet overwhelmed by hormones.”

During the winter months, they focus more on high school and middle school students, while the spring is devoted to plays for primary school and older preschool children.

Rico Reid was also a part of last season’s intern company. A Cincinnati native and Walnut Hills High School graduate, he had intended to leave for Chicago as soon as his obligation at the Playhouse was done. But a year of performing nearly every day had broadened his range of acting experiences. And as the Playhouse season came to a close, he found himself with several different job offers.

“I did a show in the Fringe Festival, shot a commercial and then was cast in the first show of the Know Theatre Season,” he says, referring to the regional premiere of Harry & The Thief. He has also been cast in the Know’s next production, Moby Dick, opening Oct, 10.

“Coming to the Playhouse wasn’t anything I had planned,” says Reid. He spent seven years in the military, studied theater and music at Palm Beach Atlantic University and began a career in youth ministry. But he missed the theater. And the fact that the Playhouse internship would give him a chance to continue working with young people was a plus.

“Mark made it very clear about the rigors of being an intern at the Playhouse and about how draining the work would be,” says Reid. The previous season, in fact, two actors dropped out before completing their internships.

Reid is uncertain about where his career will take him. Los Angeles, perhaps. Maybe he will finally make it to Chicago.

But unlike a year ago, he feels prepared for whatever he might encounter. And those thousands of young people he performed for during the past year have had a lot to do with it.

“You never know what you’re going to encounter when the van pulls up to the school,” says Reid. “The space might be great or it might be terrible. The kids might be well prepared or they might have no idea what you’re doing. But I’m proud of what the Playhouse does and puts together for young audiences. If these are the first shows they’re ever going to see, it’s a good way for them to start. These are shows that make lasting impressions. They’ll remember the shows and have positive ideas of what theater can be. I’m proud I got a chance to be part of that.”