Pitt Stages Creates New and Familiar Realities in Resilient Spaces

11828704_1192185537474087_3254483807827457516_nInspired by success and tradition, Pitt Stages launches a season that reflects the aspirations of the University of Pittsburgh’s diverse student body beginning on October 6. The production menu for 2016-17 showcases the performance and technical talents of both students enrolled in the Department of Theatre Arts and others who are exploring theater as part of their broader liberal arts experience. Students from more than 22 majors throughout the university take part in Pitt Stages productions.

“More students are choosing Pitt as a destination for theatre,” says Annemarie Duggan, now in her 10th year on the faculty and beginning her fourth year as chair. “We had a petition from 250 students to stage more musicals,” explaining why more musicals are showing up in the Pitt Stages performance season, complete with orchestral accompaniment through frequent collaborations with the Department of Music.

“We give the students with diverse backgrounds a foundation in theater,” says Duggan, herself a seasoned lighting designer. “Pitt students are prepared to do theater and for the world as well.” She is excited to see the practical aspects of theater showcased in students’ academic work, such as student projects for Pitt’s Honors College.

Both academic and production endeavors are literally at the heart of Pitt’s Oakland campus with classrooms, labs, shops, and Studio Theatre in the Cathedral of Learning and performances spaces in the venerable Stephen Foster Memorial. Pitt’s connected facilities boast architecture and a very presence unlike other higher education buildings in this region.

Promotional photo from last season's production of Nine
Promotional photo from last season’s production of Nine

The Department of Theatre Arts is steward of two theaters in the Foster Memorial, built in 1937. The Charity Randall Theatre was renamed and restored during Pitt’s early 21st century capital campaign after being home for Theatre Arts since the 1960s. Named for retired faculty scenic designer and costumer Henry Heymann, the lower level thrust theater provides an intimate setting for selected season events. Upgrades and maintenance is ongoing as productions require more state-of-the-art technical features (such as a new projector system, says Duggan) while the auditorium itself was built as a musical concert hall honoring Stephen Collins Foster, one of Pittsburgh’s most popular composers. Now the Randall is home for the larger Pitt Stages musical theater productions.

Appropriately, “we distinguish ourselves in a different way than a conservatory,” says Duggan of the liberal arts tradition that enables any student to audition and get involved on stage or behind the scenes at Pitt. “Student can explore their talent here. And they can see the work of their counterparts at the nearby conservatories. We show them that their talent is equal and they may use and go in different direction.”

It’s not surprising given Pitt’s history of theatrical performances actually stretch back two centuries to around 1810. Theatre Arts has carried the torch of the Commonwealth’s only Ph.D. program in theater and birthed many innovations in Pittsburgh performing arts, including the 16-year run of the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival and countless student-led endeavors. Where else could inspired students stage King Lear in the loading dock of a 42-story Gothic skyscraper or alumni take theater education into career work as ranging from television to the  FBI?

It’s about striking a balance says Duggan, “between budget and pedagogically what we are teaching in a given year, with what we are  teaching in the classrooms…Our production values to move the students forward through what we can do really well…while it might be stretch what these these young performers can do well.”

Now, Pitt Stages has another season of productions in store–open again to both campus and public theater-goers. “Our audiences are also investing in the artists of the future,” Duggan adds.

The slate, says Duggan are “diverse stories told in universal ways,” drawing on the characteristics that make Pitt’s student body so vibrant and varied. Each director brings unique specialities and experience to their work, further enriching the potential for both the student production company and audiences. She describes the program as “a really enriching experience for everyone” as the Theatre Arts strives to be an open and inclusive department within the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.Slide1(1)

Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage opens the season, October 6-16, the first of three season offerings staged in the comfortably cozy Henry Heymann Theatre. Costume professor KJ Gilmer makes “a sort of directing debut for us,” says Duggan, an appropriate assignment for a play about a seamstress performed in a space named for one of Pitt Theatre’s legendary designers. All things are not equal, however, as the central character Esther, a black seamstress makes intimate apparel for both wealthy white women and poor prostitutes. This intimate story of a woman trying to survive in 1905 in New York City echoes the timeless realities woven into society’s fabric. Pitt Stages asks: “Can Esther refashion her dreams and make them anew from the whole cloth of her life’s experiences?” Expect a lot of, well, intimate apparel, further costume-building experience for student designers.Slide1

Hair, the iconic 1960’s show subtitled “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical”, takes the Charity Randall Theatre stage, November 10-20, under the direction of Cynthia Croot with musical direction by Robert Frankenberry. The counterculture and the establishment collide in this ever’ timely and hit-filled musical, premiered the peak of the Vietnam War in 1967 and revived to acclaim on Broadway in 2008. Hold on to your love beads and get ready to “Be In” as “The Age of Aquarius” is back.Spellingbee3-FIN

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee fills the Heymann Theatre, February 9-19, with the inevitable hilarity of some of the most unusual words you don’t know how to spell and unforgettably zany competitive spellers–including some very special guests with a director to be announced. Robert Frankenberry directs Rachel Sheinkin’s musical comedy, a rollicking content conceived by Rebecca Feldman. William Flinn’s music and lyrics sent the show and its spellers to a successful a three-year Broadway run. So, can you use “syzygy” in a sentence? Pitt Stages wants to know!Baltimore 8.5x5.5 2nd[2]

Baltimore brings the realities of racism on a campus home to the Heymann March 29-April 29, in this compelling drama directed by Ricardo Vila-Roger Roger. The voices of eight college students speak for many in Kirsten Greenidge’s acclaimed script as her central character, a well-intentioned resident advisor, grapples with her own perceptions about our diversity and differences. Holding a mirror to our times, Baltimore promises a conversation-provoking journey.Starcatcher_FIN

Peter and the Starcatcher directs audiences past the second star to the right and straight on to morning for a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s beloved Peter Pan and his adventures in Neverland. Expect all things British and imaginative from Rick Elice’s popular adaptation of the 2006 Dave Berry-Ridley Pearson novel, told with Wayne Barker’s acclaimed music score. Meet Molly (the spunky original girl from London), see pirate Smee disguised a mermaid, and just…never never grow up. Catch Pitt Stage’s closing show (director tba) in the Charity Randall Theatre, March 30-April 9.

At Pitt, there’s always more to explore with six innovative student lab productions in the recently restored Studio Theatre, at the heart of students’  production experience. Here students try out their directing and design talents and often step on stage for the first time. Chances are, you’ve seen Pittsburgh directors, designers, and actors who stars have risen from this intimate space in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning. From October 2016 through March 2017, look for these chances to experience intriguing plays in the city’s most venerable flexible black box space:

Aglaonike’s Tiger by Claudia Brewster, directed by Shelby Brewster

Water Eyes by Leenie Baker, directed by Louis Markowitz

The Most Massive Woman Wins by Madeleine George, directed by Hayley Ulmer

Haiku by Kate Snodgrass, directed by Shiri Goldis

I Can’t Go On/I’ll Go On by Samuel Beckett, directed by Nic Barilar

Charm by Kathleen Cahill, directed by Andrea Gunoe

Pitt Stages continues to foreshadow more good things from Theatre Arts when continued faculty development and student innovation is supported by ongoing facility and production enhancement. “It’s a win for everyone,” says Duggan, who looks forward to even more surprises from students who consider theater part of their total education. Like them, she anticipates returning the classroom and the theater, “so excited to be a part of this scholarly aspects of this practice.”

And in more practical terms, Duggan reminds this Pitt Theater Arts alumna that “theater teaches you that there is a due date!”

Pitt Stages subscriptions and tickets are on sale online with discounts for University of Pittsburgh faculty and staff. The season begins on October 6 with its final performance on April 9. Follow all ongoing Theatre Arts news and events at play.pitt.edu.

Read more about how Pitt Theatre Arts and others at University of Pittsburgh explore “pracadamics” in Becoming a Pracademic, by Tom Pacio, 2010 MFA graduate.

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