How An Abandoned School Became The Main Stage For The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre
The company’s 20th season launches March 11 at the Madison Arts Center, the former elementary school bought by theater founder Mark Clayton Southers.
[Editor’s Note 3/10/23] Due to construction delays of the new theater, performances of “Shantytown the Ballad of Fr. James Cox” have been postponed by six days; the first performance will be March 17. Those who purchased tickets should be getting an email about rescheduling or refunds. You can also get more information by calling Mark Clayton Southers at 412-377-7803.
Mark Clayton Southers is fidgeting with a light fixture and taking last-minute phone calls as he prepares the Madison Arts Center for its first official show. It’s one week out from the curtains going up, and the former elementary school, located at 3401 Milwaukee St. in the Upper Hill District, is alive with buzz saws, dog barks and soft bossa nova music.
“It’s a great building. I mean, I know the neighborhood, I know the people,” Southers says on the day of this visit last week. “They’ve embraced what we’re doing, which is great, and we’ve yet to be able to see some of the great things that can happen. But we’re glad to be in a position to make some stuff happen.”
Southers is the founder and artistic director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, which is celebrating its 20th season in 2023. The group is renowned for its dedicated showing the works of the late playwright and Pittsburgh’s own August Wilson. Since the theater’s founding in 2003, Southers says he’s been “marching to the beat of someone else’s drum,” having to keep set pieces in storage and working around remodelings of other theaters. He describes it as being in a state of “constant flux.”
The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre’s annual season launches on March 11, showcasing five plays across two theaters over six months. Four of the plays will be performed at Southers’ newly acquired Madison Arts Center, the elementary school he attended before it was abandoned for 16 years.
When Madison Elementary School — colloquially known as “Monkey Madison” for the monkeys carved into the gothic stone entrance — came on the market, he says it was the perfect opportunity.
With his wife’s help and his own pension from the steel mill he worked at for 18 years, Southers bought the theater last summer and has been remodeling it ever since.
The current set crew includes Marcus, Southers’ 15-year-old son who handles lighting and concessions, his daughter, Ashley, who is stage manager for the play “Pyramid Builders,” and his well-fed brown Labrador retriever, Mama Coco. Marcus provided a tour of the school, where the potential for redeveloping the three-story building seemed a monumental challenge.
The Madison Arts Center is an eclectic, and at present dystopian, blend of high-class theater and elementary school decay. Graffiti is slashed along the lockers between former classrooms now filled with grand pianos and theatrical costumes. Arrows drawn on out-of-commission chalkboards direct actors from the dressing rooms and toward the main stage.
The 125-seat theater being primed for its first show is only one aspect of the multi-dimensional space. Southers is concurrently working on a black box theater in the gym on the second floor and is in talks with a local barber to open up shop in a classroom. He also has plans down the road for a comedy showcase, flea market and art gallery.
“The biggest thing is it’s gonna be an art center,” Southers says. “We’ll teach classes there. We’re having a gallery in there for exhibits and stuff. And I really want young folks and people in the community to approach their artistic side. So you make it possible for people to dream and hone their craft.”
“But right now the focus is getting the theater up and running.”
Since acquiring the building, Southers, with his limited crew, has taken responsibility for the scraping, painting, organizing, construction and maintenance. New boilers are needed and they’re yet to touch the third floor, but still, he says it’s a good feeling to have ownership of “what’s going to make me able to be in a position to make the decisions.”
Following a devastating car crash that left Southers in a coma in 2015 and with a persistent limp, he says the theater has been the perfect place to direct his efforts. “I like the challenge, and you know, I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been fighting depression, because of my accident,” Southers says. “So having something challenging to do keeps you motivated. It keeps all dark clouds away.” His son Marcus begrudgingly jokes he’s spent most of his days in the theater.
Southers says the theme for the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre’s upcoming season is “plays by Pittsburgh playwrights,” and will showcase a collection of plays that the theater group put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The season launches on March 11 with “Shantytown the Ballad of Fr. James Cox,” though this isn’t the first performance in the new theater space. Last September Southers put on a free performance of August Wilson’s “Jitney” to the neighborhood where he also lives. His son and nephew went door to door to pass out flyers in a two-block radius. It was a full house.
Southers fixes the cord and gets up to measure and cut plywood. He realizes he has to drive out to Columbus, Ohio to buy lighting equipment. There’s much to be done before the 11th, but again, Mark Southers likes the challenge.
Here is the schedule for the theater’s 20th season. All except “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” will be held at the Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee St., Hill District.
“Shantytown the ballad of Fr. James Cox”
When: March 11-26
What: Written by Ray Werner and directed by Gregory Lehane, the play tells the story of the Strip District pastor who distributed over 3 million meals to the homeless during the great depression.
It’s the first play of the season and the official inauguration of the Madison Arts Center. Tickets are available for purchase here.
When: April 14-30
What: Written by Karuna Das and directed by Bianca LaVerne Jones, the world premiere of “Pyramid Builders” tells the story of a dystopian unraveling set only nine years in the future. With the backdrop of a race-based civil war and climate brought food and water shortages, characters confront their past traumas and the bridges needed to build a better future in this allegorical play.
“The Bluegrass Mile”
When: May 13- 28
What: Written and directed by Mark Clayton Southers, the world premiere of this story about black horse Jockeys in the late 1800s is the latest in his “19th-century cycle.” August Wilson was famed for his 20th-century cycle — 10 plays set across the decades of the 20th with all but one set in Pittsburgh — and Southers says he’s paying homage by telling “Black stories” in the century prior.
“12:52 The Mike Webster Story”
When: June 16-25
What: Written by Sonny Jani and Ross Howard and directed by Marcus Muzopappa, this is the story of Steeler offensive lineman “Iron Mike” Webster who played for the Steelers for a record-breaking 15 seasons and was the first NFL player diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disorder that some experts say is linked to repeated head impacts.
This production will also offer free performances earlier in June at a Downtown Pittsburgh location, as part of the Three Rivers Arts Festival.
“Joe Turner’s Come & Gone”
Where: Outdoors at August Wilson House, 1727 Bedford Ave., Hill District
When: Aug. 5-27
What: Written by August Wilson and Directed by Mark Clayton Southers, this is the second installment in Wilson’s 20th-century cycle and tells the story of Harold Loomis who returns to Pittsburgh looking for his wife, haunted by the memory of Joe Turner, the bounty hunter who illegally enslaved him.
The play has the longest run of the season at six weeks and will be performed in the backyard of the Hill District house where Wilson grew up.