Roughly seven miles south of downtown Pittsburgh, PA, the town of Carnegie situates itself between a bridge, interstate 79, and the railroad with a wry sense of humor. The narrow street traffic is constant in the middle of the day, giving the empty sidewalks, decorated with electric blue lampposts and park benches, a promise that they’ll fill up again once the daily work is done. Full of quirky salons, cafés, Thai massage places, and tasty restaurants, Carnegie knows it has a style all its own. For this and a few other reasons, off the WALL Productions Artistic Director, Virginia Wall Gruenert, decided to bring her theatre company here.
You might beg the question: why not downtown Pittsburgh? Virginia Wall Gruenert, who casually goes by Ginny – she tells me upon handshake – (and I keep my wistful Weasley reference to myself) adjusts her bar stool in her theater’s lobby and explains, “They have plenty of theatre downtown. They don’t need us down there.” Admittedly, the audience who attends the Pittsburgh Public Theater and the Pittsburgh CLO isn’t always the audience Off the Wall speaks to. It definitely offers its own theatrical experience.
“Bring ‘em in, shake ‘em up, send ‘em home. Preferably in 90 minutes with no intermission,” quoth Ginny, with a chuckle.
“I want people who come to see our shows to know there’s a whole world out there,” she gestures out her storefront window with open arms. We then discuss Off the Wall’s most recent production, The Whale, a drama about the life and struggles of a 600 pound man and his family, and she continues, “There are real people who live these lives, who really have these problems. I just want people to understand that they exist. That if there’s anything they can to do to make it better, they should go away thinking about that. Which is something that My Fair Lady, for example, doesn’t do.”
off the WALL, true to its name, invites its audiences to challenge their empathy past what they easily understand. Its chosen productions have explored themes running the gamut of what southwestern PA society deems edgy: alcoholism, incest, homosexuality, and non-traditional families, yet what Gruenert calls “old hat.”
She’s loved her audience’s varied responses. She tells me that sometimes people come who’ve never been to the theatre before in their lives, and they walk out stunned. “One night, ninety minutes,” she repeats to me, “You’re in, you’re out. You can change their lives.” I relish the thought as I tour her intimate 96-seater thrust with three rows, at the most, separating you from the stage at any angle.
Not once, though, would this New York native and seasoned professional dream of speaking down to her audience. Presenting them with difficult material is a mark of the highest respect. She believes in constantly challenging yourself, whether you’re an audience member, actor, writer, or front of house manager. The reputation of being a bit “off the wall,” obviously works for her and her theater. Running a theatre as an Artistic Director is a dream many a theatre professional has, especially the ones living in Pittsburgh surrounded by affordable real estate. And so, I ask her what challenges she faces with appealing to her Pittsburgh audience.
Surprisingly, her answer reveals a generational problem. “We do have a lot of loyal, older people – season ticket holders who come see everything, thank goodness – but the issue here is younger folks: 20s, 30s, young professionals, maybe with little kids at home, or those just out of school. I have found many instances in which they didn’t grow up with theatre, their parents took them to the movies, instead. So it’s not their first thought on a Saturday night.”
I’m in my twenties, and I have plenty of friends, too, who think of going to the theatre all of the time, so I’m confused. She smiles at me, a little sadly, until the light bulb goes off. Oh! Right. Theatre majors aren’t like normal people. And I realize what she’s saying is true, that most of our pesky younger peers rely on their screens too much. They just don’t think of theatre as an ordinary means of stimuli. “It’s like trying to convince a dog person they should get a cat,” Ginny confirms, deadpan.
She is, in every way, a woman on a mission. Off the Wall is one of the few professional theatre companies in Pittsburgh, meaning that it provides compensation for all of its employees – actors, technicians, stage managers, directors – in accordance with Actors Equity’s rules. [ www.insideoffthewall.com ] Her esteem for Actors Equity, advocating women’s empowerment in the arts, and high quality theatrical standards might be among the first things you learn when you meet, or hear of, Artistic Director, Virginia Wall Gruenert, and it comes at you with intensity:
“Following our mission to pay all of our workers, and to empower and promote female artists in the industry…you know the National Salary Average, for a woman, is still 76% to the man’s salary? Next season our plan is to adjust our ticket prices, accordingly…” I lost the specific end of this fantastic quote because I was laughing too hard from glee. Ginny Gruenert, a woman after my own feminist heart.
Gruenert is a graduate of Syracuse University, one of the first to take advantage of Syracuse Stage, the professional company, has also studied in London with The Bristol Old Vic, The National Theatre, and in Los Angeles with the legendary Stella Adler. When off the WALL first opened in Washington, PA, it opened with her original play Shaken & Stirred, starring herself in all four, complex characters. It later went on to have another successful run in New York City at Theater 54. The rest is history, and well documented on her professional website.
Even with that abridged version of her resumé, an ordinary Pittsburgher could indeed “look at [her] like she had two heads,” and expect, even accept, condescension from a woman with her experience. From the beginning of our conversation, though, it’s clear to me how much she appreciates Pittsburgh for all that it is.
She explained to me just how much Pittsburgh has worked for her, allowed her to do her work, and how it, and other places like it, have worked for her friends. Some of who, she claims, refuse to work on shows on Broadway anymore. They say it’s too much about spectacle. Meanwhile, Gruenert, told me she loves a good “two-hander” or two-person play, and that if it gets to be over five people in the cast, she loses interest.
“You can do a play without pyrotechnics, without a cast of thousands, without an orchestra – you can do a play without a lot of things. You can do a play with one actor, one light bulb, and a couple of people in the house. That’s art,” she said passionately, then added, “If it’s done right. The rest is spectacle.”
When I haphazardly threw aside my newborn reporter hat and asked her for advice, expressing my desire to make a life in theatre, and wondering if I could do it in Pittsburgh – she was so patient. She, once again, seemed to know exactly what my actor self needed to hear:
“I have worked with plenty of actors, like yourself, who graduated with degrees in performance, packed their bags for New York, and then five years later came back to Pittsburgh, or wherever, because they didn’t become stars. You have to decide what you want. If you want to be a star, you can’t do it Pittsburgh. If you want to be a working actor, you’d be a fool to leave.”
If off the WALL Productions continues to push the envelope, together with their upcoming season’s marketing antics, their young firewall Dance Company, their renewed repertory theatre commitment, and with Ginny Gruenert at the helm, then that quote’s absolutely true.
Two more chances, this ordinary Friday night and Saturday at 8pm, to catch Brewed by Scott T. Barsotti, produced by No Name Players, and housed at the off the WALL Performing Arts Center in Carnegie, PA.
*A previous version of this article stated the incorrect stylization of off the WALL’s name.