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Masterson moves to another stage in career

Wednesday, August 09, 2000

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

Marc Masterson, leader of Pittsburgh's City Theatre for 20 years, has been named the new artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, one of the first rank of American regional theaters.

Departure will ripple through Pittsburgh arts scene

Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer, contributed to this report.


"I'm having all these different emotions at the same time," said the usually unflappable Masterson.

"I'll finally be able to say 'y'all' again without being self-conscious," he said from Louisville. The 45-year-old Texas native has lived in Pittsburgh since he arrived to study at Carnegie Mellon in the late 1970s.

Masterson is moving from the No. 2 nonmusical theater in Pittsburgh, with two theaters (275 and 100 seats) and an annual budget just under $2 million, to an $8 million company with three theaters (637, 318 and 159 seats) with influence that extends far beyond the state of Kentucky. (For comparison, the Pittsburgh Public Theater has one stage and an annual budget of $6 million.)

The centerpiece of downtown Louisville, the Tony-winning Actors Theatre produces a regular subscription season and various touring

programs. But what makes it unique is its annual Humana Festival of New Plays, in which more than a dozen plays are launched with full-scale productions for an audience from around the world.

Masterson will start his new position immediately, but until December he also will continue as producing director of City Theatre, splitting his time equally between the two cities.

He arrived in Louisville Monday night for yesterday's press announcement with festivities to follow. With him was his wife, Patricia Melvin, an executive at West Penn Hospital, already looking for a house and schools for their two children. The whole family plans to move to Louisville in December.

Masterson told City board president Dee Jay Oshry and the executive committee about his decision last week; the rest of the board and the City staff were informed Monday. "It was quite emotional, for both Marc and me," said longtime supporter Robert Frankel, "and for most of the board."

For Masterson, Monday was a long day of heightened emotion, telling friends the news. "Letting go is really hard," he said. "Everyone has been happy for me personally but has also expressed personal loss. There's sadness mixed in with the joy and the excitement."

He succeeds one of the great pioneers of the American regional theater movement, Jon Jory, who ran Actors Theatre for 31 of its 37 years and now leaves to teach drama at the University of Washington. Continuing as Actors executive director will be Alexander Speer, who has served for those same 31 years.

Jory started the Humana Festival in 1976. Taking its name from funding by the Humana Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Humana Inc., health services specialists, it has been called "the Kentucky Derby of the American theater" and "the center of the theater world" by commentators. Indeed, Jory had a genius for starting special programs, such as the Classics in Context, Past Classics and Flying Solo & Friends festivals, the 10-Minute Play Contest and Signature Shakespeare, and he and Speer oversaw continual physical and financial expansion.

Following Jory is a challenge. "You have to be aware of the magnitude of that," Masterson said, "but you can't let it stop you or slow you down as long as you're sensitive to the difficulty of making changes. I like that challenge, stepping into territory where I don't know the answers."

Whoever follows Masterson at City will have a similar situation. Just as its focus on new American plays makes City something of a junior version of the Kentucky theater, it is also losing its "founding leader" -- its head for 20 of its 25 years.

But, says Masterson, "City Theatre has never been stronger or better. We have built an endowment, expanded our facilities, balanced our budget -- we have our fiscal house in order. Three years of the past five we've had 20 percent or higher growth in our subscription base. And we've done it while committed to producing new plays -- we could have done things a lot easier to attract audiences. Artistically we're in great shape, and the staff is intact. Any artist who's visited from New York, Chicago, Philadelphia will talk about the quality of our staff and the feeling they get while working there."

So the now vacant City position is a golden opportunity, he said, for "a new person with new energy and vision. The search committee will be flooded with talented applicants."

Former board president Thomas Hollander and the Cultural Trust's Carol Brown will chair City's search committee. Board member Frankel says they will use the headhunting firm that put Masterson in contact with Actor's Theater.

"I'm not going to say that precludes a local selection, but it certainly broadens the view, and we owe it to the city and the theater community to bring in the best possible person," Frankel said. Hollander said a new director should be in place by the end of the year, in time to plan the 2001-02 season.

Masterson did not initially seek the Actors job. Like many theater leaders, he has been a regular visitor to the Humana Festival for a decade, at least. Actors and directors who have worked at City also have worked at Actors, including Mladen Kiselov and Anne Bogart.

When Masterson was at the Festival this spring, friends at Actors, as well as its search firm, asked him if he was going to apply for the job -- Jory had announced this year would be his last. "I hadn't really thought about it," he said. "I wasn't shopping around." But gradually he realized "there are a lot of similarities between these organizations" and decided to pursue it.

Masterson described the resulting process as "incredibly thorough, thoughtful, interesting and engaging." When the list was narrowed to five or six candidates, "they brought us in for in-depth interviews, three hours with the search committee, three hours with the staff, long discussions with the executive director."

With the list narrowed further, there were more questions, and "they phoned everyone they could think of."

He was attracted to Actors for several reasons.

"I'm excited that it's bigger, a big challenge, stepping into this role and trying to make it work. The Humana Festival is the premiere showcase of new American plays, and I believe in the way they do them -- producing them, not just workshopping. And I have some experience on this level.

"It's one of the founding companies of the regional theater movement -- Jon Jory was one of the founding generation. It's one of the last theaters to go through this transition from its first generation. That excites me, too, though I fully recognize the difficulty.

"Also, I'm interested in doing classical work." City Theatre has focused on American plays with an occasional contemporary foreign work. "The classics might be possible at City Theatre but not in the immediate future or with the resources available in Louisville. I'm ready for that now -- that larger subject matter and greater complexity.

"The challenge of leading an institution like this is irresistible. It's a great organization, financially very healthy, with great staff." He went on to praise Speer and literary manager Michael Dixon as "the most talented and knowledgeable in their fields -- Michael knows every playwright and every play -- and there are people like them at every level in the organization."

But Masterson is still reeling. "Patti and I have lived through waves and waves of our friends relocating," he said. "We were always the ones who stayed." But Actors is doing all it can to cushion the move. "They are being extremely generous and warm in their embrace of my whole family -- they are very aware it's a family moving, not just one person."

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