In her fifteen seasons as City Theatre’s Artistic Director, Tracy Brigden has witnessed an evolution in the staging of plays and playwriting. According to Brigden, the writing and style is more cinematic now, and the pace is faster in terms of editing. This change mirrors the ways we see stories on television and in movies. What hasn’t changed for Brigden though is what actually makes a story successful—that it engages on a human level. Style and technology will change, but what is going to entail a satisfying theater experience is how much an audience connects with the actual story.
Brigden knew she wanted to be a director from the age of thirteen. For part of her upbringing, Tracy was raised outside of Manhattan in West Chester, New York, and she was involved in community theater in nearby Bedford. One year she missed the audition to be a leper in Jesus Christ Superstar. The director then invited her to be his assistant director. Once she got on the other side of the table, Brigden knew she wanted to direct.
After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in Theater, she joined the artistic staff of a few major theaters and eventually joined The Hartford Stage. She was selected for the position of Artistic Director as the result of City Theatre conducting a national search. Brigden, who did not know anyone in Pittsburgh and had possibly only been in the city once, said yes.
Speaking to Brigden, I was struck by her self-assurance. In conversation she doesn’t couch her opinions in “maybes” and “perhaps”. When I asked her about where her confidence came from not just in how she presents herself, but in what it took to run a major theater her voice faltered a minute and she said was suddenly feeling shy. After a pause she then explained the two elements to her confidence. One is that she is a firstborn child. The other is that she truly believes in the City Theatre’s product. As she has become more experience as a director she has realized that the best method is to surround herself with people who know what they are doing. An artistic director can be less controlling when they let everyone do their best work. Over the years she has assembled a kind of posse of collaborators that she returns to frequently. This has built trust in her productions. She knows that the people she works with will take care of the details.
Brigden’s vision for supporting Pittsburgh theater is to develop an audience base. Since her time in Pittsburgh the scene has become richer, more vibrant with new theater companies forming and filling interesting niches. There is more work for actors and theater makers of all kinds. This is positive for the city and for the students graduating from university theater programs. She wants these students to be able to stay in town. The challenge, according to Brigden, is that the theaters do not have enough money to grow audiences. The theaters are playing to people who already enjoy performance art. She wants to reach out to people who do not already necessarily go out to the theater but might find that they enjoy it.
Her idea for a fix? A citywide campaign sponsored by a local foundation to encourage theater patronage. Theaters do not have an excess of cash for major advertising, she said. They need help to develop the next generation of theatergoers so that they don’t become dinosaurs. Other cities have successfully sponsored such campaigns. She can even see doing something along the lines of a kind of restaurant week for theaters to draw more people in.
Since Brigden’s arrival to the City Theatre has been home to some of the most diverse and innovative plays in Pittsburgh and this upcoming season only builds on her reputation. In the next months we will be treated to the world premiere of Sharon Washington’s Feeding the Dragon, the Tony Award nominated, Hand to God, The Royale by Marco Ramirez, The Guard by Jessica Dickey, Wild With Happy by Colman Domingo, and Ironbound by Martyna Majok. This season, she said, will be juicy.