Joniece Abbott-Pratt on Strong Female Roles, Pittsburgh Debut

SunsetBaby PosterWhen asked to do a piece on City Theatre’s upcoming work, a play that speaks to the struggles in the black liberation movement, I am admittedly nervous. As a white suburbanite, how can I truthfully get to the heart of this piece, without letting my perspective or novice get in the way?

The answer comes in seconds, as I take my seat next to Joniece Abbott-Pratt, leading lady of City Theatre’s production of Sunset Baby by Dominique Morisseau. I find my way into the piece the same way the audience will: by seeing the world through Joniece’s fiercely bright eyes.

“I feel the character’s tempo, the character’s words come out of my mouth in every day life,” Pratt tells me, as we discuss where she is in her Sunset Baby process.

She plays the protagonist, Nina, who is the daughter of two political activists. Nina’s father was arrested for selling drugs when she was two, so Nina spent her childhood caring for her drug-addicted mother. As a result, she feels the longing for a father, in addition to her mother’s pain from losing a husband. Now, Nina is an adult, in a complicated relationship, and leading her own life of crime, hustling drugs and robbing passers-by. Her mother passes away approximately six months prior to the start of the play, so we meet a character under enormous stress – especially when her father is released from prison and comes knocking on her door.

“I’m learning how to take off the character. Sometimes, I don’t want to do that. Sometimes, I want to stay in it. Sometimes, things are confusing or don’t yet make sense. By staying in it, it helps you see things from a different perspective,” Pratt explains her actor’s take on this experience. She then confides, “I always feel like the roles that show up, for me, are so in sync with what I’m dealing with at the time.”

I ask her if it’s difficult for her, as it often can be for an actor, to draw that line, between yourself and the character, and she pauses. Then she says slowly, but without hesitation, “You give the character aspects of yourself that they need.”

She and her cast mates, J. Alphonse Nicholson and Keith Randolph Smith, are still discovering new realities for these characters every day. It’s clear, however, that she definitely feels connected to Nina, before they head into previews, starting this weekend, November 7th through November 12th

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Joniece Abbott-Pratt & J. Alphonse Nicholson as Nina & Damon

It’s also clear that Pratt feels at home at City Theatre. City Theatre prides itself in its ability to foster new play development and bring Pittsburgh exciting, contemporary works that appeal to diverse audiences. It should also pride itself on making its every company of actors feel welcome.

“It was a trip just walking around the buildings, and seeing the posters from different shows that they’ve done here. I hadn’t realized how many people I’ve met in New York that have been through City Theatre. I was pleasantly surprised. I felt like I was hitting a stop on the train I’m supposed to be on.”

This is Pratt’s first time working with both City Theatre and in Pittsburgh. She has nothing but warmth for the company and the thrilling journey she’s undertaken with her cast and director, Jade King Carroll. A Philadelphia native herself, Pratt explains the thrill of discovering that the Pittsburgh places, mentioned in August Wilson’s plays, are real. She also touches on the bizarre feeling you get walking around Pittsburgh’s various neighborhoods – like you’ve been there before, in a dream.

“In a way it reminds me of Berkley, but it also feels like Brooklyn… but the people… these people are real and so up front,” said Pratt. “I feel like I’m home. People here are very easy-going, welcoming, and open. And I feel like I’m from here, like I’m a Pittsburgher.”

She tells me of her past productions in regional theaters all over the country – from Berkley to Palm Beach to New Haven – where she got to “…sit at the feet of these people who have been acting longer than I’ve been alive,” she remembers, in awe and admiration.

She speaks specifically of her time with August Wilson’s work, including Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Actor Theater of Louisville, Seven Guitars at No Rules Theater Company, and two productions of The Piano Lesson, one at Yale Repertory Theatre and one with the Delaware Theatre Company. In these generational plays, she had the opportunity to learn from teenage actors, middle-aged actors, and actors in their seventies. They were full of wisdoms and experiences they were always willing to share. Joniece calls them “master storytellers” and considers them more than just part of her regional theatre network, but part of her family.

While speaking about playwrights, the conversation naturally found its way to Dominique Morisseau. “One thing I love about Dominique,” Pratt begins, “is her fearlessness, and her ability to write very strong female characters; women that you don’t always get to see.”

The phrase “strong female character” is thrown around a lot, and is sometimes criticized as unnecessary terminology. What exactly do we mean when we say it? We discuss this, and how, in Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, it means that the emotional life of Nina takes center stage. The traditionally feminine – the emotional world of a character – is not written to serve someone else’s story. It is not a supporting story arc that offsets the logical main story. The leading female character does not have to embody typically masculine traits to be listened to or to drive the plot forward. Though Nina is written as “hard,” it’s because she’s sensitive; she is a character complete with flaws and painful passions she’s not afraid to share.

“Dominique writes women unapologetically,” says Pratt, and I believe her. While the play’s content confronts the macro-sized issues of drug warfare, racism, and father-daughter relationships, to center Sunset Baby’s drama on Nina’s inner world is – skillful, yes – but, ultimately, it’s nothing short of courageous.

“There are so many different ways to express pain, anger, and hurt, as a woman,” said Pratt. “And sometimes, you know, it’s not just crying in a corner. We get to see power in the way that this woman chooses to show her power.”

Opening Friday, November 13th at 8:00pm and running through until December 13th, Sunset Baby’s director, Jade King Carroll, creative team, crew, and cast – led by the vibrant Joniece Abbott-Pratt – will explore the price of freedom in a world that says love is a liability. I can’t wait to buy my ticket.

Artist Spotlight: Karla Boos

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When it comes to Karla Boos, Artistic Director of Quantum Theatre, my usually talkative self is more than a little tongue-tied. What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? For twenty-five years – longer than I’ve been alive – Boos and Quantum Theatre have been trail blazers in the Pittsburgh theatre community, raising the bar on ingenuity in non-profit theatre.

Local awards given to Karla Boos include a University of Pittsburgh Freddy Award, the Pittsburgh Magazine Harry Schwalb Excellence in the Arts Award, and a Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Creative Achievement Award. On the national audience level, Quantum Theatre’s work has also been covered by Stage Directions Magazine and American Theatre Magazine.

Yes, these and more of Boos’ accolades can be found on Quantum’s Website, but allow me to mention some of them here first, before I say anything else. She has a fierce and keen mind for the integrity of the artist’s process and could likely have succeeded anywhere. As an actress in the graduate program at California Institute of the Arts, she felt her peers and her self “…pushing at boundaries, but wanting more control and even more input,” she tells me that afterward, “… I chose Pittsburgh for its approachability. And I thought I could bring something different.”

Quantum Theatre has been churning out innovative site-specific works for longer than I’ve been alive. Yet, Boos tells me that she still feels like they’re finding their footing, “We can’t arrive at a sweet spot. We’re experimenters.”

Their work has been performed literally all over the streets of Pittsburgh; from the Carnegie Library swimming pool in Braddock to the Hartwood Acres stables, Quantum’s brought their audiences along for a tour of both Pittsburgh’s iconic and remote locations. Boos loves her Pittsburgh audience and their sense of adventure, as they’ve followed Quantum into the most unexpected places, physically and emotionally. And an audience has to have opinions, Boos says.

We discussed the mechanics and magic of starting a theatre company. “Pittsburgh has evolved,” she says. “There’s more of an expectation that great work can come from small companies.”

In most cases back then, Boos clarifies, “The non-profit company was the thing. Now, they can be much more independent, with things like Kickstarter – and it’s all good, but also overwhelming. What structure will support them?”

“To young artists I say: deliver something meaningful. Don’t give yourself the easy out. ‘Is it working?’ Trust yourself to answer. Plumb the depths. Address the blank page. Why? Why was I motivated to express this? It’s a grind when you don’t feel satisfied.”

In case you’re wondering, Karla Boos feels very satisfied.

When Quantum Theatre began in 1990, Boos knew she disliked the inherent separation of the work from the audience. Therefore, it became part of Quantum’s style build the set up to the level of the audience, so the action happened on the same shared plane. They’ve stayed small. Running a theatre business isn’t easy, and I asked her how it’s changed or grown in the past two decades and a half?

“We spend everything on making art. We are uninterested in becoming an institution. We know that if theatre is limiting, then the artist will respond to ”

Speaking with Karla Boos over the phone is striking. She is the most concise interviewee I’ve yet encountered and her pithy answers leave me with more questions I have to answer. We discussed her directing style and what draws her direct a piece of theatre. Unsurprisingly to me, thus far, it’s clear she knows exactly how she wants to affect people and her answer comes out in a telegram pattern, full of purpose:

“I love playing with natural light and the things that we can’t control. My pieces are physical, with a rhythm to them. Most people focus on telling a good story – my focus is more abstract. I’m always moving toward things I haven’t done before.”

Presently, Boos admits she is caught in the throes of a Baroque music obsession and fallen in love with the language of music. Quantum is in the middle of their original opera of The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, running until October 3rd (check out our review of it here). In collaboration with Attack Theatre and Chatham Baroque, this performance is staged in an ornate musical hall in the top of the Union Trust Building in downtown Pittsburgh. Attack Theatre’s choreography and Chatham Baroque’s world class musicians combined with music direction by Andres Cladera and stage direction by Karla Boos herself, presents a unique experience you won’t want to miss.

Juxtapose her creative grit and insight with her love of Pittsburgh, and you get the very real image of her speeding through Pittsburgh’s landscape on her bicycle, inventing her next production in her mind’s eye, or perhaps stepping back to a different role. She’ll continue to make art, she assures me, but now she’s more interested in empowering others, nurturing young artists, and creating a platform for others’ work. True to her Quantum Theatre’s belief that “theatre has the limitless ability to put people in motion.”

To stay up to date on our Artist Spotlight Series, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and #artistspotlightpgh

Artist Spotlight: Joanna Lowe

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When I first met Joanna Lowe, it was on the Brentwood set of the horror film Corpsing, produced by 72nd Street Films, in the summer of 2011. I had just finished my freshman year of college that spring, and just then, late at night – or early in the morning, I can’t remember – I decided to panic about what I wanted to do with my life. Little did I know this would be the first of many such moments in my college career. Joanna, not yet covered in blue, scaly zombie make-up, took several minutes out of her scheduled actor preparation time, to talk me down. Her words were to the soothing effect of: “Hey man, I’m thirty-something, bursting at the edges, and I’m still trying to figure out how I can have it all. I don’t think it’s impossible. It’ll be ok.” Four years, later, we genuinely have the same conversation, except we’re in a Crazy Mocha, looking a bit more put together: her in her Gateway Clipper polo and me with my Golden Snitch earrings. Yet, if possible, she seems even more passionate.

Lowe holds a Bachelor’s degree from Geneva College, where she studied both Theatre and Creative Writing. She has devoured the Pittsburgh theatre scene ever since. Looking at students of theatre graduating today, she acknowledges the intense pressure they put on themselves, “That is the dumbest thing you can possibly do. Give yourself some grace. Otherwise, you won’t enjoy the things that do happen.”

The neat thing, I later realize in my conversation with Lowe, is that Pittsburgh herself is also an underdog, an under pressure arts student, coming into her own.

“I moved here over twenty years ago and I hated Pittsburgh. I was angry at my parents for dragging me to this dirty, awkward city and it was just where I lived for a time… except I was here to see her [Pittsburgh] transform from a post-steel identity, lost, confused, and brooding city into a thriving arts city where her communities were prepared to support her people and their endeavors.”

Thinking of her in full-on Frankenstein gear as she’s speaking is hilarious, because she’s animatedly tossing her long light hair with every story and her bright blue eyes drink in every question. She’s bursting with humor and good-natured confidence.

“I love Pittsburgh. It’s a city, but it’s intimate. Blue-collar rooted, so she’s tough and proud, but now education is one of our biggest industries in Pittsburgh. What that’s done is create a bizarre and beautiful attitude of ‘If I can imagine it, I can do it here in Pittsburgh.’ And there are enough organizations and institutions and patrons and artists to support that philosophy. Making money is always the challenge as an artist, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen or heard about a city with such rare community and optimism. Pittsburgh is tiny; and yet bursting at the seams with rare visions and original endeavors. That’s insane. And it’s incredible.”

It’s why Joanna says she’s chosen Pittsburgh as her home. It’s why she was able to realize so many of her artistic endeavors. She is a film and theatre actor, director, producer, acting teacher, voice-over coach, published poet, produced playwright and spoken word artist – and she is thriving. She begins shaping my perspective of her work by explaining her clandestine first spoken word. It happened the way she seems to take everything: diving headfirst.

Earlier that day, someone had made Lowe feel worthless – she corrects herself, “I had let someone make me feel worthless,” and we toast Eleanor Roosevelt with our dirty chai tea lattes, before she continues to explain that on a particularly bad day, she asked a friend for a favor. “A friend of mine, after I had gone through my divorce, had gotten me into coming out to the Acoustic Café nights at the Club Café, in Southside, saying, ‘Oh, it’ll be fun, it’s like music therapy.’ He had been getting me out there just to take a seat at the bar, sip at my beer, and enjoy the music. That one day, I don’t know why, I texted him and asked, ‘What if I read something?’ He answered in five seconds, ‘Yes!’

It wasn’t an ordinary night, of course. That Monday night was the Christmas party at Acoustic Café Open Mic night. Lowe was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with the best singer and songwriters in Pittsburgh, she tells me. Though she had been performing since childhood, she felt such fear that she had to get “not sober” in order to muster the courage to speak.

“It was like jumping out of a plane. When you go skydiving, you have to turn off your brain. You have to ignore every signal, every thought, because it goes against every single instinct. Your entire body and brain goes: ‘No, this is illogical.’ You’re standing on a peg the half-size of a Snickers bar, holding on to the side of airplane, thinking, ‘I’m gonna die.’ I remember thinking, go big or go home. So, I grabbed the microphone and jumped out of the plane.”

At the end of her speech, there was a deafening silence. Which, to Lowe, seemed unending, until then, like a movie, the whole room erupted into cheers. Her face still wears the shock of that first audience’s response.

“People kept coming up to me afterward, saying, ‘I had no idea you did that!’” she laughed and looks at me with glee, “Neither did I! They said, ‘This is who you are now. This is what you do.’ I’ve tried to back away, to disappear, but musicians keep asking me, ‘Can I please play with you?’ It was the most insane accident. I accidentally tripped and fell down a mountain. And everybody said, ‘That’s awesome. Do it again!”

The process of writing, for Lowe, is messy. Inspiration comes from a guttural detail and expands. It can sometimes be a painful process. She’s a published poet, has written fiction, and dabbled in various forms…but seems to have finally found the most cathartic medium. Her spoken word style is confessional and her attitude, humbling.

“I don’t go out there to get salvation. I don’t go out there to get praised for my struggles. I just go out there to share. Anytime someone connects with me, in that way, I just go: thank God. Because if they connected to me, then I’m not alone, either.”

You can still often find Joanna Lowe and her stellar crew of musicians on Monday “Acoustic Café” nights at the Club Café in Southside, she has also performed at Pittsburgh Winery, Hambones, and the New Bohemian. Earlier this year, her words, set to music, were released as a C.D. under a label with Wild Kindness Records.

Lowe, and for good reason, is delighted with this surprise opportunity life has thrown at her – or that she jumped into. When you sign up for a career in the arts, I’m learning, you kind of have to be ready for anything. Joanna, fierce at fourteen, signed up early.

“I followed my big brother and sister onto the stage after watching them perform in high school. I started in seventh grade. It wasn’t an epiphany that I wanted to be an actor; it was obvious to me. After feeling what it was to be on stage, doing what felt perfectly natural to do, why would I ever do anything else?”

Lowe is candid with me, and I’m struck by how open and friendly she is, when I know that her roles are dramatic, gripping and to use her word: gut-wrenching. She pushes herself to the limits.

“If it doesn’t overjoy or break my heart, I’m kind of not interested. If something catches me, makes me uncomfortable, I’ve got to pick it apart,” she says.

I point out to her, conspiratorially that, “Most people run away. Or shut down. Or change the subject,”

She pauses, and thinks for half a second, and then answers me, thoughtful, but without cracking a self-deprecating grimace or anything: “Yeah. I…don’t have that.”

At this point in her upbringing, Joanna’s minister father probably did the Presbyterian Orthodox equivalent of the Catholic sign of the cross and thought: “Oh dear.” Joanna doesn’t think that yoga would work for her and the gerbil that lives inside of her head. She can’t shut it off. It’s running on a wheel, and it’s sometimes really exhausting and horrible and awful, but often times its very happy. His name is Esteban.

“[Eventually]…for me, it became about knowing my own health. My mental health, my emotional health. It’s only come from going through some of the worst traumas of my life in the last three years. Nothing will help you know yourself than having to get through that and having to pull yourself out of that and having to raise a child out of that. Suffering either makes you a better person or it will destroy you.”

She pauses to think about it for a second, then continues.

“It doesn’t have to make you a better person – it can – but it doesn’t automatically. You see bitter, broken people everywhere because they’ve gone through trauma and they’re resentful and they refuse. I’ve tried to take everything that I’ve gone through and make myself better. Gentler. More graceful, stronger. It’s simply having had to go through that that my art has been – revived, relived – that’s how this whole spoken word thing came out.”

In addition to her relatively new medium of performance as a spoken word artist, Joanna has tantalizing production visions in mind for Cup-A-Jo Productions later in the year; was just cast in Prime Stage Theatre’s production of The Crucible; and will revive her one woman show from this year’s Fringe Festival, called Woman In The Raw written by Jennifer Schaupp and directed by Sean O’Donnell. It studies one woman’s day, honestly and, often sarcastically, drifting between outlets of social media and witnessing her soliloquies in the raw – often as she’s busy doing something unflattering, like eating yogurt or sitting on the toilet. It has two performances next week September 18th and 19th at 8pm at The Maker Theater, and you better believe I’m bringing a whole troop of my best friends to be fan girls.

“Living intentionally sounds like such a simple concept. But it’s not. Those people who’ve been forty years at the full-time job, living the ‘American Dream’ because it gives them the car, house, 2.5 kids…and then they go ‘what have I done with my one life?’ They didn’t mean to, because they didn’t choose. I think people would be happier if they choose to do this and say, ‘This is why I do this.’ But no, people go to a job and complain on Monday and only celebrate on Fridays. How can you live that?”

Learning about artists like Joanna in the Pittsburgh area is inspiring, to say the least, and helps give newcomers to the scene, like me, a glimpse of what it means to be successful. Perhaps more importantly, how to simultaneously take pride in what you do and laugh like a hyena without being self-conscious. As an artist, living your life with balance is hard, and Joanna Lowe would be the first to tell you that it doesn’t get easier and that she still struggles.

“What is success? Do what makes your blood hot, and kick ass at doing it. Period. And if you have to do more to make a living, then make sure you choose things that support your artist lifestyle and don’t make you miserable. That last part is important – we’ve only got this one life, and you’ve got no business wasting your time doing something that makes you miserable. Success is all perspective. Once you get that right, most really will fall into place. Are you proud of the work you do? Is it fulfilling? Are you growing, being challenged? Do you enjoy the work you do? If the answer to these very simple questions is no, then it’s clear what you need to change. If the answer is yes, then you’re already a success.”

She’s also the first to tell you to do it anyway.

Artist Spotlight: Kim Brown

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From our small wooden table in the window of the Starbucks on 14th and Carson Street, we can clearly see the building where Spotlight Costumes first opened its doors in 1988. It’s tiny and now called The Decade, a light faded brown, looking like it stepped out of a sepia toned photograph. Kim Brown and her close friend and co-founder, Anne Oates, moved down the street to a building twice the size, fortunately also doubling their business intake, just five years later.

“A job transfer is what brought me to Pittsburgh, but when I decided to start my own company, I quickly got work in part because I have a masters degree in costume design. Many people who own costume shops in the U.S. are former dance teachers, people who inherited or bought a business or people who only do retail and Halloween.”

Together, with their combined skill, and Anne’s drapery talent for designing her own patterns, Spotlight brought something “new to the table.” Brown and Oates cultivated a diverse array of professional, amateur, and educational theatre. They had the pimp costume from Austin Powers out in the trade shows before the larger manufacturers did, because while it flopped in the box office, Brown knew it would explode once it hit VHS. They have served clients like Disney Theatricals, H.J. Heinz Corporation, Pepsi Cola Corporation, Keebler, and even actor Bruce Willis.

“Anne and I had an adventure,” she says, reminiscent. “Our relationship worked because we trained together, went to class together, critiqued each other. We knew the good, bad, and the ugly about each other before we worked together.”

They are now the go-to costume professionals in Pittsburgh, offering costumes for wholesale, retail, and theatrical purposes. It was never without its difficulties, though. In 2005, Anne Oates lost her eight month battle with brain cancer.

“I was always an appreciative person. But there’s a difference between appreciation and gratitude. Appreciation is about good things. But gratitude is that you’re grateful for good and seemingly bad. I don’t think I understood gratitude until I lost my business partner.”

“When Anne died, the Post-Gazette called to do a story on her, and I was really offended. The real story was when she was alive and she could tell her own story. Then I thought, Kim you can’t really be that way, now you have to tell her story. So I did. Then the woman said, ‘You know if someone more famous dies, she’s going to get bumped.’ Well no one did. So Anne had a six-column story when she died. But the real story was when she was alive.”

Kim Brown’s own story is full of setbacks and accomplishment. Spotlight Costumes remains a very strong and busy business, though now Brown is faced more regularly with the familiar problem of gender bias as she is often accompanied and helped, in the day to day, by partner, Ron.

“It was very difficult because I didn’t know what gender bias was. Sales people will still call on that store and speak to Ron like he’s the owner. People assume a man is the owner. When we’re at a trade show, people talk to him first before they talk to me. It doesn’t matter what we’re wearing, I could be in a suit and he could be in a T-shirt and they’ll still talk to him first. I don’t know what it is.”

Kim claims she gave up worrying about it a while ago, because her father had warned her about it. He was her mentor, always giving her life lessons, especially as she started Spotlight Costumes. She speaks of him with admiration, saying that as an independent appraiser, he was still correct 98% of the time when he sent his paperwork to an outside source for confirmation. Her mother still gets phone calls looking for him.

“He was very open. I was never a daddy’s girl or princess, but I always thought girls could do everything boys could do. I miss that. I miss the people who were my safety net. But that’s all part of the process. We’re all salmon swimming upstream and we have to try not to get eaten by the bear. It’s all about planning and goal setting. And I firmly believe what you tell the universe can happen. Words have power, thoughts have power. You have to understand that it’s all learning and not get beaten down by it.”

Kim Brown learned this at an early age. She did not come from a theatrical family and didn’t have a sewing machine in the house growing up in Toledo, Ohio. Yet, obviously, this hurdle didn’t throw her very much.

“I always wanted to be a costume designer from the time I was adopted at the age of six and my adopted grandmother would make Barbie doll clothes for me. We also watched The Lawrence Welk Show together and I was fascinated by all of the costumes. My grandmother also taught me how to embroider and sew.”

It’s not like they made sewing machines sized for children, she reminds me, so instead she did a lot of handiwork, like embroidery and knitting, as well as a lot of reading and drawing. She says she remembers the day and moment when she couldn’t play with Barbie anymore. She was devastated. She was a very serious child. This logically emotional, savvy, and creative background makes me peg her for a Ravenclaw.

“It’s part of a life lesson and I had to process that. Whenever you have people who are damaged, if you don’t get counseling or therapy, they tend to repeat patterns without some type of healing. You’re always going to have that scar or reminder, but you can heal.”

Brown earned a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics, from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. It is very rare, even for today’s university curriculum, to find an undergraduate degree in Costume Design, and she tells me plainly that she had no interest in majoring in theatre, as she was not a performer or strictly a technician. So, she chose a B.S. in Home Economics, specifically fashion merchandizing, and a surprise pair of minors in Journalism and Business. Imagine her surprise, therefore, when the OU Department of Theater offered her a scholarship to stay on for her M.F.A. in Production Design and Technology.

“My masters degree was a tool for me to become a costume designer. It was something I had to work very hard at; when you go from Home Ec to Theatre, you have to learn a lot on your own.”

For her application to the School of Theater, she felt terrified for submitting a fashion portfolio. She walked into the interview thinking she was going to get grilled by the department head, the late Robin Lacey.

His first question, “Can you tell me why the university spells the School of Theater with an ‘e-r’ instead of an ‘r-e’?”

Her first answer, without hesitation, “Probably because it’s the first accepted spelling in the dictionary.”

She was the first person to get that question right in twenty-seven years of him asking. That’s why she got into her M.F.A. program in the Ohio University Department of Theater.

“He saw something in me, something different, like I pulled Excalibur out of the stone. It was just logic from my journalism background!” she says with her eyes grinning, though exasperated, “Most people said they didn’t know. I learned very quickly that with him as a professor, you could never say you didn’t know.”

Saying you don’t know is not playing fair, because it’s not playing at all. It immediately eliminates the choice. When dealing with high-level fine art, your level of objective scrutiny is heightened in credibility by your willingness to own your subjective artistic opinion. Giving your self the option to be wrong is the only way to grow. Kim Brown knows this, and repeats to me, several times during this interview, that life is all about learning.

It’s also about being impressively organized. Her handwritten planner takes up over half of the little Starbucks table when she plunks it out to silence her phone. It’s color coded by day, task, and written in by the hour as well as at a month at a glance. It’s magnificent. And meticulous. I’m curious, how many shows can this woman design or wardrobe at once?

“I don’t know. I don’t keep count. It would probably scare me.”

To name just a few, her most recent works include: Kinetic Theatre Company’s Sherlock’s Last Case; Throughline Theatre Company’s Medea, and The Ruling Class; Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center’s Grand Night for Singing; and both Urinetown and Mary Poppins for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera Academy. Brown is also the resident designer for Pittsburgh Musical Theatre, Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center, Prime Stage Theatre, Front Porch Theatricals, designs the Gateway Clipper cruises and has also designed opera and the costumes for theme parks. Currently, her design work can be seen until August 30th in Front Porch Theatrical’s The Light in the Piazza directed by Stephen Santa.

“Some of what I think has helped me was that I started out in fashion merchandizing. I didn’t just do theatre. It wasn’t always about the character, it was about who was going to wear this first. In fashion, they have to think about who’s going to buy this. I always have to think about the actor first.”

“Usually I find, like when I did Patrick Cannon in The Light in the Piazza, [that] he just walked into his clothes. Now, because I’ve done this for a long time, I knew his skin coloring and I knew what he would look good in,” she waves this skill away as a trifling of the trade.

“I told him, ‘You need to wear vintage. That’s where you need to go. It’s the cut of the clothes; things today are too boxy, that’s why they don’t look right on you. They’re not going to look right on you because they’re not tailored for you.’”

“He told me, when he was [in another production], they must have tried twenty suits on him before they found one they liked and fit. So, now this actor has a vision of himself that’s: ‘Oh, I have a weird body. Nothing is ever going to fit me.’ You never want an actor to think that!” she decries. I think to myself of what my college wig artisan peers and costume professor must have went through to never let me find out that I have an unusually large head. Bless them.

In college, I always felt calm once I came to the costume shop. My great-grandmother would say that when the hands are busy the mind is free. She was right and so is Kim Brown: more so than the activity of costuming, for actors, especially, the role of a costumer is one of a comforter. They really have to get you, and anticipate your needs.

“A lot of what costume design is, Natalie,” Brown explains, unequivocally, “is psychology. It’s psychology more than anything else. Nobody tells you that, while you’re in school studying the history of costume, going: ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to memorize all this stuff; I’ve got to come up with all of these new ideas; and I have to come up with something that’s really original; I have to make the director happy; I have to deal with sets and lights and sound and everything else. It isn’t about that at all. It’s about how you deal with people. It’s about people’s feelings.”

In addition to masterfully conceiving an entire casts’ design, you must master an entire casts’ perspective while collaborating with the producers, directors, designers, technicians, and thinkers outside the box. There is no time for your own feelings or ego as a costume designer. Luckily, however, Brown has always had the gift of multitasking and regaining composure, or as she puts it, “You have to have your shit on lockdown.”

“When Anne got sick, that was immediate. Not a candidate for surgery, start making other plans. That really taught me that you have to have your shit on lockdown. Because the show still has to go up. When my brother died…I had to get an opera up in Cleveland. It wasn’t easy, because the costumes for La Boheme went to Texas by mistake, but you’re organized. You have to be organized. You’re not helping anybody if don’t have your act together.”

Without a doubt, Kim Brown’s motivation, for her ungodly timeliness and organization, is to help others. Or else I don’t think she could be as dedicated as she is. Not that she ever thought of herself as a teacher, she just meant to fill in at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, but before long she was the school’s resident designer, while teaching theatrical make up and costume design.

She cares deeply about what she does at that school. When she had emergency back surgery, after a chiropractor herniated one of her discs, she didn’t know if she would ever walk or sew again. Four days after her surgery, though, you better believe it: she was at Lincoln Park’s dress rehearsal. She tells me that she wanted to prove to them that you can come back after any adversity. The director thanked her, saying, “‘I got a different performance out of them tonight. Now we’re ready to open.’” They just needed that, because you’re like a mom, you know?” she said, believing, rightly I’d say, that she’s teaching them a love of lifelong learning.

Every Friday, she asks her students, ‘What’s the best thing that happened this week?’ Every night, before she goes to sleep, she tells me she asks herself the same thing. “Then you don’t go to bed thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to get up’ or ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to go to work.’ Because if you go to bed thinking about the best thing that happened, you’re going to wake up the next day anticipating the next great thing that’s going to happen. I’ve never been the type of person who says ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to get up.’ I’m the type of person who says, ‘I wish I didn’t have to sleep.’ Because there is so much to do.”

If people were all part of that mindset, she says, it just creates a better community. When she first opened Spotlight Costumes, in 1988, she explains to me how Pittsburgh’s South Side was very different: store owners lived above their stores; grocers and milkmen delivered to their neighbors; shop keepers had a small band of loyal customers who lived nearby. Though plenty of excellent growth has happened in Pittsburgh that brings it into contemporary times, and many new little theatres have opened that brings Brown more business, she is still nostalgic for the way things used to be. I think it’s hard not to feel this way if you’re an educated costume designer, having fallen in love with learning of the many different fabrics and styles and hues of the past. We commiserate together for while at the lost art of tailoring.

“People don’t know how to sew today. They throw something in the trash or away. Taking it to Goodwill or a Salvation Army is even too much effort; they take it to a landfill or whatever. People don’t sit at home anymore waiting for grandma to finish their school clothes.”

That’s accurate. Our clothing comes from larger corporations who outsource to independent manufacturers, Made in Wherever Most People Haven’t Been or couldn’t find on a map, by people we’ve never met, who work under conditions we’ll never understand or may never want to. We all know this. What Brown wants and suggests to me isn’t an isolated 1950s world, but a world of transparency and accountability, where everyone knew where his or her goods and services came from. Today, while we know there’s corruption within all of the middlemen, most of the time we say let’s not even talk about it. We accept it as a reality. It’s a by-product of an all too overwhelming world. Still, there sits Spotlight Costumes, not even a block from where it started on Carson Street, making community connections and costumes that few people appreciate. I ask her, isn’t that discouraging?

“No,” she’s emphatic, and I can almost hear her heart pounding as she looks at me through those funky round tortoiseshell specs and her blonde-haired bob.

I laugh out loud, like an idiot. Why not, Kim?

“Because I’m not doing it for them. I’m not doing it for the general public. I’m not doing it for the actors. I’m not doing it for the audience that comes to see them. I’m doing it for myself because that’s the talent I was given. I was not smart enough to be a brain surgeon, but I also know – from having done this for thirty years – that I’m pretty good at what I do.”

Maybe I was mistaken. Maybe she belongs in Gryffindor. I’m amazed at how one person can look at the world, and all of its complex political, economic, and humanitarian crises, and not feel useless, sometimes, for choosing a fleeting career in the theatre making art that does not last.

Perhaps therein her ability to amaze and inspire lies her success.

“I don’t think I’m the best. I’m the best Kim Brown.”

Regardless of everything she’s accomplished, she stills thinks she has so much to learn. Never satisfied. For the record, I’ve never interviewed someone for just an hour and a half who made me laugh and cry and leave with a spring in my step. As she says herself:

“At the end of the day, Natalie, you just have to answer for yourself. Nobody else is going to answer for you. I’ve been to plenty of funerals, and nobody talks about what somebody wore. Unless it was something funny, like ‘they always wore a hat.’ But nobody’s talking about your material anything at your funeral. They’re talking about your character and they’re talking about what you did that impacted other people. If you don’t try and make it easier for someone else…I just think that’s what it’s all about.”

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Artist Spotlight: Sabrina Hykes-Davis

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Deciphering the one thing that makes Pittsburgh theatre unique is like looking for the crabby patty recipe. While scenic designer Sabrina Hykes-Davis agrees, with her personal experience and her kind, gentle manner, she also gives credence to a pattern I’ve noticed.

“I don’t know what makes it its own community. Most other places I’ve worked, I’ve worked for just one theatre. Here, there’s this weird interconnecting web. For example, you and I have been working forty feet from one another for the past three weeks.”

It’s true. It was difficult for the two of us to meet as we both were juggling tech week rehearsal schedules. Turns out we didn’t even realize we were working for the same theatre company! I’ve been working on South Park Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park, closing this weekend, and Hykes-Davis’ most recent design handiwork can be seen in South Park Theatre’s Exit Laughing by Paul Elliott. Exit Laughing runs through August 23rd, check out our review of it here.

Between both of us juggling jobs, rehearsals, meetings, research, and a baby on the way for Hykes-Davis and her husband, it’s not surprising that we missed each other in such close quarters. The more professionals I meet in Pittsburgh, the more I learn that everyone is not only connected, but that everyone – no matter what area of theatre you’re interested in – is balancing myriad projects at once.

Sabrina tells me that this 2015 year alone she has designed and worked on twelve separate productions, performed for such companies as South Park Theatre, Stage 62, and Pittsburgh Savoyards. She has also designed Seneca Valley High School’s productions for years and continues to do so.  Upcoming, Hykes-Davis’ schedule is even increasing in activity, thanks to her recent hire from California University of Pennsylvania. She is thrilled; watching students grow from timid explorers to confident handlers of the scene shop is one of the best parts of being a design professor, she says.

The opportunity to leave an impact on a developing artist is not something she takes lightly. Her own undergraduate experience is compiled of architecture major credits from Carnegie Mellon University, until she realized it wasn’t for her, and transferred to Point Park.

“I can remember sitting in a friend’s kitchen and trying to figure out what I was going to do next… she said suggested I try theatre since I really missed it. And that was that.”

Her degree is from Point Park College, before it became a university, and though it was chaotic, she tells me how beneficial it was to learn under various technical directors as the school was in a state of transition at the turn of the millennium. COPA or Point Park’s Conservatory of the Performing Arts, had, and still has, excellent connections with the technical needs of professional Pittsburgh companies. Therefore, Hykes-Davis was able to work for Gemini Children’s Theater in Wilkinsburg, Penn Avenue Theatre, and Apple Hill Playhouse while she was still earning her degree.

Upon graduation, she filled me in on so many locations where she worked on theatre that it’s impossible to remember them all, even for her. She says her resumé is well over two pages and she’s had to start cutting items. Sure enough it only covers work done in the last three years and it’s two pages long.

Her list of theatres from her twenty-something days includes: West Virginia Public Theater; Memphis’ Playhouse On the Square; and the California Repertory Theatre in Santa Rosa, California. She’s worked in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and interestingly: Germany. (Not that Oklahoma and Kentucky aren’t interesting.) It’s more that the experimental work she did overseas couldn’t be done anywhere else. She worked for a company called Das Letzte Kleinoid, which in German means, “The Last Treasure,” or The Last Small Precious Thing.” Their work was site-specific. Once, they created an original piece, specific to a small island that used to be the site of a concentration camp. Their writers interviewed survivors and created a performance based on their accounts of what happened there, and how a boat would take Holocaust survivors from the camp and into Canada. Hykes-Davis tells me they worked with a cast that was half Canadian and half German and did half of the show on that island and half on another port in Canada. From the emotion in her retelling, it’s clear that the experience affected Hykes deeply, even though – and she laughed as she told me – that her personal work involved peeling potatoes and coordinating the light design with local shipping signals so they wouldn’t interfere with port traffic.

After injuring her collarbone, her years of travel were at a standstill as she moved home to Pittsburgh from Kentucky to heal. Soon after, she earned her M.F.A. in Technical Theatre and Design from West Virginia University. She commuted to Morgantown from Pittsburgh almost every day and, looking tired as she remembered it aloud, “listened to a lot of NPR.”

Morgantown’s theatre climate is similar to Pittsburgh, she says, albeit smaller. Her work for her M.F.A. introduced her to Morgantown’s theatres and also introduced her to teaching for the college level. I don’t think she expected to like it so much. But, considering that she can still remember a Robert Edmund Jones’ description from an undergrad textbook gift, I’ll say I’m not surprised.

“One of my professors from Point Park gave me one of his [Robert Edmund Jones] books as a graduation present. We studied him again in grad school, and I’m reading it again now, because I’m going to make the students at Cal U buy it.”

Our whole discussion, Hykes-Davis has been cheerful, but relaxed from all of the exhaustion. When discussing Jones’ and teaching, though, she sits up straighter in the booth, “There’s a whole great chapter in there on costume design, called ‘Notes to Costume Designers’ and they’re talking about – I think it was Shakespeare, maybe, or Moliére – and there’s a whole paragraph talking about how a woman enters the room. It’s flowery, describing how she enters the room like a ship with sails unfurled or something. He breaks it down and says, ‘Ok, what does this mean about her costume? Does it mean you should put a ship on her? No. But then, how does that inform the design? How can you make it appear that when she’s walking on stage, she becomes a ship?’”

Seeing opportunity and creative design options in a script requires training your eye and imagination, and getting a classroom full of students to see that seems like a daunting task to me. I suddenly have sympathy for my own undergraduate design instructor. Though, I don’t think that’s what instructors like Hykes-Davis want. I think all they want is an open mind. They crave a blank slate and the willingness to collaborate.

“I think when people are more open…people trying to do a concept tend to be the more collaborative ones. [The process works best in places] Where someone has set the tone, whether it’s the director or the stage manager…where they kind of welcome everybody’s input. And they come to the meeting with very specific ideas, but not like ‘I want the staircase to be three foot wide.’ Instead, they say, ‘I want it to feel like their world is falling apart” or “the happiest days these people will ever experience.’ It’s very specific, but it’s a jumping-off point. As opposed to someone who walks in wanting ‘white curtains.’ That drives me nuts.”

It’s excellent for an educational environment, certainly, but I wonder. Does that really work on the professional level? How separate are all of the job responsibilities? What if your ideas aren’t the ones the director goes with? Her response is remarkably humble.

“I try to put them out there, but I also try not to be personally offended when it doesn’t work out. It’s not about what I want. Just because I think something would be really cool, doesn’t mean that it best serves the production as a whole.”

Being humble, apparently, is being practical and a key component, I think, of being a good collaborator and finding success in the theatre. How different is this point of view from our mainstream capitalist perspective.

“I tend to back down fairly often unless it’s something I think is going to be very unclear to the audience, or unsafe, or you don’t have time/budget to make it happen. That’s something I have a fight with a lot. There are a lot of places I work for who don’t have huge budgets or a lot of time. So, they try to figure what the most important thing is to put on stage, and that’s sometimes an issue. Distilling down what is best going to tell the story, and what we can live without.”

No matter where you go, Broadway or Pittsburgh or Oklahoma, she says, budget will always limit your design execution. It doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, though. It gives a designer their parameters, and if you prefer simplicity, like Hykes-Davis, then your goal is to find the most effective storytelling pieces.

Sabrina is a Bertolt Brecht fan. “I like that whole idea of taking things from the set and having them turn into something else,” and like the cart in Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Seeing the set as almost another character creates strong, active concepts. Influenced by her Point Park professor, Hykes-Davis maintains that she is a big Robert Edmund Jones’ fan as well.

“He was a designer, stenographer, and I think he was in the 1920s,” she explains to me. “His big thing was: when you walk into a theatre and see the set, you should just know what the play’s about. The whole play. Just from looking at the set. I think that might be a little bit of a stretch, but I think it can capture it. It should be so tied in with what’s going on that it’s not scenery just because it’s scenery.”

However, she clarifies that, metaphor abuse notwithstanding, “Don’t try to fit too much metaphor into one object. If it takes more than four steps to justify it, you’re probably stretching.”

She’s learned from designers all over the country, in different cities, theatres, from undergraduate and graduate degree settings, and from her own peers, but she credits her parents with being her most influential mentors. “My parents set me on this course. Most people have parents that want them to have a ‘real major’ and mine just think it is cool that I do theatre. For better or worse, money wasn’t anything they were too concerned about us having growing up, so they don’t measure my success that way.”

Sabrina Hykes-Davis and her husband dined with me in the afternoon like friendly neighbors, shared stories with ease, and complimented each other like happy married couples do. Her voice doesn’t obnoxiously project over a crowd like mine; she’s softer-spoken, but no less quick-witted or funny. Considering her traveling experience and all of the straight-up design credits she has accumulated, she is surprisingly humble and kind. Indeed, I think that description alone says something about the unique quality of Pittsburgh theatre in a nutshell: we should be proud that we’ve created an environment in which a warm-hearted and hardworking person like Sabrina Hykes-Davis measures as a success.

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Artist Spotlight: Leon Zionts

Headshot (Amy Smith Photography)

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.

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* 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.

Artist Spotlight: Clare Drobot

Clare-Drobot Headshot (1)

Clare-Drobot Headshot (1)

Every year, July is surprisingly busy. We’re juggling work, weddings, vacations, new projects and exercise routines. I know I’m definitely starting to sweat just considering my conflicting rehearsal schedules, part-time job, and this new writing gig. It’s exhausting. A fun, fireworks display type of exhausting – but still, the kind where you can barely form complex thought afterward. My brain was becoming used to feeling like Jell-O when I met one of City Theatre’s newest staff members, the Director of New Play Development, Clare Drobot.

While me and the rest of my ilk, the recently graduated theatre artists, are running about the city like headless velociraptors, Drobot is contentedly hidden high away in her brightly painted office on the City Theatre’s third floor, her belfry, as she calls it, surrounded by new script submissions and literary references. Apart from working closely with playwrights to develop their work, she also works on choosing plays with City’s Artistic Director and Artistic Producer, Tracy Brigden and Reginald L. Douglas (respectively) for their upcoming season; creating lobby displays; creating research packets for productions; writing program notes; hosting talk backs; and other community engagement events. For her, it’s a dream job.

“I was lucky enough to see one or two productions at City when I was in college, and there is so much love and amazing technical skill in these productions – really fantastic – and knowing that you’re coming to a place whose art is really exciting to see on stage – is special.”

A native of Fairfax county, just outside of Washington D.C., Drobot first came to Pittsburgh as an undergrad student to attend Carnegie Mellon University. While there, she earned a B.F.A. in Music Composition and a B.A. in Creative Writing. Her junior year, she was lucky enough to have a screenwriting class with the late Milan Stitt, American playwright and educator, then head of Carnegie Mellon’s M.F.A. Dramatic Writing program. Drobot credits her professors, and the level of integrity and intensity with which they brought to their work, as having a profound affect on her as an artist and as a person. She also became heavily involved, even serving as its president for a time, with CMU’s Scotch’n’Soda, a student-run theatre organization, producing four full length plays a year. Considering all of the producing, directing, technical, managing, musical composing, and even acting experience she gained with it, I joked with Drobot that she actually graduated with a third, honorary degree in theatre.

Drobot admits that she has “one of those weird, random backgrounds” and it took her a while to figure out how she fit into the theatre world. The CMU career center helped Drobot find a casting internship with the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. Though she cites McCarter as being a huge first step during her formative early-twenties, Drobot finds it difficult to pinpoint one influential experience as having led her to where she is now: “There’s a roll of the dice that leads you from Point A to Point B, and I don’t know if I’d get to any point I’ve gotten to without all of the places I’ve worked.”

Writing has always been a part of her life. Clare recently wrote the book and lyrics for a song cycle The Bakken Formations with composer and friend Fritz Myers.  The piece follows the lives of characters working and living in the fracking boomtown of Williston, ND and was part of Ars Nova’s ANT Fest in 2014. Luna Stage, Passage Theatre, and the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences have also developed her work.

Other than playwriting and the natural intersection of music composition, it’s difficult, even for her, to pin down a chronology of her résumé. My favorite moment in trying to keep up with this was when she laughed and admitted that she even co-founded her own theatre company with a couple of friends, called The BE Company, while she lived in New York City. She describes it as an adult, professional version of CMU’s Scotch’n’Soda, with a focus on staged readings, rewrites, rehearsals, and a second set of readings. Sex on Sunday, by Chisa Hutchinson ended up being the last show The BE Company produced.

At this point, Drobot had already been doing literary work at the Passage Theatre and had interned for New Dramatists. But James McManus’ Cherry Smoke for Clockwork Theatre marked the beginning of Drobot’s pursuit of dramaturgy and fascination with the developing of others’ works. She’s worked with many playwrights: Dominique Morisseau, Noah Haidle, and Pittsburgh native, Tammy Ryan, just to name a few. “Every time you work with a playwright it’s a different process,” Drobot tells me.

“Sometimes you get brought in by the director, sometimes you get brought in by the playwright, sometimes you’re part of the producing organization … It’s exciting. I love that kind of stuff, so it’s cool to jump in to all of these worlds and explore,” she grins through my computer screen during our first FaceTime interview, and the orange wall of her office off sets the glow in her face.

“Each project brings its own joys and challenges. Sometimes it’s work that has a historical or niche factual base, [so] sometimes it’s heavy research. Sometimes it’s more about structure and finding a journey…help[ing] trace the arc of a story… It’s being that sounding board when everyone’s knee deep in a project.”

Although theatre students are expected to think critically like this every day in their studies, dramaturgy isn’t something many undergraduate theatre students are familiar with. Or even some working theatre artists, for that matter. According to LMDA, the volunteer membership organization for Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of America, of which Drobot is a member, the job of a dramaturg is to “contextualize the world of a play; establish connections among the text, actors, and audience; offer opportunities for playwrights; generate projects and programs; and create conversations about plays in their communities.” It makes sense that Drobot didn’t settle into dramaturgy until years later. Her experiences also make her uniquely well-suited for it.

“For me, because I didn’t come up through the M.F.A. route, I was lucky enough to work in a bunch of literary offices. I got to work in a variety of places…and I got to meet all of these different people. It was really influential to me to see that there are all of these different approaches to it. It’s one of those fields that has a malleability to it.”

Before landing the resident dramaturg position at Premiere Stages at Kean University in Fall 2010, she had also been a Literary Associate for a long time with Passage Theatre in Trenton, New Jersey, again involving herself in regional theatre under artistic director June Ballinger.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of amazing women in the theatre. From Emily Mann at McCarter, to Emily Morse at New Dramatists, and June [Ballinger], and Laura [Stanczyk], and now Tracy [Brigden]… All of these women have forged a path through theatre.”

Now, she’s thirty-three and she’s moved to Pittsburgh, PA from the Big Apple to take a dream job with City Theatre. With all of her experience in mind, a humble Pittsburgher might be confused as to why she didn’t stay in New York. I would say that the average Pittsburgher doesn’t realize what we have on our South Side. Clare Drobot explains:

“It was specifically about the opportunities, getting to work at a place like City Theatre. One of the wonderful things about the regional theatre community is the fact that is a community and I think it’s different in the way you get to know and interact with your audience than some of the things in New York.”

She tells me how wonderful it’s been to arrive into City Theatre’s phenomenal community. She feels like she’s in really good hands. I wanted to confirm, it’s not just because we’re kinder over here, or something, right? What about the difference in production quality? How does it compare?

“It’s the same spectrum. Both in terms of budgetary worlds and artistic, there is amazing work going on in Pittsburgh and there’s amazing work going on in New York, and yeah they’re different, and they’re slightly different audiences to some extent, but I think that there’s a lot of great work in both communities. Pittsburgh is a very different town than New York, but equally exciting.”

She was excited to come back to Pittsburgh and noticed that “there’s this wonderful energy in the city at the moment. It’s an exciting thing to be a part of.”  Specifically, she’s referencing the theatre community. “There is a nice ecosystem of theatres in the city. Working at City has been amazing. We have a fantastic staff and Tracy is a fantastic artistic director. It’s a dream gig. The idea that there are theatre companies who are younger and putting forth different work at the same time, in the same city – it’s exciting.”

After ten years of being away, there were bound to be bigger changes in Pittsburgh’s atmosphere. “To me, the thing that feels the most different now – and maybe I just didn’t intersect with it while I was in undergrad – is that there’s a bunch of younger people who are either staying in town or are coming back to town. They’re trying all of these new restaurants, theatre companies, arts, and music…New York seems to be in the throes of some pretty horrific gentrification right now – and I don’t know if it’s happening in Pittsburgh – but it feels like there are a lot of people who are so Pittsburgh proud that it feels like there’ll be a way to preserve some of the diversity and communities that make Pittsburgh wonderful and make it such a livable city.”

Yes, there are several factors, but isn’t that what theatre artists do? Constantly remembering and creating new communities for people to explore, or more specifically, it’s what dramaturgs do: “Looking at the world from a bunch of different perspectives, and trying to figure out how you become a part of a community and how do you open your doors to a community and say, ‘We hope the work on stage resonates with you.’”

Drobot encourages Pittsburgh audience members to take a risk. See a show. Hug a playwright. “At its best, theatre can introduce someone to new worlds, or even have them think about a subject in an new light and it doesn’t even have to be political. I think that’s what’s exciting about New Play Development. With words that are coming from the present, it’s exciting because you’re telling someone that – even if the form has been used before – the words haven’t necessarily been focused or spoken to an audience. That’s what excites me as an artist.”

City theatre will open its doors on Saturday September 12 with a Backstage Block Party from 1 to 4 pm. The event is free and will feature theatre games and activities for all ages, tours of City Theatre stages and facilities, a preview of City’s upcoming season featuring favorite local actors, food trucks, music, and more.

Come be surprised at what Pittsburgh’s own young, insightful, Clare Drobot-like minds have to say about their world. City Theatre’s Young Playwrights Festival just recently held auditions and will stage six professional productions of the finalists’ one-act plays from September 29th to October 9th 2015.

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Artist Spotlight: Matt Henderson

Henderson, Matt

Henderson, Matt

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.”

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Artist Spotlight: Connor Bahr

Connor Bahr_0

Connor Bahr_0

“I feel like I’m not talking about anything.”

You’re talking about everything.

Before listening to Connor Bahr’s zeal for absurdism, one might wonder what more can be gleaned from these pieces of theatre. What more could a bunch of existential white guys like Stoppard and Beckett have to say? Didn’t they already have their time? Sometimes it’s just two guys on a bench, prying the other open, like in Edward Albee’s Zoo Story. Why put yourself through that mind-warp for nothing?

Before Bahr begins, he glances at my notebook and iPhone app recorder and apologizes for the prepositional cliché, “In this post-9/11 world, reeking of terrorism and a global community unable to function most of the time, things look pretty bleak. It feels futile.” The immediacy of absurdist theatre is clear. The phrase, ‘I laugh because if not I’d cry,’ comes to mind.

Hailing from the uppish South Hills neighborhood of Mt. Lebanon – where houses don’t even have basements – Connor Bahr appears to be a typical Point Park University graduate, involving himself in the Pittsburgh theatre scene as best he can. Complete with button-down collar and easy-going handshake, Bahr’s introduction seemed ordinary. He’s learning his way around the craft and the business, making plenty of mistakes and friends along the way. He has been a stage manager, assistant stage manager, director, assistant director, actor, and technician. The range of experience on his theatre major résumé, though wide, is not unexpected. ‘Stilt walking’ makes an appearance in his special skills section, sure, but other actors have included tap dance, juggling, acrobatic skill, and foreign language levels. Truth is, in the theatre world, not much is unheard of these days. So, why are you hearing about Connor Bahr?

Well, because he just graduated from Point Park and founded a production company this summer. He’s 22. The production company focuses on absurdist theatre, because that’s what he’s good at, he says, and so far it’s artistically directed and managed by one person: him. It’s called TACT Theater Company. If you talked to him for as long as I did, you wouldn’t think that ironic.

“The whole reason I started it was because I was so tired of waiting for opportunities. You have to make your own things happen,” he says.

He definitely found a way to make it happen. TACT’s premiere production, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, ran for four performances, June 26th-29th, after a jam-packed two-week rehearsal period. The production was only made possible, Bahr says, thanks to local support from the larger theatre companies: Pittsburgh CLO, Pittsburgh Musical Theatre, and Spotlight Costumes. Bahr is also grateful to Actors Equity Association for supplying him five equity contracts, which allowed him to cast Equity Actors, giving the Hamlet roles in R&G the weight and gravitás he felt they deserved.

Read our review of the entertaining performance here, and look forward to seeing more from TACT, maybe even within the year, as Connor Bahr is crazy enough, and crazy-passionate enough, to do this for a while, or at least “as long as it lasts.”

His love of absurdist theatre is obvious and he admits to identifying with the voices of playwrights like Tom Stoppard and Samuel Beckett. His favorite play is Beckett’s classic Waiting for Godot.

“When I read it in high school, I found it hilarious, but very depressing. I thought, ‘how could anyone see anything other than utter despair in this?’ Then, years later, I saw it performed, and instead I saw two guys who never gave up. No matter what. No matter what happens they’re going to be waiting for Godot. It was hopeful to me, for some reason.”

Rather than over-analyze it, like most literature classes love to do, Bahr’s experience with absurdist theatre is focused and practical. “I just think it’s one of the most honest styles of theatre, and the funniest. How niche and weird it is; it speaks to my life.”

This shy kid from Mt. Lebanon suddenly made more sense to me, but I still wondered how receptive Pittsburgh would be to an exclusively heady form of theatre that actors and directors generally stay away from. Bahr may have found his niche, but are the everyday “yinzers,” as he affectionately calls them, ready for that?

“Absolutely. I’m doing a kind of theatre that’s been misunderstood and given a bad rap. Some say it’s stupid, or boring, or so intellectual that it doesn’t mean anything…” He obviously wants to alter that message: “…if yinzers hear that, why would they even bother?”

Talk about challenging. It’s not written around a central societal-improvement message. It’s not even exactly what the Humana Festival churns out every year. And it’s definitely not Rogers and Hammerstein.  He explains that even though there is extensive dramaturgy surrounding works like Pinter and Albee, revealing realities the playwrights and society dealt with at the time, Bahr very wisely states those realities cannot be acted.

“I don’t care if people don’t get all the deep meanings of these plays. That doesn’t matter to me. If they’re not looking for that deep meaning, why try to force it? That’s not what it [the play] is to them. I’m trying to put on an interesting night that will probably get some people to think about it. But if some people just sit and laugh, or don’t laugh, and just watch it – that’s great, too.” Especially with absurdist theatre, audience members will either get it or they won’t, and the effective comprehension of those realities are most often a result of a high quality production.

When pressed for how he sees TACT’s absurdist presentation affecting change in the grander scheme of things, he concedes, and exposes his own high expectations for Pittsburgh audiences:

“These plays do have messages, but it really is up to the audience member to find it. People don’t give audiences enough credit. They try to make it too accessible and that’s a problem. I think it takes away from the audience’s chance to figure it out for themselves.”

Most of the time, Bahr refrains from pushing a concept onto an absurdist work, or any theatrical work for that matter, because he wants it to be as the playwright intended it. Otherwise, he feels it loses something, “[that] chance to feel smart. They don’t have to lean in and engage themselves because you’re explaining it to them. It kind of defeats the communicative purpose of theatre.”

Bahr confides his ticket sales to me, his drastic need for a marketing director, his newfound appreciation for delegating, and his inadequacies with social media. Yet, with his belief, he stopped my petrified chuckle in the back of my throat. He believes his artistic success is affirmed in the way the audiences were confused, and in the way the audiences laughed.

The telltale sign of a person’s adjustment in the world is their sense of humor. In reference to those moments of confusion or shock, in life and on stage, Bahr agrees, “I think what you think about in those moments says what this play means to you at the time and is indicative of what kind of a person you are.”

Like a modern art museum experience, in experiencing the artist’s work and worth, the judgment is reflected back on you. How good are you at paying attention? How much fun do you have? Keep an eye out for Connor Bahr’s TACT Theater Company and you can measure up those moments, or measure up to those moments for yourself.

To keep track of our Artist Spotlight Series, find us on Facebook, Twitter and #artistspotlightpgh – See more at: http://pghstage.com/drupal_old/node/599#sthash.MonMZ9uL.dpuf

To keep track of our Artist Spotlight Series, find us on Facebook, Twitter and #artistspotlightpgh

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Artist Spotlight: Virginia Wall Gruenert

virginia

virginia

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.

 

To keep track of our Artist Spotlight Series, find us on Facebook, Twitter and #artistspotlightpgh

*A previous version of this article stated the incorrect stylization of off the WALL’s name.

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