Artist Spotlight: Leon Zionts

Headshot (Amy Smith Photography)

Leon Zionts and I begin our interview, in a Starbucks on the South Side, as he tells me the etymology of his name, Zionts. “It means one who dwelled at the base of Mount Zion.” Oh my, I think to myself, and dunk my tea bag nervously in my hot water. I knew he had theaters from Jerusalem on his résumé, was this guy born in Israel?

“Really? You think that was a thing?” I ask him casually; terrified I did not come prepared for this interview.

“No, no, no. Romantically, yes, it means ‘one who dwelled at the base of Mount Zion.’ But it actually means Polish for hair or rabbit.”

Leon is quick to put me at ease, making me laugh with stories of our hometown area of Wheeling, West Virginia, and telling me the specifics of how he met his wife in Jerusalem. How all of his siblings met their spouses in the Holy Land. He is kind and full of details, like names and places from over twenty years ago. As we continue talking, he is still full of names and places and details as minute as you can imagine, only related to contemporary Pittsburgh theatre. I’m reminded of one of three personality types author Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point: “Sprinkled among every walk of life, in other words, are a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances. They are Connectors.” In the tipping point of a social epidemic, Leon Zionts would be a Connector: ever useful, resourceful, always connecting one person to another, or even one idea to another. Meanwhile, he says he thinks he’d be like Michael Keaton inNight Shift, and repeats earnestly, “I’m an idea man.”

Ideally, for those in the theatre, actors especially, Leon would have designed your education a little differently than the conservatory regimen or even the typical liberal arts degree.

“I loved learning, because as an actor, what I love, is that you learn so much about so much… what you really should do is spend your first two years in a book store. The reason you’ll read so much is because you’ll never meet a Shakespearean character now, you’ll never meet Agamemnon, and you’ll never meet the great Greek and Roman characters in reality. So you read about them, the classics, and then spend your third year out working somewhere meeting everyone else you would never meet. And then after that you take a bunch of technical classes on how to be an actor, but you’ve filled up the vessel with a lot of important things.”

Or, you could do the B.A. in theatre, study abroad in Israel, meet the love of your life, return and graduate to explore the Washington D.C. theatre like a kid in a candy store… then give it up and go to law school, spend twelve years working in commercial real estate and transactional law, start a family and basically live your life…until a heart attack at thirty-seven or a similar near death experience propels you to return to the musical theatre stage in order to bring more joy into life. Then, if you’re feeling up to it, open a theatre company, because you have plenty of experience.

That’s what he did.

There is definitely more than one way to fill up your vessel, but Leon’s law degree and years of experience in the field seem to have uniquely suited him for a life of producing and running Front Porch Theatricals. Though initially, he tells me it mainly informed his handling of Actor’s Equity contracts and leasing space for rehearsals and performance, he continues to explain that he is also very risk aware.

“One of the things lawyers do is identify risk. The lawyers don’t necessarily tell you what the risk quotient should be – because [it depends] if you’re a brave person with a high tolerance of risk – but the lawyer will tell you: this may be a great business deal, but it’s a terrible agreement. If everything works out perfectly you stand to do very well. Be aware things may not work out perfectly.”

He explains how he and his Front Porch business partners, Bruce E. G. Smith and Nancy Zionts, were diligently risk averse in the beginning of their theatre company adventure. They spent two years developing the script and music to locally written and Pittsburgh themed musical Only Me before its debut at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater.

“Bruce and Nancy are great thinkers; they’re very organized, they write wonderful grants. Nancy is in the grant business, both as a grantee and a funder. That was the most important thing to our development. We wouldn’t do Only Me, if we knew we weren’t going to make any money…So, until we knew that we had everything in line, that with just selling fifty seats a night, for a five night run, that we would break even, we said yes, pull the trigger.”

Front Porch did more than break even, thankfully, and so were able to put this profit into the production cost of their next show. Which wasn’t even possible until a few years later with Next to Normal in 2012 co-produced with Carrnivale Theatrics.

He first met Justin Fortunato, Robert Neumeyer, and the minds behind Carrnivale Theatrics when they asked him to help with their production of Ragtime and fill in for the role of immigrant Tateh. He compares the role of Ragtime’s Tateh to the well-known Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, whom he played for the Stage 62**, “Tevye is about escaping, breaking free, and surviving. Tateh was about how to succeed once you actually get there.”

More than a few truthful acting moments resonated with Leon, and he describes to me just how much that experience taught him about learning from and then trusting key people. “It’s like the wand choosing the wizard,” he tells me, and I gawk at his unsolicited Harry Potter reference, “Or maybe we just got lucky.”

Front Porch Theatricals and Carrnivale Theatrics worked together closely on their next few productions, including In The Heights. Front Porch doesn’t seem to be propped up only on luck, especially since they’ve taken every opportunity to grow. “You have to be a pretty good long range thinker,” says Leon. Their association with Carrnivale proved beneficial in the long run. The older producers learned tact artistic standards from the young talented directors, while the young directors learned crucial business savvy Smith and Zionts, like how not to go broke. As so many young theatre start-ups do. What’s their biggest mistake, Leon?

“Without being condescending, it’s just ignorance. It’s not ignorance of the base kind or that they’re not intelligent. It’s sometimes hard to remember that this is a business and there are a lot of aspects that go into creating a successful theatre company.”

Leon explains to me about the necessity of using a fiscal sponsor until you can become your own 501 [c] 3. Front Porch Theatricals still uses a fiscal sponsor, but hopes to make the transition soon, within the next year. “Which will enable us to approach foundations and corporations who want to make tax-free donations, and approach individuals who would care to support a young theatre company. Until then, in order to give them a tax letter that is deductible, we need to work through somebody.”

The first show Front Porch Theatricals did without association with Carrnivale Theatrics was last year’s production of Parade. Again, financially a success. That’s important, yes, but what Leon cares about even more is the reception. His primary love is musical theatre, but he doesn’t take on easy, happy stories. Front Porch does difficult, but important stories and aims to do them with the highest artistic standard. Leon loves that he can do this in Pittsburgh.

“If you’ve touched Pittsburgh, we want to promote you and see you come into your own. We want to help…that’s our mission.”

But he’s a realistic man, and he goes on to make a honest statement, that makes sense as he has a daughter far away in London, “One of our goals is not to keep people in Pittsburgh, but to keep people in Pittsburgh longer. You shouldn’t say to an actor, ‘Don’t go to New York.’ If New York is your dream, you should go to New York. But you shouldn’t go too soon. You go too soon and you may never work there as an actor. Stay in Pittsburgh, get good parts, build a résumé, get exposed to people who can see you, because you know if Ted Pappas sees you, that helps a lot.”

Leon is genuinely supportive of anyone starting out in the theatre world, as evidenced by his and his partners’ investment in their Internship Program. Interns get paid a stipend proportional to how much of the production process they participate in, hands-on experience in their chosen area of production, and mentorship with the professionals Front Porch hires to work on their productions.

“Pittsburgh is unique, I think, in being so supportive of anyone artistic…Pittsburgh Musical Theater* rents us space and treats us very fairly. We need something: they’re there…the people at the Hazlett, our landlord, they’re so helpful… If you need something and someone has it, they’ll get it to you. If you have a question, they’re happy to answer. If you have a crisis, you can talk to people and they’ll sit in.”

After Parade last year, a friend of his told Leon in the bar afterward that they were surprised that the expected talent gap, between the professional Equity actors and the local actors, was not there. Leon is certain it’s at least partly because of the strength of local university graduates. Sometimes, he admits, he wishes he had a conservatory background because it would have made his beginning and return to theatre easier. But he doesn’t regret his academic background, legal background, or any other part of his background for a second.

“The actors I respect the most are almost renaissance people. They’re very interesting actors and they’re extraordinarily talented, but what they really are is diverse. A lot of actors focus on acting, but what they also need to focus on is the front page of the newspaper, the editorial page of the newspaper, and what’s happening in the world, because you are a vessel for all of that. You need to tell that story.”

He says he knows talent when he sees it. It’s thrilling to play pretend, like you’ve got one over on the audience, but it’s even more thrilling to “to be honest, to not act, to not pretend, to not posture, to not look at yourself or at the director to see if she approved of what you’re doing.”

He experienced this when he got to work as an actor Front Porch Theatrical’s first production of Only Me, he said it’s amazing when you find someone who “loves you enough and respects your talent enough to want you to develop your talent and use it.”

I asked him, specifically, what’s his process like, because after all of this talk of people and places, my academic brain craves theory, and at first he said, “Oh, I have no idea,” but then he found it in his rambling, “you’re turning on your talent, all that’s real and honest from within…”

Upon meeting Leon, he immediately presents this fascinating egoist dichotomy: in being a producer and promoting his company, he’s all pomp and business, but then when talking about acting and singing, he’s a romantic, admitting he really doesn’t know anything, but willing to go for it anyway. He’s proof to me that you can always start over, that what you know is enough, and it’s perfectly alright to go after something intangible as long as you trust your gut.

Don’t miss Front Porch Theatricals’ first two show season with their production of A Light in the Piazza, directed by emerging Pittsburgh talent Stephen Santa, running August 21st – 30th at the New Hazlett Theater. You can’t miss Leon Zionts, either, he’ll be wearing a beret and giving hard-knox legal advice or else be talking loudly in the corner about something indescribable to a couple of people who never would have met before. Either way, he’ll be wearing a beret.

Stay up to date on our Artist Spotlight Series by following us on Facebook, Twitter and #artistspotlightpgh

* A previous version of this article published the “CLO Acadamy” here.

** A previous version of this article published the “Pittsburgh Savoyards” here.

We apologize for any confusion.