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Season Finale ‘Andy Warhol in Iran’ Marks Masterson’s Final Chapter as a City Theatre Artistic Director


It won’t be long before Marc Masterson wakes up to new adventures and some well-earned “me” time, and without the exhilaration and headaches of running a theater company. Just now, however, he’s in the thick of what he also has been doing for nearly four decades – working on a developing play. 

The co-artistic director of City Theatre is leaving that position after the current season, but he isn’t done with directing – he’s already signed on to a production for next season.

Jeffrey Emerson and Arian Rad in Andy Warhol in Iran,
at City Theatre through May 12. (Image: Kristi Jan Hoover)

Masterson’s current focus is directing City’s 2023-24 finale, a play that comes ready-made with the hot-button title: Andy Warhol in Iran

The historical fiction by award-winning playwright Brent Askari is about the Pop Art Prince and Pittsburgh native’s real-life visit to Iran, circa 1976. Warhol was asked to take Polaroids of the Shah’s wife, and little else was known to have occurred on the trip. 

Askari, the son of a Shiite Muslim father from Iran and Episcopalian mother from New England, has imagined a scenario in which Warhol is confronted by a young Iranian, who has been radicalized against the Shah’s brutal, and United States-backed, regime.

Masterson, sitting in the lobby of the South Side theater he has called home on and off for 25 years, was awaiting the start of tech day, that time when a production comes together to support the director’s vision.

It was the day before Israel retaliated for Iran’s unsuccessful missile barrage.

“The play actually gets into the biography and the mindset of a young, idealistic pre-revolutionary [Iranian] guy, and gives you the opportunity to see the human struggle that motivated this particular person along this path,” Masterson said. 

Arian Rad will play the fictional Farhad, while Jeffrey Emerson takes on the white wig of Warhol, the pop auteur who claimed no political views while immortalizing celebrities and the likes of China’s Mao Zedong on canvas. 

“We think we know who Andy Warhol is and that we know a lot about him, particularly in Pittsburgh. And yet there’s complexity there, in spite of that sort of veneer of shallowness that he liked to project,” Masterson explained. “And just as we have an icon of Warhol, we have an icon of the young revolutionary. And so the opportunity to get to know both of those things and to see those icons interact and then learn something from each other, that’s the point of the play.” 

Andy Warhol in Iran had a well-reviewed run at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre before Masterson “snagged” it, having cultivated relationships with fellow theater leaders through two stints at City Theatre, plus his years at Actors Theatre of Louisville and South Coast (Costa Mesa, CA) Repertory.

The script was still progressing as the director spoke, and playwright Askari was due in Pittsburgh the following day.

At the time, previews were about to get under way for an April 26 opening. 

“It’s been a rewarding journey so far,” Masterson was saying of working on the play, although he might have been summing up his years as an artistic director and champion of new works at three American companies.

Here is more of the conversation with Masterson, about the play at hand, his final days as a City artistic director – where he previously served from 1981 to 2000, before returning in 2018 – and what he is looking forward to in his next phase.

In Andy Warhol in Iran, Arian Rad plays a character in revolt
against the Shah of Iran’s brutal regime, circa 1976. (Image: Kristi Jan Hoover)

Question: After so many years, does it ever feel like “same old”? 

Answer: As soon as you get into that, you’re sort of in trouble. Each project is unique, and each project has its rewards and its challenges, and you hope to meet them and do the best you can. … When you do anything for a long period of time, you know, you have technique that you fall back on. And the technique is the foundation for making decisions and doing all the analytics and structural things that are involved. And then there’s the creative side, which is more intuitive. It’s a right brain, left brain thing. And so I’m trying to exercise both parts of my brain in this process. And it’s been fun. It’s an interesting group of people, and they’re doing good work. I’m happy to be in the room with them and trying to make a group creative effort that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Q: When you returned to City in 2018, were you aiming toward this moment, handing the reins over to someone else, which turns out to be co-artistic directors Clare Drobot and Monteze Freeland?

A: I don’t know that I had that in my mind when I came back. I really love this place, and I love the people, and I love the city, and I have a lot of deep connections here that are very meaningful to me, both friends and colleagues. And I think when I came back, this was in 2018, what I really wanted to do was to make a contribution and hopefully leave the place in better shape 

Q: That’s where I was going with that question. 

A: But that had less to do with leadership or my own transition. It just had to do with, how can I help make an impact for this place that I worked to help create? And that was really my project for many years. And COVID kind of interrupted some of that, but I feel like in spite of that, we have made a lot of progress and the organization is stronger, which is not to say that the institution of City Theatre doesn’t face some serious headwinds. But I feel like the brains and the motivation and the people are there in order to help us accomplish that. And where we have deficits, there are plans to address them. And I’m optimistic that the organization will continue to grow for the next 50 years. That’s really what I wanted. 

Q: This play was acquired for a City production before the current Middle East crisis. What makes it a good fit for City and for the times? And how does it fit City’s history of community collaboration?

A: There are many layers to those questions. Why this play now is a question that we ask with everything that we do. And creating partnerships is also deep in the DNA of City Theatre. It goes back to partnerships that we did in the ’80s with Kuntu Rep and Vernell Lillie, and Pittsburgh Filmmakers, and many other partnerships. I believe that fundamentally, because theater is a collaborative art form, we’re well-positioned to collaborate and to recognize what are the elements of a successful collaboration. It’s not, what can you do for me? It’s, what can we do together and actively listening to your partner’s wishes and trying to fulfill them. That’s true between an actor and a director and a design team, and it’s true with audiences and with community and educational organizations, and so forth. So that’s philosophically very deeply ingrained in us. 

Also, I think that this is the third production of Andy Warhol in Iran, but it really in some ways is the second [it premiered at Barrington Stage, in Massachusetts], because the first one was a developmental production. The truth is, the playwright is still working on the play and he’s been part of our collaborative process. He was here for an extended period of time, and he made changes in the script, and he’s coming back. So it’s still very much a new work. 

Q: I think in many Americans’ minds, Iran is this “big bad,” but this play is a reminder that there was a time when the U.S. backed the Shah, and Andy Warhol could even get an invitation to go there.

A: Remember, the Shah was invited to the U.S., and the U.S. and the British, in particular, were highly complicit in propping up this brutal regime that in Iran, in the ‘70s was, I mean, the U.S. was doing this all over the world in different ways and supporting dictators who were favorable to U.S. interests. And sometimes that support resulted in some pretty horrific outcomes.

Q: Andy Warhol claimed to be apolitical, and so he made himself a kind of blank canvas for other people to write about. You mentioned this was the third time City has done a show [the musical POP! and Culture of Desire] with Warhol as a character. I guess being so enigmatic, he’s ripe to fictionalize?

A: Culture of Desire, which was from SITI Company, was about consumerism, and featured an actress playing Andy Warhol. It was an abstraction, but it worked perfectly well for a woman to play Andy Warhol in that setting because she was playing the icon and not the person. … It is an interesting challenge for an actor playing Warhol because you can’t really do an impersonation. And in fact, if Andy Warhol were to play himself in this play, it probably wouldn’t be very interesting or watchable. So this has a performative aspect to it. At the same time, you want to be evocative of that persona and be truthful within the confines of the story, and still make it interesting. 

Q: What is it about being part of the development of a work that gets your creative juices going?

A: That’s a complicated question for me, and I’ll try to answer it. I feel like directing plays, in particular, and sometimes curating plays as an artistic leader is largely an interpretive process. So if you’re doing Shakespeare for example, or if you’re doing a play that … has had a dozen productions, there is a creative aspect to that, but it’s primarily interpretation when you do it. … When you’re doing a new play, that same thing is true, but you’re an active part of the generative process. You’re actively participating in a collaboration with the playwright about meaning and structure, and you’re asking a ton of questions about ‘why does this happen’ and “is it motivated’ and ‘how does it work’? And then you’re trying to bring your creative self to solve those problems. Sometimes there’s an answer, and sometimes there’s none. But that exchange is a stimulating one for a director or an artistic director, to be part of the creation of a piece that may last for several more interpretations down the road. Of course, a big part of being a contemporary theater is new work, and City Theatre has been devoted to that for a long time.

Q: Getting back to this play in particular – a two-hander – let’s talk about casting Andy Warhol. You mentioned earlier how he is perceived as the ultimate observer, so we don’t think of him as being engaged. So what was it like casting this fictionalized version of Warhol?

A: Jeffrey Emerson came into the audition super well prepared, having played Andy Warhol in the Hulu series [Feud: Capote vs. The Swans] only in sort of a small role, but he was really interested in the character and had learned a lot in his research to prepare to do the TV series. He does stand-up comedy, and so he’s a good performer, but the trick has been that Warhol cultivated a kind of detachment that was a veneer. And in a two-character play, you can’t sustain that dramatically for an extended period of time. And so we’ve worked hard, and I feel very proud of the work that he’s done to balance the particular characteristics of Andy Warhol as we perceive them now. We went to the [North Side] museum and we watched a ton of video, and all the documentaries; we did all the research, but at some point you go, OK, what works? And can you be evocative without being absolutely true to the icon? And I think the answer is yes, you can.

Q: What should we know about the actor who plays Farhad?

A: Arian Rad is recently graduated from NYU. He’s got good training. I know some of the people who he trained with, they’re friends of mine. And actually his audition was a video audition; he was in LA when we did the call. It can be tricky casting someone on video, because you don’t get a good sense of the performer’s energy in the room. And fortunately, that’s just not an issue with him. Also, the role is written to be played by someone in their early 20s, and I think the actors who had done it prior were a fair bit older, and there’s just a difference. This character’s idealism is an important aspect of who he is, and I wanted that to be a youthful idealism, as you learn about why and how his character got involved in this cause. Arian’s done a really great job of bringing his personal story to this character. He is not at all like this character, but he is an Iranian American, and he does have a perspective on modern culture and the traditional culture of his family. His father is living in Iran right now, and so he’s dealing with that. 

Q: Are you working with a partner on the cultural aspect of the play?

A: We have a cultural consultant, Mehrnaz Tiv, who’s been super helpful in bringing all of the details of that reality into our process, so that we can be truthful. 

Q: Is there anything about the production that you’d want people to know coming in? 

A: No, I think I want the production to speak for itself. It’s pretty rich visually, and the design team has done a great job of bringing that alive. There’s a big multimedia component that is helpful in bringing some of the historical context, for both Warhol and the country of Iran, into the room. … I don’t want to give too much away, but this is not a tragic play. It’s a problem-solving play. And so the puzzle of that is interesting to watch, as you see these two iconic figures come to terms with the situation that they’re put in. 

Q: Have you thought about when this play is over, and all the celebrations of your tenure here, what’s next?

A: I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t. I’m looking forward to what happens next. I really just want the best for everyone, and for myself, to be able to do some other things. I want to work on my Spanish. I want to find some other creative outlets. I want to see my family a little bit more. 

Q: Are you still teaching at Carnegie Mellon?

A: No, I’m not teaching now. I’m going to go have an adventure, and I mean, I’m expecting to come back and be in Pittsburgh for a while, and I’m trying also not to make any huge decisions about my life for a little bit of time after the retirement dates so that I don’t do anything rash. 

Q: Besides directing Birthday Candles for City next year, is there more directing in your future?

A: Maybe. I’m not going to chase that. You can drive yourself crazy trying to build a freelance career. I’m in a position, fortunately, where if a project comes up and it’s interesting and I can be of service, I would do that, but I don’t have to do it in order to have a fulfilling life right now. So we’ll see how it goes, and I think that’s a good position to be in.


Andy Warhol in Iran will be on City Theatre’s Main Stage, 1300 Bingham Street, South Side, through May 12, 2024 (opening night is April 26). For tickets and information on special events, visit or call 412-431-CITY (2489).

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Marc Masterson (Image: Sharon Eberson)

City Theatre’s Marc Masterson
Reflects on the Evolution
of American Theater

In the course of discussing his career as a theatermaker and company leader, Marc Masterson related what he referred to as “an evolution of the field and different periods,” in each decade, beginning in the 1980s.

“It’s not quite that neat,” he said. “But there were certain kinds of plays that were relevant in different periods of time that aren’t relevant so much anymore, or they’ve been left behind, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for financial reasons or otherwise.”

He gave the example of what it was like, in 2001, as the head of Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Humana Festival. The theater was mounting the musical Floyd Collins for a September 14 opening. 

“The story takes place just south of Louisville, Kentucky, and it had not been done in that region. … But here’s the thing. It’s a musical about a guy who’s dying underneath a pile of rocks. And the news cycle and everything that people were talking about was all about people dying in the rubble [of 9/11], and everybody was processing,” Masterson said.

The show went on, as did many theater productions that were part of the catharsis of the time. However, the new plays he was seeing in the aftermath were not addressing the reality of 9/11, he said.

“I was running the Humana Festival, which was all new plays, and we were reading scripts actively in August, September, October, November, right? And not a single one that year dealt with anything having to do with 9/11 at all, thematically or otherwise,” Masterson recalled. 

“The second year, only one did, and it was Omnium Gatherum [co-written] by Theresa Rebeck. And that show ended up going off-Broadway and having a successful run, and it was a Pulitzer finalist. But then the following year, there was still nothing. And so as an artistic director who was reading almost everything that was written by American playwrights at the time, I was like, what’s going on here? Why aren’t playwrights dealing with the most momentous shift that’s happened in our culture in decades?”

He made a decision “for the only time really in my career, to program a season of new plays that was overtly political,” noting the lineup contained a range of political and social views.

“I’m just giving you an example, I guess, of how eventually, five years later, writers started dealing metaphorically with September 11th and the aftermath of all of that. It took a while.”

In discussions among theatermakers seeing some of the same things he was observing, Masterson came to view the decades of American theater this way:

“There were sort of the issue plays of the Eighties. Then there were the sort of experimental postmodern productions. and Anne Bogart and the SITI Company, of the Nineties. Then there was a period of, I don’t know what you would call it in the early 2000s. And then eventually, writers started bringing metaphors into the work to interpret world events. Anyway, it is just interesting when you see it over a span of time.”

Plays today, being produced in the After Times of the pandemic shutdown, are subject to “the economics of theater,” when most companies are struggling to attract returning and new patrons and funding sources.

“There are just a lot of small plays, because nobody can afford a large cast,” Masterson said. “And so if a playwright writes an eight- or 10-character play, it might get one or two productions, but it’s not going to be widely produced because people can’t afford it. And so a lot of writers scaled back their ambition as a result of the reality .. and the plays were small, not just in terms of cast size, but they were small in scope as well. I mean, you can do a small play like Waiting for Godot that deals with existence and massive issues, but that’s just not what was happening for a while.”

A play such as Andy Warhol in Iran, on the other hand, is that small play that takes world views and humanizes them on a one-on-one playing field. It’s the political made personal, the director said.

“What I like about it is, it’s not preachy. It’s not trying to convince you of a right and wrong,” Masterson said. “In this scenario, it’s helping to see how politics affects human beings – it’s not an abstract idea. Decisions that are made affect people. So I think the purpose of the play exists in the context of Iran, but above and beyond that, in the context of anyone who is swept up in a political crisis, and fighting for what they perceive to be justice.”