A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Pittsburgh Public Theater

Only intending to stay a short while, Ted Pappas, producing artistic director at Pittsburgh Public Theater, found his new home in Pittsburgh.

Moments after King Arthur lifted his gleaming sword and delivered his last line in Camelot, the classic American musical that played at Pittsburgh Public Theater in February, Ted Pappas made his way into the O’Reilly Theater’s lobby, where he was mobbed by fans.

“I don’t think Richard Burton ever did it better,” beamed audience member Audrey Grant. “It was fantastic—so much better than the movie.” Another attendee, Fran Caplan, couldn’t resist grabbing Pappas by the arm to congratulate him, saying the show was “uplifting [and] wonderful” as he tried to hurry through the lobby and head to Bravo Franco Ristorante for a quick dinner before the start of the next performance.

Camelot marked another hit for Pappas, 57, who is in the midst of his 11th straight season as the Public Theater’s producing artistic director and is under contract for four more. Art is a mercurial business, and the fact that Pappas has stayed at the helm of the Public Theater so long and so successfully (its finances have been in the black for at least the past seven years, according to board member Stuart Miller) is remarkable. “His tenure is unusual because, in the arts, people tend to move on. … But also another reason: Ted is truly a New Yorker,” Miller notes. “There’s a lot of draw that would take him to New York.”

True, Pappas’s New York roots run deep; he spent 25 years there as a freelance theater director before moving to Pittsburgh. But, insists Pappas, who lives downtown, “I consider myself a Pittsburgher now.” No one could doubt his commitment to or enthusiasm for Pittsburgh productions. He hardly misses a single performance at the Public Theater and regularly attends shows produced by the competition—and in Pittsburgh, there’s a lot of it: City Theatre, Pittsburgh Opera and the Pittsburgh CLO are just a few. His theater is lit (or holding a performance) 240 nights out of the year. And on most of those nights, you’ll find Pappas holding open the O’Reilly’s doors to greet theatergoers as they arrive.

“No disrespect to other arts leaders, but this guy’s combination of artistic talent, his ability to direct and produce some of the greatest stuff you’ll ever see on a stage—plus his ability to run the company on budget—is phenomenal,” stresses Miller. “You just can’t find that combination.”

Here’s Pappas on his Pittsburgh career and long love affair with live theater.

Are you surprised you’ve been with the Public Theater for 11 seasons?
When I moved here, I thought I’d stay three years. Pittsburgh turned out to be my new home. I think we have the most generous and—at the same time—the most discerning audiences here. I’m also in a unique position among directors in this country. Programming is my exclusive domain here. The plays are my choice. Subscriptions are up, we’re in the black and that allows the board to trust me without second-guessing me.

What was your biggest hit as director of the Public?
The Chief [which is about the life and times of Steelers owner Art Rooney]. It’s even a movie now—and a good one. It’s a play, first and foremost, but it includes sports, civic history and politics as part of its story. People who never saw a play before came to the Cultural District because of The Chief.

Have you experienced any misfortunes like an injured actor or a falling set?
I had to fill in once for an actor who got caught in a snowstorm in New York. The show always goes on at the Public Theater—even if I have to go on stage myself.

Did you always enjoy theater?

I knew very early on that I loved theater—even before I saw a play—by reading plays like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and by watching movies and television shows about the business of putting on plays. I read every play in the local library as a child and listened to hundreds of cast recordings. I still do that. Recently, I listened to Alfred Molina in the revival of Fiddler on the Roof before I saw Camelot.

What was the first play you ever saw?

Oliver! was the first full-blown production I ever saw. Everyone looked like they were having so much fun, and I knew then that I wanted to work with those kinds of people.

Have you enjoyed working with actors?

Actors are magical people. They are incredibly intuitive, generous in the extreme, playful and constantly inspiring to me.

How do you define your directing style?
Ninety percent of directing is casting. I give actors many notes early on and hope I help them in rehearsals to choose the right path.

The critic Mel Gussow says theater people love theatrical endings because we lack them in our real lives. Are you thinking about the end of your own career?

I believe in spectacular curtain calls. If I had to pick my own epitaph, it would be: “The curtain call was as exciting as the opening number.” As directors, we spend a lot of time shaping the final moments of a play, but we never imagine the end of our creative lives. [Legendary director] Hal Prince gave me this advice: “Always start the next project the day after opening night.” It’s about growth, not just continuity. Discovering new ways of expressing yourself. That’s what the theater offers us. That’s the great gift.

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