PICT Teaches Romeo and Juliet Lessons in the Neighborhood

rj-431x500When a door opens to create new productions in a historic spaces, creative opportunities are revealed. Now, PICT Classic Theatere brings classic stories to two of Pittsburgh’s most storied settings–the Fred Rogers Studio of WQED-TV in Oakland and The Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze.

This season, Artistic Director Alan Stanford leads as key storyteller to stage classics that fill an important niche in our regional arts menu. He will direct both Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Oct. 20-Nov. 4, and his own adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, April 5-28, in the studio where Mister Rogers was produced. Between adventures in production at WQED, the company takes up residence at the Frick Art & Historical Center for a week of Oscar Wilde programming, Dec. 6-10, in the museum’s lovely and intimate theater.

While many Pittsburghers already relate to the Rogers’ Studio as home of  “The Land of Make Believe,” PICT will bring it’s own versions of imagined stories to life.

Stanford considers the space one of the best block theaters in the city. Equipped for versatile television production, the studio will accommodate a 160-seat audience configuration.

PICT’s 100th production, this R&J takes a modern approach in playing out the timely themes Shakespeare explored via two teens whose affections cross the lines of feuding families. As this play is set in Italy, Stanford moves the action stateside to an Italian-American community suggesting New York’s Little Italy in the 1930s.

“You could set this play anywhere in the world at any time,” says Stanford. “The important point about the play that is true and has been true for over 400 years is that it’s a play about the damage that families and their feuds can do to their children.”

Stanford usually produces one Shakespeare play each season and he realizes the popularity of Romeo and Juliet might cloud the audience’s’ view of its importance for revisiting the play and often.  “This is one everyone should watch now and again–especially if you have children,” he says.

He points to the prologue’s clear foreshadowing: “Two households both alike in dignity. Shakespeare tells you that the two protagonists die and that they are not superior to one another.”  

Stanford is excited about the young pair he is directing in the title roles. Adrianne Knapp is Juliet and Dylan Meyers is her Romeo.

The meddling Nurse and Friar Laurence are played by PICT regulars Karen Baum and James FitzGerald. Art Peden is Prince of the turbulent neighborhood.

Cast in the Capulet house are: Martin Giles, Lord Capulet; Shammen McCune, Lady Capulet; Daniel Pivovar, Tybalt; Jonathan Visser, Paris; and Christopher Collier, Gregory. Portraying some of Romeo’s friends on the Montague side are: Alec Silberblatt, Mercutio; and Lamar K. Cheston, Benvolio. Rounding out the cast of 15 are: Matt Henderson, Sampson/Peter; Eric Freitas, Friar John/Abram; and Sarah Carleton, Girl 1.

PICT’s seasons continues on the East End moving from Shakespeare to writers Oscar Wilde and Charlotte Bronte as the company moves to Point Breeze and back to Oakland.

At the Frick for “Wilde at the Frick”, PICT presents a week-long exploration of Oscar Wilde and varied aspects of his life and works. Stanford loves the Center’s ambiance and its popular cafe, saying, “Afternoon tea is one of the secrets of Pittsburgh!”

On the work to be done, “I’ve been an Oscar Wilde fan all of my life. Oscar was majestic with language.” Stanford points out that while audiences enjoy many of Wilde’s works as English comedies, that “he really wrote a lot of Irish satires about the English.”

Stanford’s describes the dramatist as “a philosopher” who, like Dickens, wrote “brilliant articles” on the unjust imprisonment of children and social issues.

The play In the Company of Oscar Wilde has its US premiere with just five performances beginning on  Dec. 6. Crafted from Wilde’s words and writing, the dramatic piece draws a portrait of the brilliant writer who created some of the most enduring plays of the Edwardian era and a man who was imprisoned for homosexuality around his affair with a younger man, Bosie Douglas.

On Dec. 10 only, the company presents a rare dramatic evening about Wilde’s third trial based on the scarce documentation of the events as reconstructed by the writer’s grandson Merlin Holland. PICT describes the program as: “A recreation of the final cross-examination of Wilde by Sir William Carson at the famous trial of the Marquis of Queensbury, a dramatic exchange that cost Oscar his freedom and reputation.” A post-show discussion follows.

Coincidently, the Frick’s current exhibit is “Undressed”, on the history of undergarments, and open at times coinciding with some PICT events. Consult The Frick website for details.

For families and all ages, the company also performs two of Wilde’s beloved fairy tales, The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant, written for his two sons. The one-hour program takes place only on Sat., Dec. 9 at 2 pm, with tickets at just $10.

PICT returns to the Rogers Studio for Jane Eyre, April 5-28, with the adaptation Stanford originally wrote on commission for the Gate Theatre in Dublin. An audience favorite at companies including the Guthrie Theater, the story of a governess and the secrets that haunt her beloved and his family.  

Stanford expects to share more news from PICT as the season continues. Watch for updates and visit the website to guarantee tickets as seating capacities for these intimate and compelling events: http://www.picttheatre.org.

The Homestead Strike of 1892

LatestLatestFlyerThe voices and stories of Pittsburghers bring the Battle of Homestead to life in Mark Clayton Southers’ The Homestead Strike of 1892. Dramatic historical interpretation by some of the region’s leading actors recreate vivid moments from one of American labor’s most significant management vs. workers incidents.

The world premiere was created as part of the Battle of Homestead Foundation’s 125th anniversary commemoration of the clash between unionist steelworkers and mill owner Andrew Carnegie and his plant manager Henry Clay Frick. The script introduces some of those who experienced the strike and its outcomes.

The historic Pump House in Homestead is the setting for the action that took place right there on the Monongahela River and its shores.

The characters include some of the workers at the Homestead Steel Works, employees of the Carnegie Steel Company. They were members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (forerunner to the United Steelworkers).

Southers himself was a steelwork for 18 years, so his perspective on the heat, dangers, and physical labor of steel making is first-hand.

“I really understood the sacrifices those workers and their neighbors made for the cause of labor and fair wages,” says Southers, who is the founder and artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

The Foundation program describes the events, which were reported around the world: “The Battle of Homestead began July 6, 1892, when thousands of locked-out steelworkers and townspeople clashed with Pinkerton guards hired by Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie. Management fortified the steel mills and both sides fired guns and cannons at each other. The Pinkertons surrendered and townsfolk, including women and children, rained blows upon them and tore their clothes, then burned the barges they floated in on.”

Scene from attempted assassination of HC Frick (L-R Matt Henderson, Arjun Kumar, Paul Guggenheim, Michael Sullivan as Frick)
Scene from attempted assassination of HC Frick (L-R Matt Henderson, Arjun Kumar, Paul Guggenheim, Michael Sullivan as Frick)

Regional social activist Mel Packer portrays Andrew Carnegie who turns management of the mill over to Henry Clay Frick, personified by Michael Sullivan, in his absence. While Carnegie retreated to Scotland, Frick brought in the Pinkerton detectives to take back the mill. The hiring of scab labor further fueled the animosity and the National Guard was also summoned. Overall, seven workers and three of the some 300-400 Pinkerton agents were killed with some 60 people wounded.

The action is set in the mill, the nearby Bost Building (the union’s headquarters on Eighth Ave.), the riverfront and Frick and Carnegie conduct business, among other locations. The audience needs to accept that the Pump House is not a theater, but a historical site accommodating a story that runs a bit more than one hour.

Arrive assuming to take on the role of listener than to be entertained. For this show, expect to hear a story not a hi-tech production. This is a site-specific piece about the often unheard voices of those who lived and died during these significant events. Listen and learn more about the industrials whose names are one our museums and libraries. You’ll get to know some of the townspeople of Homestead, a place that deserves our attention and respect for its role in planting the roots of the labor movement and how the steelworkers and their descendants have survived all that’s happened here since.

The Battle guns are heard (L-R Jonathan Visser, Susie McGregor-Laine, Paul Guggenheim)
The Battle guns are heard (L-R Jonathan Visser, Susie McGregor-Laine, Paul Guggenheim)

The cast members are stellar storytellers in multiple roles. Their characters share a stark historic drama in the Pump House where raised platforms and a small audience area creates an intimate experience.

The scenes are connected by major story points read by narrator Paul Guggenheimer. The actor and broadcaster provides a contemporary viewpoint while also interacting with the historical action. He’s internationally anachronistic but it’s a way into another time and the place in which the audience sits and once shows up as a reporter questioning Frick.

As Frick takes over, the narrator says: “They called it Fort Frick. After all, he was the one behind it. While Carnegie shot quail in the Scottish Highlands, Frick had his sights set on the working man right here in Homestead.”

Mel Packer portrays a rather stoic Andrew Carnegie and Michael Sullivan appears as the cold and calculating Frick. For balance, Southers adds a character of his own, Raymond Washington, created by Wali Jamal provides an eyewitness account.

David Crawford’s description of his work as a “puddler” in the mill is a fascinating look at steelmaking tasks that required much strength and stamina. He shares that a reformer said to him: “It’s an outrage that men should have to work like this.” “They don’t have to,” he replied. “Nobody forced me to do this,” the puddler explains. “I do it because I would rather live in an Iron Age than live in a world of ox-carts. Man can take his choice.”

Crawford appears later as Robert Pinkerton with the chilling account of what the guards’ at first secret but somewhat doomed mission.

Juggling the roles of Carnegie Steel’s John Alfred Potter, steelworker John McLuckie, Ed Spear and others is the capable Jonathan Visser who creates a handful of memorable characters and their stories. His Ed Spear captivates as he describes the “trap” set for the arriving Pinkertons who traveled to Homestead on a barge but were not told their destination.

Marcus Muzzopappa portrays Pastor James J. McIlyer, one of the local clergy who eulogized slain workers and called for unionization as the solution for worker’s rights.

Would-be assassin Alexander Berkman takes aim at Frick ( Arjun Kumar)
Would-be assassin Alexander Berkman takes aim at Frick ( Arjun Kumar)

Susan McGregor-Laine takes an authentic turn as the Irish keeper of the Rolling Mill Tavern and a leading organizer Margaret “Mother” Finch and also Meredith Davies. The cast also features Kan Champion as union president William Weihe and James Howard who appears as Frick’s porter and others. Matt Henderson provides strong support in multiple roles.

When Russian activist Emma Goldman, played by Sara Fisher-Ventura reads of the strike in a New York newspaper, she rallies her colleague Alexander Berkman, portrayed by Arjun Kumar, to get involved. Following the strike, he attempts to assassinate Frick by shooting and stabbing him in his Pittsburgh office. Frick lives, but the strike dies. The characters gather on stage to share the epilogue and reinforce the importance of this history.

Southers concise dramatic retelling deserves long life as an educational and theatrical piece in our region and beyond. His script provides the Battle of Homestead Foundation with vignettes full of potential as stuff of interpretative history for future programs and docent-driven work.

The Homestead Strike of 1892 plays Friday and Saturday, September 22, and 23 at 7:00 pm, with matinees Friday at 1 pm and Sun. at 2:00 pm. More tickets have been made available for all remaining performances as the opening weekend sold out. Tickets are on sale for $20 at directly at: eventbrite.com

The Pump House is located at 880 East Waterfront Drive, adjacent to the Waterfront complex in Munhall (15120), past the Lowe’s side of the shopping area.

Southers’ play is part of a yearlong series of offerings to honor the Homestead battle and related history. Visit battleofhomestead.org for details. Events are funded in part by The Waterfront, The Rivers of Steel Heritage Area, United Steelworkers, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Read more about the strike and local labor history at Battle of Homestead Foundation

Photos by Lynne Squilla and Rosemary Trump

Artist Spotlight: Rachel Stevens

6-2It’s only Tom Stoppard and the question of the root of human consciousness, but rising American director Rachel Stevens eagerly takes on The Hard Problem for Quantum Theater. The Wallingford, PA, native puts her life and theater chops to work at a point in her career trajectory that seems just right. Her journey is taking her between New York and Pittsburgh and Stevens is enjoying the ride.

Growing up in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, Steven became fascinated with theater from first playing “make believe” with her brother and following his path through school plays (debuting as Gretel in The Sound of Music at age 5) to college and grad school.

“I come from a very tight, small supportive family,” says Stevens. “My grandparents lived down the street from us–me, my brother Marcus and mother and myself. When my brother was seven he asked for a little sister” and she became his “biggest fan”.

Her commitment for further study in theater was confirmed when she came to Pittsburgh to see his work at Point Park University and she wound up in the MFA program in musical theater. Stevens was initially on stage in school and college projects, but the concept of directing clicked for her.  

“I always wanted to be in charge of how the time machine was built and our environments…I loved creating concepts that elevated the storytelling.” She went on to earn her MFA in New York at the Actors Theater Drama School at Pace University.

The show her brother was working on at PPU was the musical Floyd Collins at PPU, which Stevens would herself stage in Pittsburgh along with The Spitfire Grill for Front Porch Theatricals’ 2016 season.

“It was a great experience. I loved the company’s family,” she says, likening the close-knit company to the appeal of her early theater experiences.

Front Porch fell between her earliest regional stints as an assistant director at City Theatre and for two world premieres–most recently, the Broadway hit musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 as well as The Bandstand, a new musical debuted at Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey.

“Stoppard’s hard to resist,” Stevens confirms. “Arcadia was one of the most mesmerizing experiences I’ve had in the theater.”

And Quantum is a truly comfortable match for Stevens. The Hard Problem is the stuff of which Artistic Director Karla Boos has built Quantum with its production history distinctively characterized by choices of plays and venues vary significantly from those of other regional companies.

“My relationship with Karla is fairly new, “ says Stevens, but “we are very kindred spirits.”

Stevens was still awaiting final word on the venue for this Stoppard play when we spoke to her in early August and the location is still to be announced as this story is posted. But the mystery for her creative team adds to the anticipation of yet another unforgettable audience experience for Quantum fans.

Quantum describes the play as: “Bristling with intellectual energy and wit…exploring the complexities of consciousness, and the nature of belief.”

The Hard Problem had its premiere at London’s National Theatre in 2015, and Quantum presents its regional premiere.

Stoppard introduces Hilary, a young neuroscientist who questions the source of consciousness at the same time she’s working through some personal sadness and loss. She and her colleagues raise all the hard questions that will keep audiences members’ own brain cells working through Stoppard’s adroit dialogue gymnastics. Like Arcadia, this script promises to awaken those drowsy thought processes to consider the questions of science through characters whose lives represent the human experience while they consider technology’s role in understanding the mind.  

Stevens considers it “the journey to find where our hearts live beyond our brain,” noting that she identifies with Hilary’s “twinkling optimism about the way the world functions.”

As rehearsals begin on September 26, Stevens has prepared through her intuitive process–reading and rereading the text while alternately her personal work with production conferences and her own wedding to PPU alumnus Joey Scarillo in Pittsburgh in late August. She’s made the shift from wedding to production planning with a design team of colleagues she knows that includes Stephanie Mayer-Staley, scenic designer via Point Park University, and Andrew Ostrowski, the lighting designer who also lit her wedding.

Regarding her found space venue, “starting from scratch is scary,” Steven admits. But she’s up for the challenge. This director’s own journey on the location of this production is like that of Quantum audiences–surprise us and we won’t mind a bit as Stevens aims to “make this play soar off the page.”

She describes it as “finding where the audience’s heartbeat is in the play…I don’t think there is another company that can do that.”

Sure, Stoppard’s writing can seem dense, but she works to ‘distill it down the gorgeousness of the language.” Steven seriously admits, “I try not try to think about it too much.”

To get there, she describes her process as reading the text “like a story” about six times to date, “writing questions, underlining things”. She then asks “What is the scene really about?” and “What does the character really want?” And “what is the journey EACH of these characters is on?” As she begins working with her cast, they’ll travel to “find where their hearts really are.”

Quantum Theatre’s The Hard Problem continues its 2017-18 season, Oct. 27 to Nov. 19 on the 5th Floor of the Energy Innovation Center at 1435 Bedford Ave. Red Hills, runs through Sept. 10. Pittsburgher Gab Cody’s Inside Passage has its world premiere, March 2-25. For details on plays, venues, special events, and tickets, the Quantum Theatre, quantumtheatre.com.

Design team for The Hard Problem:

Stephanie Mayer-Staley, Scenic Design
Andrew Ostrowski, Lighting Design
Angela Vesco, Costume Design
Joe Spinogatti, Projection Design

Historic Labor Conflict Comes to Life in New Battle of Homestead Play At The Pump House

LatestLatestFlyerAt the end of June, actor Mark Rylance shared how he caught the Pittsburgh bug on his first visit more than a decade ago, fueling new projects steeped in our region’s labor history. Fresh from an exclusive visit to the Edgar Thomson works on June 30, Rylance drew the focus of guests at a meet-and-greet fundraiser at the historic Bost Building in Homestead on a date with significance to the 1892 Battle of Homestead and the foundation that takes that name. A preview of his script-in-progress with co-author Peter Reder and a cadre of regional actors captivated a full house at Homestead’s Carnegie Library Hall in early July.

Now, the series of events presented by the Battle of Homestead Foundation continues commemoration of the 125th anniversary of clash between steelworkers and mill owners, including Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie.

Mark Clayton Southers’ historical one-act play The Homestead Strike of 1892 brings stories of this conflict to life through his research of memoirs and documentation of the event. Southers’ fact-based dramatization is likely to be as mesmerizing as those accounts shared this summer, so audiences are in for a relevant and revealing historic journey. The September 15-23 performances take place in the historic Pump House where critical riverside events rolled out in Homestead.

The drama of the setting in which the earlier members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (forerunner to the United Steelworkers) worked is familiar territory for Southers.

“I was in the steelworkers’ union 18-plus years, and it wasn’t until I began to research the Battle of Homestead that I really understood the sacrifices those workers and their neighbors made for the cause of labor and fair wages,” says Southers, founder and artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

“They may have lost that battle in 1892,” he says of his profoundly moving research, “but they set the precedent for working people, including African Americans, to demand their piece of prosperity!”

Commissioned by the BOH Foundation to provide an original work at the Pump House, Southers set out to create a concise dramatic retelling that is likely to have a long life as an educational and theatrical piece in our region and beyond.

Southers has assembled some favorite regional actors for the project. Mel Packer portrays Andrew Carnegie and Michael Sullivan appears as Henry Clay Frick. The cast features: Kan Champion, David Crawford, Matt Henderson, Wali Jamal, Marcus Muzapoppa, Arjun Kumar, and Susan McGregor-Laine. Sarah FIsher plays the activist Emma Goldman who led a plot to assassinate Frick. Paul Guggenheimer is the Narrator.

The Foundation web site describes the events: “The Battle of Homestead began July 6, 1892, when thousands of locked-out steel workers and townspeople clashed with Pinkerton guards hired by Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie. It was a story reported around the world, as management fortified the steel mills and both sides fired guns and cannons at each other. The Pinkertons surrendered and townsfolk, including women and children, rained blows upon them and tore their clothes, then burned the barges they floated in on.”

The National Guard was summoned while the industry titans hired scab labor. Anarchist Alexander Berkman attempt to assassinate Frick. As labor lost the struggle, American unionism and collective bargained was damaged, with effects of this event felt into the 1930s.

The iconic conflict continues to inspire labor and management disputes as the future of unions is played around strikes, picket lines, and negotiations.

The Homestead Strike of 1892 plays Fridays and Saturdays, Sept. 15,16, 22, and 23 at 7:00 pm, with matinees Sept. 22 and 23 at 1:00 pm. The Pump House is located at 880 East Waterfront Drive, adjacent to the Waterfront complex in Munhall (15120). 

Southers’ play is part of a yearlong series of offerings to honor the Homestead battle and related history. Visit battleofhomestead.org for details. Events are funded in part by The Waterfront, The Rivers of Steel Heritage Area, United Steelworkers, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

About Mark Clayton Southers

Mark Clayton Southers is an award winning playwright, photographer, scenic designer, theatrical producer and stage director; founder and producing artistic director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. Mr. Southers recently directed the jazz / R&B opera A Gathering of Sons for Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s 2017 season and toured his Miss Julie, Clarissa and John at the National Black Theater Festival in North Carolina and The Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland in August. From 2010 to 2013, Mr. Southers served as the Artistic Director of Theatre Initiatives for the 486 seat August Wilson Center for African American Culture. More at markclaytonsouthers.com

Ted Pappas’ Grand Finale at PPT

Tedheadshot (1)“I’m kind of crazy about this season,” says Ted Pappas of his 2017-18 programming for Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The company’s 43rd season is also his last as artistic director. Pappas aims to provide audiences with a journey of infinite variety and imaginative vision. His selections are consistent with the wonderfully balanced array of plays and musicals he has programmed at PPT for more than two decades. What’s his formula?

“It’s a simple bit of chemistry,” says Pappas. “I produce the way I like to attend.”

Pappas is simply celebrating playwrights, directors, and actors he loves for his own finale season.

“I made it extra special for me, the directors, and I hope for the audience.” He’s also providing some terrific roles of the actors who will appear at the O’Reilly Theater stage beginning Sept. 28 and through July 1, 2018.

His tenure is a run of substantive programming that is at once entertaining and thought-provoking. While Pappas loves both directing and choreographing (as he will again for PPT’s annual musical), he has a knack for crafting a season with broad appeal and inroads for even the youngest or newest theater goers.

Audiences members will move from the deepest regions of the human psyche to the peak of musical theater frivolity. Along the way, patrons will meet Vietnam hero, an American family at a holiday dinner, an unlikely couple, and some very silly Shakespeareans.

The first productions are all works that Pappas considers as three of the most acclaimed works in theater–all Tony winners for Best Play, presented “back-to-back”. They are followed by “three very special projects” that also reflect PPT’s range. These six major productions are complemented by a solo show with undeniable Pittsburgh roots.

equus“Each of the plays is a blockbuster and all are monumental,” says Pappas.

Pappas was thrilled at PPT’s popular run of Shaffer’s Amadeus, so to open the season he revisited the British playwright as Equus “speaks passionately to the transformative power of the theater…and engages the audience In such a visceral way.”

Decades before the innovations of War Horse, Peter Shaffer’s Equus (1973) called on actors to portrays horses that are central to the plot’s central incident. The compelling psychological mystery connects a disturbed stable boy’s violence and a curious psychiatrist. Pappas praises “the extravaganza Shaffer demands of the director and designers.”

In his 29th PPT appearance, Daniel Krell portrays Dr. Martin Dysart. Pappas says he chose Equus “especially for Dan” but also as the play “epitomizes the team work we’ve built over the decades.” Six men in sculpted metal heads and hooves portray the horses in a cast of 14 in Equus, running Sept. 28-Oct. 29.

humansFor this season, Pappas also observes that “the new plays seem to balance the comedy and serious so well.” This quality is a hallmark of playwright Stephen Karam’s work which includes The Humans, Tony winner for 2016 best play (and finalist for a 2106 Pulitzer Prize).

The play is bound to conjure some beloved yet uneasy family gatherings for audience members during its Nov. 9-Dec. 10 run. Pappas says it may seem like many family members are part of this play and admits the pre-holiday timing is fun.

A Brooklyn couple hosts Thanksgiving for family members from back home in Scranton, PA (the playwright’s own hometown). All the neuroses and doubt swirling around dinner tables today provide alternately comic and dramatic moments. Karman’s script has been praised for its honest realism and wit–qualities Pappas couldn’t resist.

He also knew the script was a strong match for director Pamela Berlin. She returns for her 11th production with PPT, having staged Clybourne Park, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Between Riverside and Crazy.

Pappas, who considers The Diary of Anne Frank “a very significant production for the company”, emphasizes that Berlin “attracts great designers and actors”. PPT is one of the first companies to stage The Humans following its Broadway success.

Layout 1And, no, Rocky Bleier didn’t have to “fight back” for another run of his solo show The Play at PPT; Pappas was eager to invite the Steelers legend to again “star in his own story”, Dec. 28-Jan. 6. He gleeful admits most any Steeler fan would love tickets for one of Bleier’s nine performances, calling The Play “a great night out and I’ve done your Christmas shopping for you!”

Layout 1In 2018, Pappas will both stage and choreograph A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a timely and infectious comedy that weaves all things classical with hysterical situations.

He directed Forum in PPT’s pre-Cultural District days two decades ago at the Hazlett Theater.

“In a way, it’s a ‘thank you’ from me to the company for allowing me to be part of the company for the past 20 years.” Pappas promises “a new production of a musical that is both funny and great to look at…frisky and delightful.” Forum plays Jan. 25-Feb. 25.

Layout 1City Theatre’s most recent artistic director Tracy Brigden returns to direct Heisenberg, her fourth PPT production and a director Pappas is “just crazy about.”

Heinsenberg was a surprise hit about a woman who falls for an older man after a chance meeting. Pappas saw the show and “got the rights while it was still on Broadway. I predict it will one of the most produced plays in American over the next two to three years” says Pappas. The title alludes to the physics of attraction in this two-character play by Simon Stephen whose work includes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Heisenberg is on stage March 8- April 8.

Layout 1Pappas has produced Shakespeare about every other season with a balance of comedies and tragedies. Along with Equus, Hamlet was still on Pappas wish list of future productions. He describes his final production as “a classic production and beautifully designed”, running April 19-May 20.

Once more, student matinees will bring young people to each of PPT’s offerings during additional matinees. Pappas considers students “the future of theater and our country.”

“We don’t believe in dismissing the potential of student audiences. They will see all of our plays. Student performances of Hamlet are already selling out,” says Pappas. “We create the audience of the future through these plays.”

abridgedAnd a fun finale to the whole season is the return of the Reduced Shakespeare company in their Will’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), May 31-July 1. What should we expect? What could possibly go wrong? Pappas says “pandemonium on stage at the OReilly!”

Pappas considers the Public as “one of my favorite audiences and theaters” but the season he’s created will demand much of him.

“I’d like to go out with a little bit of fireworks, Pappas says. “My hope is to hand off the company in a top condition.

“I’m taking my vitamins.”

About Season and Ticket Options

Each of Pittsburgh Public Theater’s six main productions run about four weeks, with The Play having only nine performance dates. Single tickets starting at $30 are on sale September 5 with some popular subscriber dates already listing limited seating. A wide range of tickets options including flex packages of just three shows as well as group and other discounts, including 70% savings for students and anyone 26 or under. Tips: Take the time to explore PPT’s ticket info for interesting options and events such as post-show talk backs. You might want to some varied seating in the 650-seat O’Reilly throughout the season. Most any seats closest to the stage (regardless of price or seat level) afford some interesting perspectives. Visit online at: ppt.org

Ironbound

YT17-Feature-IronboundThe waiting in life takes up a lot of our time–waiting for the next big thing, the next job, the next person. Ironbound’s Darja reconfirms out that anyone who takes public transportation is captive to waiting. Her attachment to a significant bus stop represents her own continual anticipation of the right man and better times.

City Theatre’s Pittsburgh premiere of Ironbound depicts an important slice of immigrant life in America. It reminds us that everyone on the bus has a story, a reality perhaps most magnified in the dense greater New York-New Jersey metro area. Ironbound zooms in on one woman who could be anyone, but Darja is inspired for playwright Martyna Majok by both her own Polish immigrant mother and the notable absence of working class women in contemporary plays.

Rebecca Harris, in her 10th role with the company, captivates with impeccable realism as Darja. Harris is the constant force here along with a dark, menacing bus stop. Her solid and fierce portrayal is someone like many who endure wearing commutes to whatever job they can get to make rent while avoiding any unexpected financial catastrophes. They persevere and crave, as Darja says, “even the ugly jobs they don’t have no more.”

This Polish immigrant cleans houses in an upscale community two buses away, struggles to make ends meet following the loss of her factory job. Darja’s own crises are not just about being alone; she could easily become homeless due to a bad choice or broken relationship, perhaps more recognizable in hindsight.

Rebecca Harris as Darja
Rebecca Harris as Darja

On stage for all of the 90-minute piece (intensely performed with no intermission), the actress is either alone or interacting with three male characters. Harris’ powerful performance impresses with raw and honest craft as a character who is remarkable in her stamina, resilience, and lifeforce. She weighs her options in relationships and finances, bargaining to try to somehow gain some enhanced security.

City’s Artistic Director Tracy Brigden, who was eager to program this new play, said in the production news release that  Majok’s “unique point of view as the child of Polish immigrants ripples throughout her work. Ironbound is a truly American play—raw and alive from the very first words.” And we must agree as Ironbound so deftly depicts aspects of the immigrant experience that Brigden describes as “so vital to this moment in time.”

Ironbound debuted in New York at Rattlesnake Theater in 2016 before Brigden took the wheel to direct its next production. Pittsburgh audiences will recognize the ramifications of losing an industrial economy.

Brigden places the Elizabeth, New Jersey bus stop intimately in City’s thrust configuration.The centerpiece of Anne Mundell’s compact set is a giant graffiti covered steel girder appearing to pierce the top of the theater as it towers over the action, the litter, and a ubiquitous abandoned car tire. Lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski flashes from above as Eric Shimelonis’ sound effects are heard by the audience upon and arrival and continue to indicate the rattling of both New Jersey transit trains and traffic above and in in the house. If you know New Jersey and I-9, you can especially conjure the traffic, potholes, and smells. The stink of the paper factory where Darja once worked may be gone in this century, but the setting evokes the industrial Jersey of the late 20th century.

JD Taylor as Maks and Rebecca Harris as Darja
JD Taylor as Maks and Rebecca Harris as Darja

We wait with Darja at this dark and dirty bus stop where a lot happens but some things never change. As time shifts among scenes, her journey of relationships always brings her back to the bus stop near her former factory job and its associated memories.

In several flashback scenes, her first husband Maks is sweetly played by JD Taylor. Darja’s backstory is built through their alternately hopeful and bittersweet encounters. In 1992, she is pregnant with their son Alex as Maks dreams of making music in Chicago.

In his one scene with her, Vic, a young man played by Erick Martin, finds a battered Darja trying to sleep at the bus stop after her second husband has abused her. Vic provides an objective listening ear and a comedic rap. He reminds her that a shelter or motel room would be safer and offers some money to help her out. Pittsburgh’s Erick Martin’s Vic is the energetic parallel to her son Alex–the absent male in this version of Darja’s story. Martin is endearing in his portrayal of a kid who’s struggling with his sexual identity.

Rebecca Harris as Darja and Erik Martin as Vic
Rebecca Harris as Darja and Erik Martin as Vic

Don Wadsworth’s exacting dialect coaching supports Darja and Mak’s Polish slant. The characters’ sometimes muddled sentence structure also adds to the authenticity of Majok’s script along with her inclusion of some Polish.

Costumes designed by Robert C.T. Steele aptly convey the look of the implied decades from Vic’s track suit and sneakers and Tommy’s geeky postman shorts.

Ironbound reminds us how lives intersect–even if only for a few minutes on our respective commutes as everyone dreams and holds on to survive a new day.

Closing City Theatre’s 41st season, Ironbound runs through June 4 with tickets starting at $15 for under 30 with generous discounts for many patrons (seniors, military, etc.) as well as a “pay-what -you-want” option for the Sat., May 27 matinee. Special audience opportunities include a post-show talkback on May 24 and another with the playwright on Thurs., May 25. Greenroom on second Fri., May 26 provides a $25 ticket that includes beverages and a post-show chance to hang out with the show’s cast and team. Click here for more information. 

Photos courtesy of Kristi Jan Hoover

Paying Attention to Miller’s Masterwork at PPT

Layout 1“He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.”

– Linda Loman, Death of a Salesman

When Zach Grenier wrapped up his long-running role as David Lee on “The Good Wife,” he pondered what character he’d most like to have a chance to play on stage. Grenier admits that he didn’t think he’d have a shot at Willy Loman, the titular character of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer and Tony winning Death of a Salesman. After all, how often is that great American tragedy produced?

Meanwhile, stage director Mary B. Robinson says during our interview at Pittsburgh Public Theater, “I’ve known I’d be directing Salesman for a while. I love Pittsburgh audiences, having been here before,” says Robinson, who staged Freud’s Last Session at The Public. “I directed Miller’s All My Sons just last summer–always with Death of Salesman coming up in my head. That was very exciting.”

Surrounded by posters and memorabilia in the office of PPT artistic director Ted Pappas on a busy day at the Cultural District theater, Grenier and his director conjured their own dreams and memories.

Grenier says: “One Monday I was sitting around with my wife and no longer a regular on “The Good Wife”, doing a number episodics, looking for the next thing,” says Grenier. The couple even discussed moving from New York, perhaps to a good theater town–like Philadelphia, where he’d worked before.

He’s been thinking about it for 20 years. Grenier’s that guy who has been on stage with the likes of Frank Langella, Julie Harris, and Jane Fonda. He’s appeared in a wide repertoire of works ranging from Shakespeare to David Rabe to David Mamet. His historical characters have included Beethoven, Oliver Cromwell, and Dick Cheney. Television audiences know him for seven seasons on “The Good Wife” and movie fans will remember him in “Fight Club”, among other films.

Greiner in The Good Wife
Greiner in The Good Wife

Grenier said to his wife Lynn, “The thing is that I’m never going to play Willy Loman. I know it. I’m never going to play him. And the next morning I get a call asking if I can play Willy Loman, in Pittsburgh!” he says, sounding as surprised during as a short rehearsal break in April as he probably did in on the Martin Luther King Monday holiday in January.

When Grenier learned Robinson would be his director, the deal was sealed. He’s worked with her for Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten in the early1990s, he trusted fate, adding “I’ve heard great things about the theater.”

“Zach played James Tyrone, another mountain of a role,” says Robinson, adding that Shakespeare’s King John had first connected them a decade earlier in the 1980s.

Now Grenier plays the American Lear in Robinson’s Salesman in which Willy Loman wins and loses in his pursuit of the American Dream. The actor began his own preparation well before rehearsals began at the end of March.

“With this kind of mountain, you start climbing,” he says of Willy.

In February, after he was cast, Grenier turned 63, the same age as Willy. The realities of playing a role coveted by seasoned actors isn’t lost on him for “there is something about getting to this age. When I was younger, I thought Willy was for ‘when I’m an old guy’.”

“When I said, ‘I’ll never play Willy’, it had some weight that Monday,” Grenier observes, “because you don’t know what the future holds. When you get to a certain age, you don’t know how much longer you have. You have less time than you have had–unless they come up with something really fancy. In a way time is running out.”

Miller’s iconic drama introduced innovative leaps in time and space when it debuted in 1949. Considered on the masterpieces of 20th century American theater, Salesman foreshadowed techniques that have made theater more imaginative for both audiences and actor. Because of Salesman, productions became more nimble. At the same time realistic and abstract, Miller’s script has its lead character traveling from present day into his memories. He recreates a human journey informed by the recollected past and trepidation of the future.

Willy Loman is on a downhill journey in his career and relationships. Dreams are built from his delusions as the traveling salesman’s self-confidence erodes. His wife Linda is concerned while their sons Biff and Happy struggle with respecting their father.

Robinson and Grenier agree that Willy is a recognizable member of many families.

“My father was nothing like Willy,” says Robinson, “but many of my friends’ fathers were a lot like Willy. I was certainly around a lot of Willys growing up.”

“Miller really captured something so specific yet so universal and yet so not dated,” says the director. “Such rich characters and such real human beings–contradictions and all. The relationships are so full, fascinating and complex. And Miller set his plays all in a larger context so that these plays without being didactic about it, he cites something about this country as well. And I just find that extraordinary.”

Grenier notes his own personal connections to the Miller’s characters: “My father’s family is from the Bronx. Four boys grew up there in a very, very tough family emotionally. It happens with Neil Simon, it happens with Miller–not as much with O’Neill–but there’s an emotional language that I understand because it came from being around my uncles. I have a Manny Newman [the playwright’s uncle and inspiration for Willy] in my family.” Grenier says that was his Uncle Vin.

“There are things in the play–the kind of emotional blackmail that happens and broken dreams, like those my own father,” Grenier recalls.

“I love the fact we are doing this in a thrust space, says Robinson who is thrilled about her design team that includes scenic designer James Noone and costumer Tilly Grimes, with lighting by Dennis Parichy, and sound by Zach Moore.

Robinson recalls the story of a producer who questioned Miller’s use of flashback to share Willy’s past and present journey: “I don’t get it, these flashbacks, what are they there for?”

“They are not actual flashbacks, they are not memories,” she says. “They are Willy’s constructs. The play was originally titled ‘The Inside of His Head’. So we go inside Willy’s mind.”

So what was initially defined through theatrical effects as Willy Loman’s fantasies or memories are now accepted by audiences as an expected form and experience. She and Grenier agree the PPT set is perhaps even more minimalistic than the original yet complicated enough to accommodate both the realistic and dreamlike scenes.

Grenier says catching some news on a break he considered how now many voices are talking to us via the media. He compares Miller’s expressionistic and leading edge approach was a precursor to today’s delivery of many messages that distract, inform, and converge–much like the influences of Willie’s thoughts, dreams, emotions, and delusions.

“In a way this audience is in some ways more primed for this play,” Grenier observes. “We all do this now in so many ways. What it allows in the production is to not worry so much about that and go to the heart of the matter, the poetry of the play, the moment-to-moment. Of course, they did that then, but now I feel we are most comfortable in this form.”

Grenier considers Miller’s text “a long poem” in a form reminiscent of Shakespeare’s poetic prose.

“When you really take this play apart,” he says, “you really are reminded of Shakespeare, of how he uses the verse. It’s a Brooklyn Shakespeare that we are reciting. Grenier delights in the harmonics and the echoes of words and emotions in Miller’s script as he relishes the role of a lifetime.

“To get to do this is such a gift.”

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman previews at Pittsburgh Public Theater beginning Thurs., April 20, with the official opening on Fri., April 28. Performances continue Tuesdays through Sundays until May 21. Curtain times vary.

Audiences have several chances to delve deeper into the play and production. Featured Salesman events include “Sips & Scripts” on Wed., May 10, which provides a pre-show reception, a talkback after the show, and a script sent in advance with ticket purchase at $45. Use promo code PITTSCRIPTS online or by phone at 412-316-8200, ext. 704.

Tickets otherwise start at $30 with discounts for groups of 10 or more. A special price of $15.75 for age 26 and younger (valid ID required) is offered with code HOTTIX online while Friday and Saturday tickets may be purchased at the O’Reilly Theater box office.

Order online at PPT.ORG or call 412-316-1600.

Collaborators

unnamed (11)Playwright meets tyrant. What could possibly go wrong?

In a former slaughterhouse behind Bakery Square, Quantum Theatre takes audiences into the world of John Hodge’s Collaborators. Certainly a Pennsylvania premiere, the production is one of few staged since Collaborators won the 2012 Laurence Olivier Award for best new play produced in Britain.

Some have asked why theaters didn’t produce this play about a Soviet dictator who advocates artistic censorship, fake news, and forceful control of his citizens back in 1938. In 2017, how can an American theater company resist sharing this unfortunately timely dark comedy now? And as audience members, you should not resist the urge to see Collaborators at Quantum through April 30.

In the hands of Pittsburgh master director Jed Allen Harris, Collaborators shines with terrifically satisfying laughter, tears, and truth. It’s not a menu just anyone can capably serve up. But just as one scene where the planked stage becomes a big dining table for all of the stellar cast suggests, Harris’ artistic team knows how to create a theatrical meal you’ll be telling your friends about.

A struggling but talented playwright merits the attention of Joseph Stalin, head of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. The writer is strong-armed to write a play for the tyrant’s 60th birthday. While the premise is fictional, the “surreal fantasy” is based on the real experiences of Mikhail Bulgakov, a former physician who suffered censorship when writing for the Moscow Art Theater in the 1930s despite Stalin’s appreciation for his work. The play implies that the writer’s wife Yelena will be endangered if Mikhail does not comply.

Dana Hardy and Tony Bingham
Dana Hardy and Tony Bingham

In Collaborators, screenwriter Hodge (Trainspotting, T2) melds fact and fantasies in captivating and sometimes short scenes. Harris seamlessly moves the action through the entire playing space and there’s never a dull or unengaging moment. Indeed, Collaborators is that good.

More than even Bulgakov himself might ever have dreamt, Collaborators is both timely and chilling in these early months of 2017. This is a significant production in this Pittsburgh theater season. Well-matched to Collaborators, Harris employs what he loves about making theatre that invites us to imagine and be provoked–and maybe even to be moved to action. (See our interview with Harris). He’s recreates a story from the past century that uncomfortably resonates with the present. Expect to be both moved and changed by this visit to the paranoia and fear of Stalin’s historical rule.

Through his connection to his fan Stalin, Mikhail wrestles with his conscience even as he aims to survive with Yelena. What would happen if he and Stalin switched jobs becoming the collaborators of the title? In the imagined and dangerous game, would Mikhail find himself creating policy decisions while Stalin happily writes a play praising himself? When the Communist party line seems to hold more weight than free expression, Bulgakov confronts stunning realities as he begins to lose health friends, and what he once held as the truth.

As Bulgakov, Tony Bingham is the good guy manipulated by circumstances beyond his control–a sort of George Bailey, struggling to live a good life with integrity. Nimble and charming, Bingham draws a likeable hero who experiences the best and worst of times in a stand-out performance during which he is on stage much of the time.

Olivia Vadnais, Joe Rittenhouse, Nancy McNulty, John Shepard, and Ken Bolden
Olivia Vadnais, Joe Rittenhouse, Nancy McNulty, John Shepard, and Ken Bolden

Dana Hardy is Yelena, his smart and concerned spouse who sweetly cares about friends and neighbors. She is strong and supportive while her husband is swept into surreal dreams and an even more surreal reality. Hardy captures how one look out for a loved one while disguising the genuine concern about their serious condition. (It’s notable that Hardy and Bingham draw on their own marriage for their work on stage.)

It’s fun until someone gets hurt, so two of the most “evil” characters are indeed delightful. Ken Bolden relishes Soviet secret police officer Vladimir, a mean bully who later gleefully insites on staging the commissioned script; he’s that guy who’s always wanted to direct. Bolden shows off his lovely range in this delightfully nuanced and engaging performance.

A merry Stalin is portrayed by Martin L. Giles. Give Giles something as multifaceted and comedic as a dictator who sees himself a playwright for results are both oddly endearing and fascinating. Giles shifts from boyish delight at offering Vodka shots in his subterranean office under the Kremlin. He joyfully clacks on the typewriter then coldly explains his job with its ridiculously long bureaucratic title.

If Bingham’s scenes with Bolden are dramatic appetizers, those with Bingham and Giles are the main course–from the opening Keystone Cops style scene when Stalin chases Bulgakov with his typewriter to their underground meet-ups along the writer’s hapless path from hope to despair.

Tony Bingham and Martin Giles
Tony Bingham and Martin Giles

Joe Rittenhouse as Stepan, Vladmir’s silent and lurking henchman, is a scary presence, mostly watching the action through his shades. His very presence at times characters may think they are alone is eerily physicalized when Stepan moves a prop they need, for example.

The entire ensemble of 11 shines in multiple and important roles as colorful friends and colleagues who support the loving couple’s turbulent journey. There are several visits to doctors–one rather inept (or dishonest?) doctor and another seemingly more capable physician both played by John Shepard. Mark Stevenson marks a strong return to Pittsburgh stages after a long hiatus. Dylan Marquis Meyers, Nancy McNulty, Olivia Vadnais, and Jonathan Visser complete this accomplished and versatile cast.

Harris’ design team from his Quantum production of The Task (2010) makes wonderful choices for the bricked wall warehouse space found Quantum setting as all the design elements support the storytelling. Scenic designer Narelle Sissons sets central action on a raised rough stage with properties and chairs stashed underneath. Stalin’s office at one end and a chair mounted on the wall at the other end provide clever spaces and options Susan Tsu’s costumes are well suit the period with a splash of theatrical robes and masked headpieces for the Moliere play scenes. Well placed lights by C. Todd Brown establish both well-lit and dark spaces, with sound by Joe Pino.

Collaborators closes Quantum’s 26th season and runs through April 30 at 6500 Hamilton Avenue, Pittsburgh (15206). Tickets are priced from $38 to $51. Varied special events and dining tips (including a dinner you may pre-order to enjoy onsite) are detailed on Quantum’s website.

Tips: Arrive early for lot parking or just find a convenient street spot. As temperatures vary, do dress in layers; the space can be chilly on some April evenings. May Quantum’s setting be as warm as the potential for this adventurous play programmed by Karla Boos, artistic director.

Photos by Heather Mull and Karla Boos.

Jed Allen Harris is at Home with Quantum for Collaborators

unnamed (11)These days, Jed Allen Harris says it takes a certain kind of script to draw him from the flexible confines of academic theater. He helped lay the foundation of today’s dynamic Pittsburgh’s theater community through his bold and risky work in the mid-1980s. It’s that kind of opportunity that lures him back to Quantum Theatre.

Karla Boos, Quantum’s artistic director, enticed Harris to return for John Hodge’s Collaborators. The playwright is known for the screenplay for Trainspotting (1996) from the Irvine Welsh novel, and the just released T2. The 2011 Olivier award winner had an acclaimed London run, but Quantum’s version is one of less than a half dozen productions in the US.

Now, Harris directs Collaborators on a rough-hewn stage in a warehouse space in Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood behind Bakery Square.  

Hodge’s “surreal fantasy” connects two historical figures–a former physician turned writer Mikhail Bulgakov, (1891-1940) and Russian dictator Joseph Stalin  (1878-1953).

Hodge asks: what if the novelist-playwright had been pressured to create a work in honor of Stalin’s 60th birthday?

Bulgakov’s works were banned and reviewed negatively by the state. But when he appealed to Stalin for permission to emigrate, the murderous ruler called him personally. Despite Stalin’s permission to continue work for the Moscow Art Theater, the playwright’s artistic range was stifled.J.Harris headshot

Hodge’s episodic script is in part inspired by Stalin’s documented admiration for Bulgakov’s work, but spins surrealistic scenes that Harris relishes bringing to life.

“It’s an unusual play,” Harris observes, “Karla is really the most adventurous programmer in the city. I immediately fell in love with the script.”

“To me, this play asks the question ‘How much do you sell your artistic soul and live with yourself–and be able to get to sleep at night’,” says Harris.

Perhaps the play resonates more with current events than anyone might have imagined when Boos invited Harris to stage it. Harris figures audience members will appreciate the relevance without his production imposing what people might think about Russia and its leaders.

Audiences might spot one moment in Harris’ production that intentionally references the present while the story is bound to stir up associations with recent US-​Soviet relations in the 21st century.

In Collaborators, the year is 1938, Bulgakov’s dreams disrupt his sleep in his Moscow flat. He wrestles with his conscience about his assignment to honor Stalin and also with the tyrant who threatens him with the typewriter.

“The play has so many different styles,” which was part of its appeal for Harris. There’s a silent movie style opening that moves quickly to intimate moments for the writer and his wife Yelena.

Bulgakov’s squelched play about Moliere is referenced when the French playwright’s appearance. Other surreal elements include one silent character who “makes things appear,” Harris chuckles as he imitates his staging in the space during our visit.

Harris most recently returned to Quantum in 2014 for the revolutionary farce Pantagleize. The design team with CMU roots that supported him for The Task in 2010 is back. Scenic designer Narelle Sissons also created the setting in the Gage Building for that production, which also featured costumes by Susan Tsu, lights by C. Todd Brown, and sound by Joe Pino. Harris calls it one of his most favorite productions ever.

Two actors already familiar to Harris lead a cast of 11.

“The three times I’ve worked with Tony Bingham have been at Quantum,” says Harris of his Mikhail Bulgakov. He says the role requires “a very delicate touch in many ways as he has to be part of the humor of the play and yet is a tragic figure.” Dana Hardy, who plays Yelena, also happens to be Bingham’s wife offstage. Their characters travel from despair to joy and back again.unnamed (10)

Harris says he knew Martin Giles would be the “perfect actor” to play Stalin “for his combination of cynicism, humor and presence.”

The ensemble is completed by Ken Bolden, Dylan Marquis Myers, Nancy McNulty, Joe Rittenhouse, Mark Stevenson, Olivia Vadnais, and Jonathan Visser.

Never shying away from the most complex and even controversial projects, Harris paved the way for the varied theater scene Pittsburgh boasts today. His Theater Express (founded 1976) featured many Carnegie Mellon alums in bold plays and musicals. Not everyone would have programmed Marquis de Sade’s Justine or Beckett’s Endgame, but Harris did. For more than 20 years, he worked with CMU alumnus Marc Masterson, founder of City Theatre..

“The joke was that my show was usually the least attended at City Theatre,” laughs Harris. He staged some 30 productions, crediting Masterson’s comfort with taking such risks for some of his own most memorable directing experiences.

In a 100-seat space provided by the University of Pittsburgh on Bouquet Street, City served up the kind of taut and compelling repertoire for which Harris is known. Some of his favorite productions there include the premiere of Marie Irene Fornes’ The Danube (“Still one in my top 10 of all times,” says Harris) and the unforgettable Pittsburgh premiere of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, along with classics by American writers such as Tony Kushner (Slavs) at City on the Southside.

A protégé of Yale and CMU theater legend Leon Katz (1919-2017), Harris was a part of the Leon Katz Rhodopi International Theatre Laboratory in Smolyan, Bulgaria for six years. He revisited one of his favorite City scripts, Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class at Theatre Sofia, among his international projects.

While a stint at Bricolage first drew him back to the professional stage here in 2007.

As a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon Drama–where the educational experience outweighs commercial appeal–he says he gets his “theatrical jollies”. He has directed productions including Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and other large projects such as Nicholas Nickleby, co-directed with Gregory Lehane.

Harris invites the adventurous nature of audiences here, but warns, “As I’ve been doing for 40 years…” Well, you’ll have to experience Collaborators to complete his sentence.

(This writer isn’t saying how long we’ve known Jed and his work, just that we go “way back” and reminisced about Theater Express, a directing class at Pitt, costumes built for one of his City Theatre productions, and Jed’s unmistakable laugh!)

Collaborators, the final production of the company’s 26th season, is at Quantum’s unique warehouse venue behind Bakery Square at 6500 Hamilton Avenue, Pittsburgh (15206). Lot and street parking surround the building. Do dress in layers–a cozy Quantum tradition–as temperatures and sunny days still vary in April.

The production runs April 6-30 with tickets at $38-$51. Details on additional events, nearby restaurant options or pre-ordering a dinner to enjoy onsite are at also on Quantum’s website.

Photos courtesy of Quantum Theatre

Gemini Children’s Theater – Making Magic for Young Audiences

geminilogoJill Jeffrey was a like many young actors, making the rounds at auditions and giving little thought to children’s theater–until she stepped on stage in Journey Back to Oz at Gemini Theater Company in 2004.

“I had a strong background in sketch comedy and improvisation,” says Jeffrey. “After getting to know Dennis Palko and Lani Cerveris-Cataldi, the founders and artistic directors of the company, I saw how amazing their creative “duo” was, and I realized how important theater for young audiences was for families.”

Since then, Gemini has been a major part of her work and life. Jeffrey acted in more shows, began to direct, and became the troupe’s executive director in 2009.

“What made Gemini special was seeing the awe in children’s faces,” says Jeffrey. “They really believed our characters were REAL. And children are our best critics; they let you know if you are doing a ‘good job’ or not as a character.”JillNAME

“I also love that Gemini teaches kids about literature coming to life and that famous, animated versions of these stories are not the original tales.”

Now wrapping Gemini’s 20th season, Jeffrey and her staff have seen through the company’s move from the East End to the well-appointed Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks. There both long-time and new audience members of all ages are making the company part of their arts experiences.

She stresses the value of the arts in nurturing the whole person: “I strongly believe, and know, that a child with an artistic outlet – whether it be theater, dance, music, drawing, etc – becomes a stronger adult. Children who may have difficulty with social interactions tend to blossom through the performing arts, using the stage as a way to express their desire to meet new friends.”

Noting children’s “amazing strides forward in displaying confidence, improving grades, and even improving behaviors that may have been an issue in previous class situation elsewhere,” Jeffrey has seen the impact of arts education and experience in kids’ lives.

Gemini is “one of many places that ensures finances are not a reason to keep a child from accessing the arts,” she adds.

Most productions are adaptations–original shows with music composed by Cerveris-Cataldi. Plots are reworked with positive messages, less scary conflicts, and fewer traditional princess-meets-prince-marries prince endings. In Snow White, the “dwarfs” are “seven little buddies” played by young people. Snow White is sent into the forest to be lost, not attacked by the huntsman.

Production photo from The Jungle Book
Production photo from The Jungle Book

 

Jeffrey’s experiences support her conviction that some of the best audience members are children who are often inhibited about engaging completely with the action.

The Fox Chapel native was an undergraduate at Denison where she got more immersed in theater and continued her exploration when she returned to Pittsburgh.

“What most inspires me is that there are constantly new companies popping up, particularly those dedicated to serving youth, and I am always anxious to meet and try to collaborate.”

When she’s not at Gemini, Jeffrey may be found performing with the Amish Monkeys improv troupe or enjoying other theater and writer, including favorite Christopher Durang.

Some young audience members become company members and even parents of the newest attendees. While the productions are geared to ages 2 to 10, the company has built an extended family with young people auditioning for roles that comprise anywhere from about 10 to 80% of some casts–depending on the story. Original adaptations are often revised and repeated within four to 7 years, while new productions are part of each season.

“One of the things we try to teach our youth, especially as they get into their teens, is that this is a competitive field,” Jeffrey admits. “But, I never want that feeling to exist between Gemini and other companies. And I feel strongly that there are ways to really make Pittsburgh have a youth theater seen that many other cities do not have.

As a child, Jeffrey enjoyed “any Pippi Longstocking book.”  

“I love the idea of this little girl with an amazing imagination, extreme strength–both physically and of heart, and kindness that she gives unconditionally”–much like the unconditional gift of theater to children at Gemini.

Gemini’s original adaptation of Jungle Book in winter is now followed by a new production of Snow White, on stage Sat., March 25 through Sun., April 9. Show tickets are only $10.

Summer Theater Camps begin in mid-June (registrations available online), and our annual fundraiser “The Royal Ball” will be held May 20, an event for families with entertainment and engagement for all ages. Details on all Gemini events are at geminitheater.org.

Photos courtesy of Jilly Jeffrey.