He would politely disagree with me, nibbling at his English muffin and slightly wide-eyed at the thought, repeating humbly, “that’s not a thing,” but I still think of Matt Henderson as a leader in Pittsburgh theatre. Perhaps he’s not the authoritative, hear-me-roar kind of leader who could direct a cast full of ferocious actors. Maybe he’s not the kind who would fight tooth and nail, George Bailey-style, for a better contract deal against a bunch of big-shot producers. Nah. Instead, he’s more the quiet, slightly awkward kind of leader who, when he’s not acting, prefers to impact his beloved Pittsburgh audience through his words.
As 12 Peers Theater’s Marketing Director and Literary Manager – a position that in any reasonable economy would be two – Matt Henderson reaches the public by using all available media. He explains that while social media is an important challenge everyone in the theatre business must master, “Social media is one part of the marketing process, but if you just rely on social media, it doesn’t necessarily help. I think it helps to get coverage in the press and more word of mouth. There is definitely, no matter what, an older demographic that consistently goes to theatre.”
Appealing to the older and the younger audiences equally is not something smaller theatre companies always do very well. 12 Peers Theatre, founded in 2011, goes for it anyway, with a focused mission. Exploring myth and cultural identity using classical and contemporary works, 12 Peers Theater takes its name from the legend of the 12 Peers of Charlemagne. They were knights of the king’s guard, but were also considered his companions, equals.
Henderson’s marketing strategy therefore goes hand-in-hand with his literary management. As literary manager, he selects plays for their season which best communicate 12 Peers’ mission. When considering submissions, Henderson admits, “Sometimes it’s overwhelming because you get hundreds of scripts and there’s so many good playwrights out there – all over the place, all over the world, really – and there are so few opportunities. I always find myself wanting to give more opportunities than are available.”
Henderson, a playwright himself, recently put his brain together with local playwright Christopher Scott Wyatt and discussed the potential for a Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Collective. This would certainly give other local playwrights, like Wyatt and Henderson, the critical support and production opportunity they need to complete their creative process and see it performed onstage.
“I think there’s a need for playwrights to get their plays produced the way they want to see them…Most of the time playwrights aren’t completely in control of those decisions. Playwrights have input in casting and in choosing the director, but what if the playwright was the one completely in charge? I think that’s a good experience to have. It helps you write in a way that makes your play conceivable.”
By conceivable, Henderson means troubleshooting quick-change issues and removing other obstacles to successful production. “It’s always good to have those practical considerations in your head. [Of course] stay true to your vision, but then you can practically realize your vision.”
Visit the Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Collective Facebook Page to keep in the loop with this brainchild. If you are interested in reading more in-depth about their detailed vision, also visit the Google Plus community page. Playwrights should keep in mind: “If you wish to write checks and get a show produced, a collective is not the right option for you. But, if you have the time, energy, and a willingness to educate new audiences, then a collective can be exciting and rewarding” (Google+ Post from Wyatt/Henderson community page). The New York City collective, 13P, and the subsequent collective movements in urban theatre communities inspired Wyatt and Henderson’s model. It will only succeed and develop a playwright’s vision if every active member is willing to contribute their talents and support one another.
Having had the benefit of seeing his own plays produced, Henderson understands its importance. This past late winter and early spring was a very busy one for him. As usual, especially in the biz, when things happen, they always seem to happen all at once.
His play Roar of the Crowd, directed by Vanessa German, was featured this year in Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s signature event, The Eleventh Annual Theatre Festival in Black & White: Multicultural Edition. It ran from February 14th-28th,while at the same time, from February 5th-21st, Henderson’s other play, Existence and The Single Girl had its world premiere through 12 Peers Theater. As if that weren’t busy enough, at the end of month, Henderson again participated inBricolage Production Company’s Annual Fundraiser, B.U.S. 10, not as an actor as he’s done in years past, but as a playwright. These experiences have only reinforced his belief:
“Whatever you do, whatever kinds of plays you do… you want to do stuff that speaks to people. There is a philosophy that says you can do museum pieces, to say, ‘Oh isn’t this an interesting historical artifact.’ The novelty of it can be interesting, but for theatre to stay alive, you have to talk about stuff that’s really relevant to people and the community where your theatre is.”
Growing up in the Greater Pittsburgh Area and seeing its professional theatre as a child helped him realize he wanted to be a playwright and actor when he was small. “I always wanted to be a part of the Pittsburgh theatre world.” Getting involved with Stage Right, in Greensburg, PA, even having some of his plays produced there while he was still in high school, then helped Henderson realize the effect his words and actions could have on his community.
He took this intense level of focus to the nearby Seton Hill University, if at first reluctantly. “I always wanted to be an actor and playwright. I didn’t really want to go to college, but if I did, I wanted to go for theatre. I thought ‘If I go, I want to go to a good school.’ But CMU was too expensive, and Seton Hill was right there. As I got to know Seton Hill, I opened up to it. I liked that I could be myself in a small community. I got to know the professors and they got to know me and what my strengths were. I could work on myself more specifically than if I went to bigger more conservatory school.”
The liberal arts education stretched his parameters as a writer: his creative writing class about the horror genre stretched Henderson’s expectations of his capabilities; then, his Honors Capstone Project, combining environmental research and playwriting, led him to discover dialogue between Henry David Thoreau and Rachel Carson. When he graduated with honors from Seton Hill University in 2010, and began pursuing his career in Pittsburgh, he realized:
“Like Seton Hill, Pittsburgh is not the obvious choice for a good place for theatre. But once you get there, you realize ‘hey, there’s good stuff happening here and it’s moving me…’ You realize there’s cool stuff to be a part of. Don’t believe the hype. You know? Don’t just go some place because it’s what other people think is the best place. Go with what you feel.”
By acting, writing, and his position with 12 Peers, Matt Henderson has felt his way into the heart of Pittsburgh theatre. When asked about a theme in his written work, “I think a lot of the times, there’s a recurring theme of outsiders. People feeling alienated by mainstream culture and figuring out how to be okay with themselves as they are. That’s a theme that was definitely in Existence and the Single Girl…and it’s definitely in a lot of my work.”
Paying attention to the outcasts is something any worthy theatre artist does on a daily basis. If only because theatre artists are outcasts themselves. It’s hard to do, as the lucrative shows that keep companies afloat are the musicals and classics that audiences already know.
“It’s hard to keep theatre relevant. It keeps getting closed into this pocket of ‘we’re over here and not really part of the mainstream conversation’ and it’s hard to get people to be interested in it. To see it as part of the mainstream conversation. There are so many people who don’t even think about going to see a play. So you really have to do plays that talk to those people.”
Apparently, attending world premieres of plays is risky. How to convince audience members to invest in an evening of the unknown? If they knew the playwright, maybe they could trust it. Well, after spending just an hour with Matt Henderson, I feel like I know him, but more importantly: I feel like he gets it. That is, the function and importance of Pittsburgh theatre on the community.
“There was probably a time in my life where I thought I might be settling. As I’ve gotten older, I see the theatre landscape all over America not being as hierarchical as we sometimes see it as. Sometimes as theatre students we see Broadway as the end goal: if you’re really gonna make it, you’re going to be on Broadway. Broadway isn’t the only place. I don’t see it as better than a place like Pittsburgh. There’s not a huge difference between Broadway and Pittsburgh in terms of the artistic dedication, the commitment, the professionalism, the quality of the work. It’s different…but it doesn’t mean one [culture] is better than the other. Regional, Broadway, Equity, community…the lines between them aren’t as strong as we sometimes see them as. They all bleed through. It’s better when you start to collapse those hierarchies and see it as part of everyone’s life.”
“The more we can see it as being part of the community – not this thing that only rich, white people in New York can sometimes see – the more we can say that it’s speaking to all of these different communities throughout the country…you know, it’s for everybody. That’s how theatre will stay relevant.”