A New Day for PICT Classic Theatre at the Union Project

web-banner-2It’s a new day and a new venue for PICT Classic Theatre.

“If you want immediacy, you have to change,” says Artistic and Executive Director Alan Stanford.

Now the 19-year-old company moves from the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland to the Union Project in Highland Park, “a mile away is East Liberty, Stanford notes.

It was a rainy day when Stanford first came to Pittsburgh on a tour of Waiting for Godot 10 years ago, but he loved the city immediately.

“Pittsburgh has a wonderful history. You can feel it.” As he’s taking PICT into its second decade, “the city is changing, it’s growing. It’s like a bud that’s ready to burst.”

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PICT’s Artistic and Executive Director, Alan Stanford

Finding a new venue opened new production approaches for Stanford. “When you walk into a theater space the space must inform the audience about itself. When someone is cooking dinner, the first sensation must be in the nose. It whets your appetite.”

Stanford found such just a space and is taking PICT’s “Classics in the Raw” season of five plays to the Union Project’s Great Hall at 801 North Negley Ave (15206).

In a new partnership with PICT, the Union Project builds on its success as an active community venue and space that already engages some 20,000 individuals annually. The Great Hall is an intimate venue with the natural acoustic advantages of a former church worship space. While there’s a reverent vibe similar to PICT’s longtime former spaces in the University of Pittsburgh’s Stephen Foster Memorial, the Union Project seems more woody and resonant–and is even more intimate than the Charity Randall and Henry Heymann Theatres.

Photo courtesy of the Union Project's Facebook page
Photo courtesy of the Union Project’s Facebook page

Stanford calls the Great Hall (pictured above) “a perfect theatre space.” An alley-style stage will place audience members closer than ever to the company members of Pittsburgh’s leading classical company.

“This is a classic theater format, says Stanford. “Plays have been done like this much longer than on the proscenium stage. The format is much more ancient. The action takes place in a central alley with the actors playing to one another instead of 15-35 feet from the stage. Many UK theaters use this style.”

What does that look like at the Union Project? Picture two banks of audience members, facing the central “lane” and one another. Ticket buyers can select seats in four to five rows on either side of the stage area, as shown on the PICT website. The capacity of around 160 seats will vary with each production, more akin to the former Henry Heymann Theatre at Pitt. (True PICT fans may want to secure seats before the reviews for this season as PICT is known for delivering strong productions and acting that garner critical praise.)

“Classic theatre, in its purest sense, is exquisite actors telling enduring stories,” the actor-director states in the season announcement emphasizing how the Union Project fuels the actor-audience connection.

“Our job isn’t to just to entertain–and we hope we do–but that we give the audience the opportunity to examine the play in a fresh way,” Stanford says.“The fact that we are doing five very different plays is going stretch us.”

However, PICT audiences expect “stretching”. The company has never shied away from the rich language of the Irish masters, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and even David Mamet since its first season in 1997.

Stanford, who will direct most of the productions and acts in one, says “I’ve promised to build PICT as a company-based theatre. As much as possible, we use Pittsburgh talent.

“One of the beauties of Pittsburgh Theater is that all the companies have their niches. We aren’t in competition but we complement one another.”

Thus, you won’t likely find these classic plays elsewhere in town this season, only at the Union Project where PICT opens its 19th season of “Classics in the Raw” on September 1 and running through May 20. Themes of self-discovery and identity ripple through the five scripts.

Shirley-Final-WebShirley Valentine by Willy Russell, September 1- 17, showcases the versatile artistry of Karen Baum who was recently seen in Russell’s two-person jewel, Educating Rita. This time she goes solo as Shirley, a disillusioned housewife who is transformed after a life-changing adventure on a Greek island. Alan Stanford directs this season opener. Delightfully inspiring, Shirley is indeed a valentine to every woman and a one-person show filled with humor and the power of being true to oneself.Merchant-Final-Web

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, November 3-19, moves the action to the 1930’s when Jewish moneylender Shylock demands a pound of flesh as a loan repayment. At times misunderstood and always one of the Bard’s best-known plays, Merchant tells interesting and provocative stories of business, loyalty, and love. PICT favorites James FitzGerald as Shylock and Gayle Pazerski as Portia lead the cast in what director Stanford calls “a chamber play.” The audience, seating almost like jurors, may indeed expect to hear timeless words anew.

Lion-Final-WebThe Lion in Winter by James Goldman, December 1-17, invites play-goers to come home to a royally dysfunctional family, led by Stanford himself as King Henry II of England with John Shepard directing. A contemporary classic about a throne up for grabs, an imprisoned queen, and three ambitious sons, Goldman’s play provides some delightfully witty arguments and outrageous maneuvers by the residents of Chinon Castle. Stanford calls the play both beautiful and biting; PICT promises to deliver “just in time for the peace and goodwill that the holiday season brings.”

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, March 23-April 8, may be the oldest play in the season, but Stanford considers his “a Oedipus-Final-notextworld premiere version. I’m doing my trick of reinventing it.” Fate and the tragic wheel will turn in that what Stanford describers as “a play about hubris” . A diverse cast including many Pittsburgh actors is featured  Resonant with lessons from the human story, Oedipus should be part of every theatre-goer’s collective experience.

Sive by John B. Keane (Sharon’s Grave), May 4-20, brings Keane work back to Sive-Final-text-02PICT. This story was inspired by the real hardships and choices of those struggling mid-century County Kerry where the play was first produced. (The title character’s name is the English version of an Irish name meaning “sweet” and rhymes with “hive). Sive is a young woman who might save her family from poverty by marrying an old man, but she loves another. Her story may be derived from ageless tales of star-crossed lovers, but echoes with the true dilemmas of women across cultures.

Appropriately, Stanford conjures the wisdom of a great Irish playwright when discussing PICT’s new season and venue. When George Bernard Shaw wrote his Saint Joan for Sybil Thorndike, he inscribed the script to “Saint Sybil” from Saint Bernard and observed:

“We must always change. Change is everything in the theater.”

Taking personal inspiration from the classics and embracing the possibilities change creates, Stanford concurs: “I’m an old man in a hurry!”

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PICT Classic Theatre opens its 2016-17 season with Shirley Valentine, previewing Sept. 1 and 2, opening night Sat., Sept. 3, and running through Sept. 17. Each production of the PICT season has a three-week run with on post-show Q&A session, a pre-show lecture, and a post-show Irish Nightcap (consult the calendar).

Options for five-show subscriptions (opening nights, standard, and young adult for ages 19-30) and a flexible  pass (for 4 to 14 tickets) are on sale. Also available are single tickets ranging generally from $15 for audience members age 18 and under) or $25 (for age 19-30) to $45 or $50 (depending on day/date of performance). A senior ticket is offered at $35 for those age 65 and over for select shows, as are a family four-pack, group rates and student matinees.

Tickets may be purchased online or call the box office at 412-561-6000. See the PICT website for all details and view a seating chart when you select dates and tickets.