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The write stuff

Sunday, October 11, 1998

By John Hayes

The line for tickets trails out the door and onto the narrow gravel lot between City Theatre and its smaller satellite, the Lester Hamburg Studio. Look again, and everything about this ticket queue seems strange.

    Recent works

by local playwrights

This year, Pittsburgh audiences have had access to nearly a dozen homegrown, full-length plays and musicals. Most of the productions, however, were limited by space and financing, and nearly half were self-produced by the playwrights. Some were good and others weren't, but at least a few deserved consideration at the city's principal theaters.

"Hosanna" by David Bordas, Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre.

"Dracula, a Musical" by Paul Michael Brown, McKeesport Little Theater.

"Limoges" by Geanne Drennen, Upstairs Theatre.

"Welcome Home" by Ted Hoover, The Acting Company.

"Red Berries" and "The Pawn" by Javon Johnson, New Horizon Theater and Pittsburgh New Voices, respectively.

"The Last Bridge" by Melissa Martin, Lester Hamburg Studio.

"The Hex" by Ernest McCarty, New Horizon Theater.

"The Music Lesson" and "Pig" by Tammy Ryan, Prime Stage and Pittsburgh Playhouse, respectively.

- John Hayes


It hardly resembles the crowds of aging patrons waiting outside most Downtown premieres. It looks more like the crucial demographic sliver of youngish, active adults that every entertainment outlet in Pittsburgh is clamoring to attract.

The show they're waiting to see isn't part of a star-studded blockbuster tour or even a famous farce. It's a Spartan showcase of new one-act plays, most written by local, unknown playwrights.

And though you'd think the ticket line, which has now bottlenecked and split in several directions, might include at least a few curious bar hoppers who've strayed from the East Carson Street nightlife corridor, it's a line for reserved-seat holders only. There is no walk-up line. Every seat was taken in advance.

In its seventh season, the Pittsburgh New Works Festival filled the 100-seat Hamburg on most of its nights, with some shows topping 100 percent capacity. (Folding chairs were squeezed in to accommodate the overflow.) The burgeoning young theater crowd can't seem to get enough of it, and you'd think Pittsburgh playwrights would be thrilled with all the attention.

But the playwrights don't see it that way. New Works provides a valuable showcase for beginning and developing writers, they say, and several seated-or-staged reading series provide other opportunities to crash-test their scripts on audiences and peers. But after they've mastered the entry-level contests, where do the playwrights go from there?

Pittsburgh's big, professional theaters rarely, if ever, produce full-length plays by local writers. A few smaller, established houses occasionally indulge them, but not often enough to accommodate the surprising number of scripts pouring from the rapidly growing pool of Pittsburgh talent.

Writers are often forced to become producers, bankrolling their own shows at tiny, out-of-the-way holes in the wall. Most send their scripts to producers in New York and the heartland never to hear from them again. Some others join the exodus of young Pittsburgh artists, hoping to catch a star in another city that might offer more opportunity.

Opinions are split as to whether Pittsburgh is a good or not-so-good town for playwrights, but there are two things on which most agree: There are a lot of them, with enough on- and off-stage talent here to produce high-caliber productions, but not enough of their works are being done.

A wealth of talent

Of the several hundred full-length plays and musicals produced this year in the greater Pittsburgh area, 10 were written by eight local playwrights. That's not bad for a city this size, but the numbers may be misleading. Artistic directors and governing boards at both large and small houses aren't embracing the local resource - nearly half these writers had to produce their work themselves.

That's curious considering Pittsburgh's national reputation as a roiling theater melting pot. Carnegie Mellon University runs the oldest degree-granting theater program in America and is recognized as one of the leading schools for actors. Point Park College's theater-training program is gaining ground. Film companies rate the city's technical crews near the top in their field, and one of the best living playwrights uses Pittsburgh as the backdrop to his award-winning plays.

It's impossible to talk about great American playwrights of the 20th century without citing August Wilson, who has turned memories of his Hill District boyhood into some of the most compelling modern tragedies. Theaters that slap Wilson's name on a marquee are bound to draw a crowd, particularly in Pittsburgh. But even Wilson didn't become a prophet in his own town until he was first worshiped elsewhere.

In fact, as a playwright, leaving Pittsburgh seems to have set Wilson free. It was when he moved to St. Paul, Minn., already in his 30s, that he found his playwriting voice in the fertile story-telling and folk poetry of the black streets, stoops, diners and barbershops he remembered from the Hill. He later moved to Seattle, another cool, northern, Scandinavian-dominated city that appealed to him precisely because of its unlikeness to Pittsburgh, allowing him to look back more intently at August Wilson Country - the semi-mythic, northern, urban African-American world of his plays.

Still, Wilson remains a Pittsburgh playwright, unlike his most famous Pittsburgh predecessor, George S. Kaufman, who left town for Broadway in the' teens and never looked back. Wilson once said, "Like most people, I have this sort of love-hate relationship with Pittsburgh. This is my home and at times I miss it and find it tremendously exciting, and other times I want to catch the first thing out that has wheels." He asserts that "it is Pittsburgh which has provided the fuel and the father for all of my work."

But there's a formidable gulch between Wilson and those playwrights still struggling in Pittsburgh, although some have begun building reputations elsewhere. Tammy Ryan is among the few playwrights living in Pittsburgh whose work is embraced both at home and on the competitive streets off-Broadway.

"Pig," her award-winning, blue-collar tale of a backyard barbecue from hell, has played in two runs to supportive Pittsburgh crowds and one run in New York. The Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library extended Ryan the rare honor of videotaping her show for posterity, and The New York Times called "Pig" "an emotional explosion." This year she premiered a new play commissioned by Prime Stage, and "Pig" was reprised at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Her "Vegetable Love" is being produced this fall in New York.

Originally from New York, Ryan was lured to town by the playwriting program at CMU, but now she seems practically native working-class Pittsburgh. Indeed, she and Melissa Martin have been paired by Post-Gazette drama critics as proponents (along with others) of a gutsy, comic, semi-surreal family drama that might almost be called a Pittsburgh style.

"City Theatre and the Public haven't produced my plays, and in a way I don't blame them," Ryan says. "I write for a working-class audience because that's my background, but those aren't the people who go to the theater. I'm sure they're not the majority of subscribers at those places. My audience is just ordinary, average people who . . . think theater is elitist, and when the big theaters in town put on plays that seem foreign to them, it's hard to convince them that it doesn't have to be."

Ryan's New York productions make it possible for her plays to be seen by some of the industry's important publishers and producers. Attaining that level of recognition is an important next step that generally can't occur in Pittsburgh. Still, Ryan says the Playhouse productions of "Pig" rivaled those at the 29th Street Repertory in quality.

"I think the talent that was on that stage [at the Playhouse] was absolutely as good if not better than the people who did it in New York," she says. "Pittsburgh has this inferiority complex. They think anything done here can't be as good as what's done somewhere else. But that's not true, and audiences would find that out if they had the chance."

Ted Hoover has quit writing. Again. An award-winning local playwright who also critiques theater for In Pittsburgh newsweekly, Hoover says that while the pressures on any playwright are draining, local playwrights have additional burdens to carry.

"Like finding a place to work," he says. "Like coming up with the money to do it. Like dealing with a shrinking population of people who might be remotely interested in what you have to say and a city government that couldn't care less about you."

At various times over the past 15 years, Hoover has tried to solve the nagging problem of limited theater space. In the early 1980s, he worked at the Pittsburgh Lab Theater, where an early farce of his was staged. Later, he joined with playwrights Ryan, Martin and Dan Kennedy to form Pyramid Productions, a workshop of sorts for disenfranchised writers which - among other things - produced a long-running series of 12 10-minute plays called the No Doze Dozen that helped local artists to hone artistic and technical skills.

One of Hoover's first full-length plays, "Eulogy," won a chance to be workshopped at the prestigious National Playwrights Conference at Connecticut's O'Neill Theater Center - the same place where August Wilson came to national attention. Hoover's works have been performed at smaller regional theaters across the country, but he says he decided before this year's self-production of "Welcome Home" that it would be his finale. He's said that before - repeatedly - but this time he says he means it.

"One of the reasons I stopped is I was tired of begging for space," he says. "When you're in the arts, you're told again and again that the arts don't pay for themselves and sports do. . . . But now we're going to be forced to pay for stadiums so professional businesses can chase balls around the field. Plan B is going to cost taxpayers a billion dollars before they're through, and it's coming from us. How is that paying for themselves? This city doesn't support its artists, and that's part of the reason artists are leaving Pittsburgh like it's on fire."

Hoover says although he lost his shirt on "Welcome Home" - which was very well-received critically but not as well-attended as it deserved - producing it was one of the most fulfilling experiences of his life, though not enough to tempt him to write again.

"You hate doing it at the time, but I think it was helpful as a playwright to produce my own plays," he says. "You learn lots of practical things, and you work with other people, and I've worked with some extremely talented people in Pittsburgh. But theater is a dying art. Even nationally, I don't think it matters anymore. I think theater will end up like opera - very gentrified, heavily subsidized. I think that's really why I'm out. It just doesn't matter anymore."

A melting pot of talent

All Pittsburgh playwrights aren't so pessimistic. The off-Broadway success of "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Bloomingdale's" in 1970 launched an impressive playwriting career for Chicago native Ernest McCarty. He chooses to live in Pittsburgh and has had four plays produced here.

Since 1994 he's been the artistic director at New Horizon Theater, an African-American company with professional aspirations. "Granted, there is no tremendous thoroughfare of industry activity for playwrights and artists in Pittsburgh," he says. "There isn't anyone here who could see your play and take it elsewhere. . . . But I've found it easier to get involved in the smaller theatrical community here than in New York. I can be involved in theater every day without waiting for some big producer. I can help some people and write in the relative calm of a very beautiful city."

When McCarty needs to network his material, Manhattan is only an hour away by plane. Talented actors and stage crews are easier to get here, he says, as long as you don't need an entire cast of "triple threat" talent who can act, sing and dance.

Writer Eileen Hodgetts, a native of England who moved here in 1970, parlayed several playwriting awards from CATPAWS (a new play contest staged by Cranberry's Comtra Theatre for seven years) and the New Works Festival awards into a viable - though not profitable - career. She's won writing fellowships and grants, teaches playwriting through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and has earned money writing commissioned works written for nontraditional outlets like Fort Ligonier and the town of Niagara Falls. Although she's not from Wheeling, the West Virginia town is planning an Eileen Hodgetts festival that will include nine of her plays.

"The problem, I think, is salesmanship," she says. "There are many very good, very talented people in theater in Pittsburgh, and very nice work can be done. But to get your play produced elsewhere, you have to be a bit of a salesman, and I think that's hard for a lot of people."

After being produced and winning several writing awards early in her career, Melissa Martin says she became "spoiled" and didn't want to wait for the next call from a producer. She became a "control freak" and started producing them herself, although in recent years she's become aware of the inherent flaws of self-production.

"Producing yourself is not good enough because it ends there," she says. "Someone's got to see your play and want to do it elsewhere, and those people aren't in Pittsburgh. You either need [your play] to be seen by important people or you need a big-mouthed person who knows important people to like it."

From the outside looking in

For several seasons in the 1970s, Thom Thomas was artistic director for the fondly-remembered Odd Chair Theater, one of the city's formative production companies. His "The Interview" has been performed at regional theaters all over the country and "Without Apologies," a witty sequel to Oscar Wilde's "Importance of Being Ernest," has done almost as well. But in 1981, Thomas went to Los Angeles to work on a "Hill Street Blues" script and never came back.

"I guess I got sidetracked doing TV and film," he says. "You cannot make a living writing for the theater. You have to supplement it with writing for TV or film, or just get a regular job. Even if a play goes to New York and becomes a big hit, it has to travel across America and stay out there to make any money for the playwright."

Milan Stitt disagrees. The new director of the playwriting program at CMU, now a part-time resident here, won a "best play" award in 1977 for his "The Runner Stumbles," which was later made into a movie. A former head of playwriting at Yale, Stitt says the secret to turning a buck as a playwright is to have your name known in New York but your plays performed regionally.

"Pittsburgh is never going to make a playwright a living," he says, "but as a launching place, I think it's terribly important. I'm from Detroit, a bigger city than Pittsburgh, and they have one theater and it isn't as good as those you have here. If you have a chance to go to New York, take it, because it's still the center of theater in America. But if you're getting your plays performed here and they have an audience, use that to learn to make your plays better."

Stitt's long-time predecessor at CMU, Arthur Giron, agrees that the way for playwrights to make money is to have a large body of published work available to regional theaters. Last year, after a family tragedy, Giron left his tenured position at CMU and returned to New York to write.

While living here, he had the honor of being the only "Pittsburgh" playwright produced on the mainstage at the Pittsburgh Public Theater - both "Edith Stein" and "Becoming Memories." Three of his plays recently closed off-Broadway, and several more have been produced this year at regional theaters across the country. "Edith Stein" is based on the true story of a Jewish woman who converted to Catholicism and was murdered in the Holocaust. Today the Roman Catholic Church is officially canonizing Stein, and Giron was invited to the ceremony at the Vatican.

"It's a small industry, and people outside Pittsburgh know what's going on there, particularly because you have CMU," he says. "I think what people [in Pittsburgh] don't know is that productions there are frequently compared to those in big urban centers, and that the quality of some of the writing that comes out of Pittsburgh is very high."

A pat on the back

While most of the city's larger theaters are still reluctant to take a chance on staging shows by homegrown playwrights, there's enthusiastic support among the smallest, grass-roots, ethnic organizations. The Jewish Community Center has employed local writers to draft scripts for outreach programs, and Kuntu Repertory Theater and New Horizon actively recruit and develop African-American talent.

Pittsburgher Rob Penny has been regularly produced by Kuntu, but his work is also well-known nationally. In honor of his and August Wilson's work with the Kuntu Writers Workshop, Kuntu is this year offering a four-play mainstage schedule that includes Johnson's "Papa's Blues." New Horizon's season will include pieces by McCarty and Pittsburgher P.J. Gibson.

"The talent is here and the theory is if you provide a place for them to work, the audience will discover them," says New Horizon's McCarty. "Once the audience proves with their dollars that they will support local artists, the big theaters would want to follow that money. That's the theory, anyway."

Javon Johnson, a grad student in Pitt's acting program, has had several plays produced. Surprisingly, he says, none were done through the university. He's had better luck with small theater groups and the community-outreach programs at New Horizon and Kuntu. "There's support [in the black community] for developing artists, but I don't look at that," he says. "I've written three short plays and three full-length plays, and only half are African-American-based. I think black theaters are financially in a different place than predominantly white theaters. They call for more community-based support, and they get it. I think their audiences want to feel like they're helping you get started. It's a different kind of support in the small black theaters - very hands-on."

But a chasm still exists between entry-level support and the viable, potentially profitable production of locally written plays. Writers continue to take their work elsewhere to be performed. After his one-act play "The Butter Bin" picked up five awards in last year's New Works Festival, Sean M. O'Donnell found a New York backer. He's there now preparing the show for its New York premiere. So is Pittsburgher Zoje Stage, who has a show now running off-Broadway.

Other emerging writers have skipped town altogether in search of someone to produce their plays. Scott C. Sickles is among Pittsburgh's recent up-and-comers who have packed up and left, but not before he founded and ran Pittsburgh New Voices, which for several years staged premieres of local works.

Other writers may just be on hold. Elvira DiPaolo also had a play at the O'Neill Center, and her "Bricklayers," about residents of South Oakland, was City Theatre's first mainstage offering at its new South Side home in 1991. But DiPaolo hasn't written anything lately.

The New Group Theater, which strove mightily to establish itself for more than a decade, featured many home-grown works, chiefly by its founder, Martin Giles. Now, Giles works mainly as an actor, but a revived New Group has hopes of once again doing its own works.

"Believe me, the industry knows about Pittsburgh," says Giron. "But Pittsburgh would be more famous in theater circles if they did more new plays. I understand it's a business and they have to please their subscribers, but local producers need to have more courage. People will get on a plane and go to Pittsburgh if there's an important new play opening. . . . Blue-collar people say the theater doesn't tell stories about them. Well, Pittsburgh playwrights do, and the audiences will come if the artistic directors will just show a little courage."

"I can understand that they have to be commercial in a certain aspect to keep the doors open," says Thomas. "But I also think Pittsburgh theaters have a responsibility to do new plays by Pittsburgh writers who they think have some merit. There's no encouragement for the Pittsburgh playwright, and they should be looking for them."

Too little too late

Fulfilling its mission to foster the creation of new works, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera does more for local writers than the other big houses. Homegrown spectacles are occasionally performed, and "ĦArriba! ĦArriba!," Jason Coll's musical tribute to Roberto Clemente, is in its second year touring local schools. CLO thinks enough of it to have brought national producers to town to see it last spring.

City Theatre has a long-running community-outreach program that couples local writers with community groups to produce one-act scripts that relate thematically to their mainstage productions. And Melissa Martin's Hamburg premiere of "The Last Bridge" was part of another City Theatre initiative - a new Independent Artist Program that makes City Theatre resources available to local playwrights, directors and performance artists.

"Melissa was the first one to take advantage of that," says City Theatre producing director Marc Masterson. "Another one is coming up this year. Having the Hamburg next door and this new program puts us in a position where we can help people afford to do the things they want to do."

City Theatre starts next Sunday to host the long-running, oft-moved Sunday Night Live reading series - a chance for writers to hear the words they've written and network with other theater professionals. Making its spaces available to other groups is important, but how many locally written plays are produced each year on the City Theatre mainstage? At least one?

"Unfortunately, no," says Masterson. "It's a competitive world. Local writers are competing with writers from all over the country. There's no ban on local playwrights . . . but there are many factors involved in putting a season together other than whether a playwright is a local person."

Since the death of Public Theater's artistic director Bill Gardner in 1992, the city's largest theater has shown little interest in local writers who aren't already famous. Off stage, however, the Public's director of education and outreach, Rob Zellers, coordinates an informal playwright's workshop that meets every week and gives writers a chance to bounce ideas off each other. "We call it the Playwright Lab," says Zellers. "It's not open to the public, but audiences are invited to their readings. . . . It would be my great desire to see the Public produce one of the plays developed in the Lab, but we're not doing new plays, that's the thing. Not to say we won't go there someday."

Gargaro Productions has a mission to develop new talent, but not new works. Still, producer Ken Gargaro says development of a new play contest is included in the company's current five-year plan.

Other resources are available to local playwrights. CMU's Showcase of New Plays thrived under the tutelage of Frank Gagliano, although some CMU alumni who stayed in town felt locked out of the process. With Gagliano now pursuing another job opportunity, Stitt promises big changes for the festival, which he hopes will attract national attention. Included in the restructuring is one slot per season guaranteed to a CMU student or grad.

The recent closing of Upstairs Theatre ended the city's only open festival of new full-length plays, but Gemini Theatre managing director Denny Martin, who worked on the festival at Upstairs, is picking up the pieces. Gemini's board of directors has inaugurated a competition for new plays. In its first season, this Pittsburgh New Play Festival is restricted to playwrights from southwestern Pennsylvania. Submissions are due at Gemini Theatre by Thursday, and the festival is scheduled to run for three weeks beginning in mid-January.

A new, public, independent workshop recently started at Gemini lets writers, actors and comedians try out new stuff. The Sunday Night Lab meets every Sunday at 7 p.m. -the same evening as the older Sunday Night Live.

There's an old backstage maxim that claims you can't make a living in theater, but you can make a killing. Some Pittsburgh playwrights seem to have the right stuff, but they're still searching for the right place to prove it.

Christopher Rawson, PG drama editor, contributed to this story.

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