Sunrise, Sunset: Pittsburgh Playhouse's Second Act
The curtain is closing this month on the historical Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland, but it will rise again when Point Park University this fall unveils its new theater Downtown, a space with a history of its own.
A view of the Rockwell Theatre in the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland | photo by Chuck Beard
On a Monday afternoon in April, Pittsburgh Playhouse Producing Director Kim Martin is in her office preparing for class. The Point Park University adjunct instructor is in Room 216 on the second floor of the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland, up a set of stairs that creak with each step. Paint in the hallway peels off in huge chunks. A few rooms down, the number 213 has fallen from its doorframe and lies on the floor. Her office is a former men’s locker room.
Martin’s class today, Script Analysis for Technical Theatre Majors, is being held down the hall in a former theater — some students sit at tables on what once was the stage.
Her students have prepared PowerPoint presentations of fully realized set designs for 1956’s “The Visit,” a play about a woman from a poor Swiss town who offers to bestow riches on its inhabitants if one of them agrees to murder her former lover. It’s one of Martin’s favorite plays.
One group has designed the show around the concept of a freak show: one character is the ringleader; the main character has two heads. Another has modeled the set with a nod to “Les Miserables” with scenery that slides in and out and lots of shadows. One student has come up with an entire sound cue sheet and YouTube clips of sounds that could be incorporated: a railroad, a vintage doorbell.
The Wi-Fi won’t connect to play the clips, so eventually the students connect to one of their iPhone’s hotspots. After one presentation, a student returns to his seat to find the bar between the legs of the metal folding chair is broken.
“I get so embarrassed for parents to come see their kids in the basement theater with flood lines on the wall,” Martin says. “Some of them, their high school theaters were nicer than this.
“But not anymore.”
It’s Point Park’s final semester at the 85-year-old playhouse and the final months of performances for all of the companies under the umbrella of the Point Park University Conservatory of Performing Arts (COPA) in Oakland. This summer, they’ll move Downtown to the site of the new Pittsburgh Playhouse on Point Park’s campus, and in October the curtain will rise on a $60 million facility funded by a capital campaign and state grants that will rival any other theater in the city — if not the country.
The Palace façade pieced together and laid out for inspection | Renovation photos by Williams Stained Glass, Christopher Rolinson & Lou Corsaro
‘It Has Seen Its Day’
Until now, members of The REP (the playhouse’s professional theater company), the Conservatory Theatre Company and the Conservatory Dance Company (student troupes) and Playhouse Jr. (the second-longest continually running children’s theater in the nation) have been performing in a space composed of a home, a German social club and a synagogue, “held together with duct tape and determination,” as Pittsburgh Playhouse and COPA Artistic Director Ronald Allan-Lindblom likes to say.
“Everything is an amalgamation. It’s all been pieced together. And it has seen its day,” Martin says.
In 1968, Point Park acquired the Pittsburgh Playhouse, originally a community theater founded in 1932. With the purchase, it also acquired the Playhouse School, which became the foundation for the musical theater program at Point Park, now ranked by Playbill.com among the Top 10 colleges represented on Broadway.
“Around the year 2002, we also began to think very seriously about what we were going to do with the playhouse in Oakland,” University President Paul Hennigan says. “We knew the facility did not match the reputation of the program, and we just needed to come up with a solution. So we … looked at renovating the current playhouse or building a new playhouse in Downtown Pittsburgh. And we decided it would make a lot more sense to build a new building in Downtown Pittsburgh.”
The stained glass removed for restoration from the former Stock Exchange Building
Martin became the producing director of the playhouse in 2016 after working there in various roles since her time as a student at Point Park in the 1980s. Her husband, Philip Winters, is a director in the Conservatory Theatre as well as an actor in The REP, a graduate school alum, and a full-time instructor. One of their two daughters is a rising Point Park junior in the Performances and Practices Major.
This is Martin’s second home. She knows its ghost stories: The Rauh Theatre is haunted by the Lady in White, who caught her husband at the German Social Club with another woman and killed him, then herself. The ghost that haunts the Rockwell Theatre is John Johns, an actor who had a heart attack on stage in 1950. He was wearing a tuxedo for his role, and that’s his attire as he haunts today.
Martin can tell you the history of the once-posh restaurant in the basement where Hirschfelds covered the walls. She bounces on her toes a little as she gives a tour of the old playhouse. “We are ready to go,” she says. “We can’t wait to move.”
She begins in the main lobby and continues to the Rauh Theatre, which used to be a home. “You can see holes in the ceiling that have been patched up,” she says. “You can’t fly anything because it’s all rotten wood. If you want to attach anything, we literally have to attach it to the roof.”
The Rauh Theatre sits next to the Rockwell, the former synagogue. The Rauh Theatre does not have an orchestra pit, so musicians sit on the stage of the Rockwell during shows and vice versa.
A worker removes a piece of The Royal façade from the original building Downtown
“We’ve never been able to do two shows at the same time,” Martin says, bouncing a little again, her excitement for the new space palpable.
She enters Dressing Room 8. It’s narrow, with one mirror on the left wall and peeling paint.
“This is where Jane Alexander came. This is where Shirley Jones came.” She shakes her head. “It’s awful.”
She moves into a rehearsal room and points to a large, shallow, cylinder-shaped yellow tub sitting on top of some storage cabinets.
“That big yellow tub is what we put on the floor when the ceiling’s leaking,” she says. “People dance around it.”
Downstairs is the black box studio theater where the lobby has the aforementioned water lines on the wall from flooding.
“We’re directly below the Rockwell Theatre,” Martin explains. “In the ’90s, they were doing a show called “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” and it takes place around a swimming pool. They lined it, filled it with water, then one tech guy came down and said, ‘uh oh.’”
The weight of the water was causing the theater floor to fall into, so they built five pillars to hold it up.
“There are people around today, who, at Point Park, remember 1968 and would say that building had outlived its useful leg even in 1968,” Hennigan says. “Point Park has kept that building going for 50 years.”
The new space will have no leaking roofs and no ghosts (yet). But it does have its own history.
University President Paul Hennigan with a model of the new playhouse | photo by Renee Rosensteel
Designed by the Users
The new playhouse, situated on one and a half acres between Forbes and Fourth avenues and designed by Cleveland architect Westlake Reed Leskosky, is also made up of three buildings. The former Bank Center, once home to the longest row of bank tellers in the world, will hold the main PNC Theater, a proscenium with 563 seats. The second theater, located upstairs, will hold about 200 seats. The black box theater will seat around 100, and performances there can expand into the adjoining courtyard.
Among the features that have been preserved are three historic facades from the former structures. Some preservationists pushed for them to be incorporated as-is into the new building, but Point Park opted to have them removed, reconstructed and reassembled to the tune of $2 million; they’re located in the new two-story outdoor plaza and colonnade and visible from the street.
A marble staircase built in 1901, which has been hidden behind walls for more than 45 years, has also been restored. Located in the former Bank Center, it will lead patrons up to the balcony.
Hennigan on the colonnade of the new playhouse
Upstairs, in what will be the costume shop, the university cleaned and restored 22 pieces of stained glass from the 114-year-old ceiling of the Stock Exchange Building.
“When we first bought the building, if we stood here and looked up, we would not see stained glass windows,” Hennigan says during a spring tour of the new site. Apparently the windows had been covered by a low ceiling during the energy crisis of the 1970s. The university removed the fake ceiling to reveal the windows and had them restored.
The theater will also have a working sound stage, which will be large enough to hold three sets so that students can work on film or television productions.
Martin says the first time she cried in the new theater was when she first saw the loading dock. In Oakland, all sets had to be either small enough to fit through a doorway or built inside the theater; there was no loading dock.
“It’s really nice to come into a theater that’s built as a theater,” Martin says. “People don’t realize many theaters weren’t.”
Allan-Lindblom says Hennigan involved those who would be using the playhouse in every decision, from hiring the architects to the placement of the light sockets.
But moving has brought plenty of challenges.
The old playhouse had more than 20,000 square feet of storage space just for costumes. The new site will have about 2,500.
“It is constant — how do we solve this problem, how do we solve that problem?” Martin says. “Things at the warehouse [at the old playhouse] are complete shows. [Costume designer Joan Markert] has the complete ‘Chorus Line.’ We did ‘The Producers’ — there were 1,200 costumes.
“It’s kind of a catch 22. It’s not going to fit. What we have here is not going to fit. If we don’t have these costumes we can pull apart for lace and buttons and cuffs … that’s going to cut out of our budget … we’re going to have to rent storage or purge. This is almost … it’s 85 years of stuff.”
COPA Artistic Director Ronald Allan-Lindblom, Hennigan and Playhouse Producing Director Kim Martin
An Artistic Laboratory
Having a new playhouse is obviously beneficial for COPA, and having it on campus will be convenient. But it’s meant to be much more: the center of Hennigan’s vision for an academic village.
“The point of this new playhouse is it’s an artistic laboratory; it’s been designed to be an artistic laboratory,” Allan-Lindblom says. “It’s been designed to be to the arts nationally what the robotics institute is to the scientific community nationally.
“When I say it’s a university asset for everybody, for performers it’s obvious what it is. For marketing students, it’s an artistic laboratory. For accounting students, it’s an artistic laboratory. The whole point of this is to intermix all of these disciplines and being able to create hands-on products so that the students, from dancers to cinematographers to social media to PR people, are all working together in a hands-on experience.”
Martin says she thinks moving Downtown is going to raise the stakes for Point Park all around.
“I have a feeling this place is going to explode,” she says.
Conservatory students present “Uncle Vanya”
The Final Bow
This month, the old building will be feted with the Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Lights Out Celebration (Editor’s Note: Pittsburgh Magazine is a sponsor of the event) before going up for sale. The last conservatory show in Oakland, Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” closed in April.
“The students were so excited to be in this show,” says Philip Winters, who directed “Uncle Vanya.” “It’s a great play, a lot of them are seniors, and adding into the fact it’s the final conservatory show added in a little excitement.”
The students rehearsed six nights a week in the month before opening night, preparing them, says junior Matthew Spadaccia, the show’s stage manager, for what ends up being a demanding career. Of course, when rehearsals ended at 10:30 p.m., students had to wait for the shuttle to take them back Downtown. Then, there was still homework.
Spadaccia says he’s excited to be in the new space because it may give him the opportunity to be one of a very small group of students who worked on a show at both the old and the new playhouses.
“It’s really an honor,” he says of being a part of “Uncle Vanya.” “We all kind of bonded as a family. I think that’s the whole essence of the Pittsburgh Playhouse — we’re all one big family.”