Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

State of Play

The local theater scene 
is vibrant — but for 
the most daring examples, think small.




SWAN Day Pittsburgh photos by Sohail Khwaja
 

Director Charlie Wein had a good script, talented actors and lots of energy. He knew he could direct a decent show. But he had nowhere to perform — no theater, no black box. Not even a loading dock. Nothing.

So he came up with a solution: Wein produced Toyer, written by Gardner McKay, in a South Oakland apartment in December 2011. Today, his staging of the show continues to be the topic of conversation in local theater circles. The plot features a psychologist and a lunatic who are stuck in a kitchen and living room. Wein used a real kitchen and living room, and he arranged chairs in the corner to accommodate a dozen viewers. Toyer was already suspenseful, but Wein’s claustrophobic staging made it much scarier.

“There was no lobby, no divider, no risers, nothing to separate the audience from what was happening in front of them,” recalls Wein, 23. “It sort of forced the audience to talk to each other during the intermission, just to kind of break the tension a little. Intermission got very emotional sometimes.”

Now, Toyer represents an unspoken genre of Pittsburgh stage — let’s call it “shoestring theater,” to cover the many local companies that have adopted a similar approach. Wein’s production was so successful that he received a private donation to present the show a second time last year using the same space and performers. Patrons loved the minimalist production’s no-frills creativity.

To acquire rights to the play, Wein formally named his troupe Trocar Theater Project (a reference to Toyer), but he never had a website or box office. Yet for those who spent two hours in his den, the experience was unforgettable.

Though Wein recently moved to Chicago, where his acting career has skyrocketed, he remains attached to his underground roots.

“We plan on putting Toyer up again,” he says. “And in general, I think the shows I direct in the future will probably stay rather small; I think that’s where you see performance at its best.”

Pittsburgh is packed with theater companies.  In the suburbs, community groups have staged traditional shows for decades. In the city, professional houses such as City Theatre and Pittsburgh Public have garnered national reputations for their superlative premieres. Yet companies need not own real estate; Pittsburgh Irish & Classical rents its stages from the University of Pittsburgh, and Quantum performs in a new, sometimes offbeat location every time.

Then there are the universities: Pitt Rep, Carnegie-Mellon Drama, Point Park Conservatory and Duquesne’s Red Masquers. Even Robert Morris has its own company, under the tutelage of Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

But one of the more unique elements of Pittsburgh’s arts scene is its underground theater, with troupes so small, resourceful and scrappy that they manage to exist through sheer willpower. Companies such as No Name Players, barebones productions, Claochlu Studios, Throughline Theatre, Terra Nova, The Hiawatha Project, 12 Peers Theater — and many others — find their stages in art galleries, black boxes, warehouses, cafés and even undergrad apartments. They don’t have official headquarters, and actors often costume themselves from their own wardrobes. Producers front little to no money, and broom closets can serve as dressing rooms. But hopefuls flock to auditions — because for hungry actors, performing in a great role is better than life itself.

New companies emerge annually, and given the local environment, it’s no surprise. Pittsburgh is home to two performing-arts conservatories and several drama programs, and alumni must either move to thespian hot spots such as New York City or Los Angeles, or try their luck here first. They must decide whether to join Actors’ Equity, the actors’ union, or go it alone. They audition and network, while also holding day jobs. And even when they land a starring role, the show usually ends within the month, so they’re forced to start the cycle again.

Or performers start their own companies and do whatever they want. Unlike larger cities, Pittsburgh has plenty of spaces, and competition is relatively low. If a motivated young director wants to produce a show, Pittsburghers generally shrug their shoulders and say, “Go for it.”
 

'Small troupes find their stages in art galleries, black boxes, warehouses, cafes and even undergrad apartments.'


“I had been frustrated enough with theater in my career. I figured I may as well be responsible for my own productions because it was at least my company,” says Joanna Lowe, creator of Cup-A-Jo Productions and, more recently, co-founder of Claochlu Studios (with 72nd St. Films founder Jeff Monahan). “Since I’m the boss, I get to risk the visions I want; it’s incredibly liberating. No one is telling me that I can’t do something or dictating what I need to do. I love that.”

Among other productions and spaces, Lowe, 34, produced Sartre’s No Exit in an art gallery, A Thurber Carnival at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. and a multimedia version of Roger Rueff’s Hospitality Suite in a spare loft at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. She prefers simplicity, which means no big set pieces, elaborate costumes or special effects.

But she seizes the opportunity to showcase a mix of media (a rare quality in theater). Lowe also enjoys the greatest perk of being “the boss” — starring in her own productions, most notably in Euripides’ Medea.

A majority of shoestring theater consists of small chamber plays, which attract a modest audience, earn a little bit of press and maybe break even. But some companies shatter expectations: No Name Players’ debut was Big Love, by Charles Mee, an avant-garde retelling of The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus. The production values were astonishing: elegant flats, a sand-covered floor, elaborate music and sound effects, and a wardrobe of wedding dresses that — at the end of each night — were soaked in fake blood.

No Name has gone on to produce plays by cutting-edge playwrights, and its annual SWAN Day Pittsburgh (which stands for “Support Women Artists Now”) event is an epic multidisciplinary celebration of the city’s female artists.



No Name, founded by husband-wife duo Don DiGiulio (artistic director) and Tressa Glover (producing artistic director), tries radically new plays every season: They’ll present the Pittsburgh premiere of Viva Los Bastarditos!, a rock-musical comedy by Jake Oliver, next month, and the world premiere of Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes by Sean Graney in August at Off the Wall Productions’ Carnegie space.

Few companies rival the grandeur of No Name’s Big Love, but ambition is everywhere. Last year, Throughline presented an audacious version of August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, a massive three-act, 12-character tragedy that few small-budget producers would ever attempt. Throughline made it happen and won over audiences, not to mention some enthusiastic reviews from critics.

In New York, such large-scale productions would be virtually impossible among young upstarts. And with so much to see Off-Broadway, who would even come?

As a rule, shoestring theater struggles to sustain itself and rarely turns a profit. The economics of a small-budget show are amusing at best and Kafkaesque at worst. Shows flop. Actors quit. Bankruptcies happen. Rarely does anyone walk away with a plump wallet — not even the founders.

“Most people, even theater people, don’t realize how much money it takes to produce a show,” says Jaime Slavinsky, 36, whose Organic Theater Pittsburgh focuses on producing must-tell stories and cleverly links them to environmental issues to raise awareness. Organic and some other small companies rely on grants to mount shows with high production costs, but for Slavinsky, it’s all worthwhile.

In 2011, she produced and starred in Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, which was a hit with both audiences and reviewers, at ModernFormations Gallery.

“Pittsburgh’s collective blue-collar mentality rejoices as the local theater artists rally together to create new opportunities for each other,” she says. “I’m not afraid to say that I truly believe this is my way to make a difference in the world.”

Underground theater is a challenge for everyone involved, but some labors of love are more arduous than others. After John Gresh, 53, co-founded Caravan Theatre, he spent three years thinking about 800 Words, by Victoria Stewart. Following a cavalcade of readings and workshops, Gresh ended up starring in the show as drug-addled sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. The production featured projectors, mobile flats, pre-recorded sound and puppets. The pressure on Gresh was intense.
 

"There are these plays that nobody's been doing in Pittsburgh, which are not just commercially viable, but they're also relevant." – Patrick Jordan, barebones productions


“It didn’t seem to take a rocket scientist to run a theater company,” quips Gresh, “but sometimes I think I know more than I do.”

For his first production, Savage in Limbo, by John Patrick Shanley, Gresh received a large donation from a physician friend living in California.

“We didn’t break even, but we made two-thirds of it back,” Gresh recalls. He offered to return the diminished sum, but his friend declined. “He said, ‘Keep it for the next one.’ It was truly a gift.”

Even companies such as City and the Public started small. The most astonishing upstart in recent memory is barebones productions, established 10 years ago by local actor Patrick Jordan, who’s now in his early 30s. Barebones started with Bash, a four-actor monologue play by Neil LaBute, which Jordan staged in the supply room of a clothing shop below Forward Lanes in Squirrel Hill.

Today, Jordan’s productions routinely wow critics and play to full houses; he stages regularly at the New Hazlett Theater, one of the biggest and most coveted local venues. Jordan’s preferences are all over the map — but he’s known for picking stories that are gritty and sometimes graphic in violence and dialect.



“There are these plays that nobody’s been doing in Pittsburgh,” he says, “which are not just commercially viable, but they’re also relevant.”

During barebones’ decade in existence, a lot has changed: When Jordan produced This is Our Youth, by Kenneth Lonergen, as one of his first shows, he cast two close friends and performed at ModernFormations — and attendees called Jordan’s home phone to reserve seats for the donation-only show.

“Back then, I was hanging clip lights,” Jordan says. “Now, I have a technical director and a sound designer. We’re a real company. There are no restrictions. We’ve been doing this long enough for people to know what to expect.”

Despite his critical success and big goals, such as aiming to produce three shows per year, Jordan still considers his company more underground than mainstream.

“In my mind, I’m still doing stuff underneath a bowling alley,” he says. And although he takes leading or supporting roles in nearly all of his productions, Jordan doesn’t consider barebones a vanity project.

“They’re all ensemble pieces,” he says. “I didn’t start a company as an excuse to act in plays. I hire a director, and when I’m in rehearsal, I’m an actor.” 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit Module Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

The 400-Word Review: Ready or Not

Don't mistake this for another half-hearted teen scream. "Ready or Not" is an enjoyable horror satire.

Don't Let Headlines Keep You Away from the South Side

The weekend volcano went off on East Carson on Saturday night. That doesn't mean the neighborhood has a fundamental problem.

Steelers Challenge: Making the Most of Big Ben’s Final Years

The Steelers couldn’t find a franchise quarterback between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger. Now, with Roethlisberger as the sole remaining link to the team’s Super Bowl success, the time for another championship run is now — or it might not be for a while.

Restaurant Review: Alta Via

With its first new restaurant in 15 years, the big Burrito Restaurant Group proves it still has it.

The Amazing and Important Things Being Taught Off Campus

For Pittsburgh’s universities, some of the most dynamic research and learning take place beyond campus borders.

A Helping Hand: School Supplies as Easy as ABC

The Education Partnership helps teachers get what they need without breaking the bank.

Coworking Gets Down to Business in Pittsburgh

Sharing a workspace becomes more than just a place to plug in a laptop for entrepreneurs seeking an environment where they interact and help others.

Find Out How to Play Hockey at the Bottom of a Pool

Penguins skate on the ice; stingrays swim below it. See what happens when they toss the puck in the pool.

A Unique Honor for the King of Dukes

Duquesne basketball legend Chuck Cooper broke the NBA’s color line in 1950; next year, he’s getting a posthumous, one-of-a-kind honor at his former campus.

Our 50 Years: Myron Cope on Sports

In the earliest years of Pittsburgh Magazine, we didn’t quite know how to cover sports — so we just let Myron Cope say whatever he wanted.

Pigeon Bagels Opens In Squirrel Hill

Gab Taube opened a standalone location for her popular bagel business in July and we're very happy about it.

Power Bites Offer a Healthy Snack Alternative For People of All Ages

Sharif Rasheed created the tasty treat for his son, Malcolm.

The Latest Restaurant and Cafe Openings in Pittsburgh

We say hello to casual riverfront dining, beloved bagels and new coffee spots, while bidding a fond farewell to a popular tap room.

Watch: Rare and in Color Footage of Pittsburgh in 1928

Film from the 1920s is most always in black and white. We stumbled onto this short reel from 1928 after it had gone through an early hand-coloring process. It gives you an idea how things really looked in Pittsburgh 91 years ago.

Wrapped in History: Your Chance to See Real Mummies

The largest collection of real mummies is coming to Pittsburgh this fall.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


Watch: Rare and in Color Footage of Pittsburgh in 1928

Watch: Rare and in Color Footage of Pittsburgh in 1928

Film from the 1920s is most always in black and white. We stumbled onto this short reel from 1928 after it had gone through an early hand-coloring process. It gives you an idea how things really looked in Pittsburgh 91 years ago.

Comments

Wrapped in History: Your Chance to See Real Mummies

Wrapped in History: Your Chance to See Real Mummies

The largest collection of real mummies is coming to Pittsburgh this fall.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
The Latest Restaurant and Cafe Openings in Pittsburgh

The Latest Restaurant and Cafe Openings in Pittsburgh

We say hello to casual riverfront dining, beloved bagels and new coffee spots, while bidding a fond farewell to a popular tap room.

Comments

Big Changes Are Coming to Fish Nor Fowl

Big Changes Are Coming to Fish Nor Fowl

We have details on the launch of the restaurant's second chapter, plus updates on other Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group projects.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
5 Best Spots to Hang Out with Your Dog

5 Best Spots to Hang Out with Your Dog

For those who can’t stand the idea of leaving their dogs home alone on a beautiful day, these dog-friendly stores, restaurants and bars in the Pittsburgh area welcome humans and canines alike.

Comments

5 Races You (Yes, You) Can Run This Year

5 Races You (Yes, You) Can Run This Year

Even novice runners can work their way up to these fun and (mildly) challenging races.

Comments


Don't Let Headlines Keep You Away from the South Side

Don't Let Headlines Keep You Away from the South Side

The weekend volcano went off on East Carson on Saturday night. That doesn't mean the neighborhood has a fundamental problem.

Comments

What's Your Favorite Happy Hour?

What's Your Favorite Happy Hour?

After Dark wants to know about your preferred spot for after-work drinks and deals.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Coach Mike Tomlin Confronts Sorrow from the Heart

Coach Mike Tomlin Confronts Sorrow from the Heart

The Steelers’ head coach dug deep while leading his team through its grief over the loss of beloved assistant coach Darryl Drake. The words were hard to find but Tomlin found them while revealing a side of himself the fans and media don’t always see.

Comments

Steelers Rookie Getting His Ducks in a Row

Steelers Rookie Getting His Ducks in a Row

Off-the-radar, out-of-nowhere quarterback candidate Devlin Hodges is making a name for himself at Saint Vincent College. Can the NFL really be his true calling?

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: Ready or Not

The 400-Word Review: Ready or Not

Don't mistake this for another half-hearted teen scream. "Ready or Not" is an enjoyable horror satire.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: Good Boys

The 400-Word Review: Good Boys

This raunchy comedy isn't just funny — it's surprisingly sweet.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Love on the Farm: The Beauty of a Barn Wedding

Love on the Farm: The Beauty of a Barn Wedding

Even in the city, the barn wedding trend is on the rise.

Comments

Cookie Table Contest Winners and Runners Up: A Taste of Pittsburgh

Cookie Table Contest Winners and Runners Up: A Taste of Pittsburgh

Cookie tables are wonderful things in and of themselves, but more and more couples choose to go above and beyond.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
After Controversy, Luxury Condos Underway in Sewickley

After Controversy, Luxury Condos Underway in Sewickley

After being delayed two years by court challenges, 400/420 Centennial broke ground in August.

Comments

Get a Sneak Peek at Homes About to Hit the Market

Get a Sneak Peek at Homes About to Hit the Market

Launched by North Hills resident Wendy Gilch, Selling Later is a new online community that allows future home sellers and prospective home buyers to connect — before the house is listed.

Comments