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O'Reilly Theater: Public 'pioneer' happy with her longtime behind-the-scenes role

Sunday, December 05, 1999

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

From her new office in the O'Reilly Theater, Cynthia Tutera overlooks the same alley she used to see from her 1976 Public Theater office in the Fulton Building. "Talk about a step up," she cracks, "this has been a step around." More significantly, she points out, the Public "has been half my life" -- almost literally so, since later this month she turns 50.

  Cindy Tutera, 1999. (Bill Wade - Post-Gazette)

Now the general manager of administration and finance, Tutera is the only Public staff member who remains from those early days, and she started as a volunteer even earlier than that. If there's a third Founding Mother along with Margaret Rieck and Joan Apt, Cindy Tutera is it.

She met Joan and Jerry Apt when, barely out of school, she was working at the Pittsburgh Symphony, doing finance and general accounting. It was a natural step when about 1971 she switched over to Jerry Apt's engineering firm as assistant treasurer. That was on Centre Avenue, where in 1974 Rieck, Joan Apt and Ben Shaktman borrowed office space for the embryonic theater company.

Her relationship with the theater started with "little questions Ben would come in to ask me -- more as friendship than anything. Then Ben called in 1976 and asked if I knew anyone to be his business manager. No one came to mind, so I thought, 'What about me?' Joan, Jerry and I were good friends, so Jerry thought it was a great opportunity for me, if Ben held my hand. ... We held hands the whole way, Ben and I, through some very long nights. He's a very driven man. He taught me everything I know about management.

"Ben had his fingers in every piece of the pie -- he detailed budgeting down to every penny, edited every press release, sat in on every meeting. I don't know when he slept. We had some meetings at 11 p.m. I have great respect for Ben -- it made me do everything until I was positive it was perfected. She remembers a few all-nighters, especially re-writing staff policies. "During audit times, I'd stay in one of the theater's apartments on the North Side."

When Tutera started in 1976, there were only three or four staffers on payroll. The rest were volunteers. Now there are 22 in administration full-time, along with about 20 in production (many of them seasonal). In her own department, Tutera has three staffers and a part-timer.

As the Public grew, managing directors were hired to lighten the artistic director's burden -- Howard Millman, first, then Dennis Babcock, later Dan Fallon and now, Stephen Klein. There were others, some of whom Tutera recalls didn't last more than a month or two, since Shaktman didn't share leadership easily. As they came and went, often leaving lengthy gaps, Tutera gave the Public administrative stability.

"There have been so many people who worked here," she muses. "Some were tearful losses, and some, well, we wondered when they'd go."

Tutera grew up in Duquesne and lives there still. Her grandfather was an artisan, a fine plasterer who worked on the original Stanley Theatre. Her dad ran Tutera's Market, one in Duquesne and another in White Oak; after he had to have surgery and had no one to run the markets, he became a steelworker.

Back in 1976, the Public had "no systems in place. Money was being brought from the Fulton Building office to the North Side in a shoebox. Seating charts were drawn on big sheets of paper. The scene shop was in the Strip District." The scene shop is now on the South Side, but everything else is in one place in the new Downtown home provided by the Cultural Trust.

Budgets grew faster than facilities. In her 24 years, Tutera has seen the Public's grow tenfold, from about a half-million to the $5.2 million of 1999-2000. She's proud there were no financial crises along the way, no times the theater had to be bailed out. "We've always tried to raise money before we spent it," she says, echoing the mantra of Apt and Rieck, both of whom served terms as treasurer. And "there have been good business people on the board."

Reviewing the Public's four artistic directors, Tutera has the most to say about Shaktman. "I really came to care a lot about Ben. He was the kind who invited everyone to his home. No one else has done that. I don't think everybody appreciated him the way I did. If you had the stamina, you could take it [working with him]; if not, you left crying."

She calls Larry Arrick "a sweet guy, a gentleman. Bill Gardner was a clown, a comedian, a tease. Eddie Gilbert is a very shy man, very gentle. I don't know him very well. He rarely wanders into the accounting office. He knows what he wants and he will do what he has to to get it."

Over the years, she has seen only about half the plays. "I come in early in the morning, sometimes at 6, so I'm in bed by 9:30." Pressed, she admits that her "all-time favorite was 'K2,' because of the avalanche." But as the financial officer, she's often distracted by the money she sees on stage: "I sometimes think, 'Is that actor really worth that much?' "

Ultimately, "it's not so much that I love theater, but that I love what has to happen to create it. There's much more behind the scenes than people realize -- fund-raising, building budgets and costumes, all the little widgets in the sets. ... I'm definitely committed."

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