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Why Theater, and Why Now?

Despite risks magnified by a devastating pandemic, Pittsburgh artists continue to carve out new choices for the theater scene

By CAMILLE AGIE

Theater companies all over the world are still adjusting to a new reality following the 2020 pandemic that shut down live performances and severely affected the arts community. Pittsburgh, with its rich theatrical history, is no exception. 

Pittsburgh, which is known for its inventiveness, is faced with unexpected growth?: Although attendance at most theaters has decreased by 20% since the pandemic shutdown and traditional government, foundation and donor funding and sponsorships in many cases are not able to maintain post-pandemic levels, an unexpected number of new theater companies are starting up finding a way forward, while others are being given new life.

Pittsburgh native Billy Porter shared his perspective on the 20% decline in theater attendance during a recent onStage Pittsburgh interview, saying, “Everything is rebuilding. We must calm down and we must be where we are. Where we are is 20% down. That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. The fact that people are coming at all is a gift and a blessing. Let’s cultivate that without the comparison of what it was before the world fell apart. I just don’t think it’s fair.”

A recent article about the Runyonland producing team of Thomas Laub and Alyah Chanelle Scott (Parade, Appropriate on Broadway) in Fast Company magazine echoed the notion that smaller can be better. The pair were asked how Runyonland has recouped investments on seven shows, “in an industry where it’s notoriously difficult for investors to break even, let alone make a profit.”

Said Laub, “There’s a way to do big $25 million musicals, and I think there’s a time to do the selective, smaller, $4 milllion to $8 million plays [and] limited-run musicals that we’ve been doing. I don’t think we have a special sauce. We’ve just been meeting the market where it is.”

Theater produced not just in New York, but anywhere, has always been a risky business, with companies competing for funds and older and newer audience members, that will allow them to attract financing and continue creating art. 

So, why theater, and why now, in Pittsburgh? 

Explore the interior of Carnegie Stage in Carnegie, PA, via Google Maps and resident company Off the Wall Productions.

After the pandemic, the challenges have only gotten harder, due to unstable finances, changing consumer behavior, and the constant need to adjust to new situations. Despite these challenges, the Pittsburgh theater community is exhibiting remarkable drive and determination. New businesses are starting up, and those that have been dormant are coming back to life, each contributing to the community’s arts and culture landscape. Education and outreach programs are hardwired into most theater companies, while Pittsburgh’s nonprofit theaters continue to find creative ways to attract audiences and rise to meet economic challenges.

One company on the post-pandemic comeback trail, Bricolage Productions, known as a pioneer of immersive experiences, took a break and has left Downtown for collaborative office space in Wilkinsburg. The company recently announced it is bringing back Enter the Imaginarium, “the ultimate immersive escape rooms,” headed to Shaler, and its popular Midnight Radio plays.

This phenomenon of comebacks and new companies raises several intriguing questions: Why is theater worth the risk? What role do arts leaders see their theater company playing in the broader cultural landscape? Who is the company’s target market?

For many people, theater isn’t just a form of entertainment, it’s an outlet for self-expression and community, and a way to open up dialogue. It’s a lifestyle. The live, social experience of theater gives a special and irreplaceable link between performers and viewers. 

Moreover, since the rise of the Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements, Pittsburgh’s theater leaders have taken strides to commit to a fair share of inclusivity and diversity, and ensure that their companies remain attentive and updated.  

To dive deeper into this phenomenon, onStage Pittsburgh asked the leaders of four relatively new or reviving companies the same questions, to get their thoughts on: Why theater? And why now?  

ELSEWHERE THEATRE COMPANY

Artistic Director: Tucker Topel  

  • Performance venue: Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie PA. 
  • Founded in 2023.
  • Recent production: Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.
Tucker Topel

Why is theater worth the risk? 

“To me, theater isn’t just a job — it’s a lifestyle. I believe the real risk would be pursuing a different career path. The risk is not being able to be exposed to different types of art, voices, and stories.”  

What is your target market? 

“We are focusing on artists as our target market. Oftentimes, we tend to cater to our current audience rather than the audience we aspire to reach. In starting anew, we must carefully examine the market and have confidence in ourselves and the relationships we have established in order to produce theater that is unconventional and emphasizes artistry.”

What role do you see your theater company playing in the broader cultural landscape of Pittsburgh? 

“Our goal is to establish a nurturing space for theater artists to collaboratively create impactful and innovative art, fostering a safe and supportive environment for groundbreaking work. The other goal is to provide a platform for queer theater during Pride Month, giving the LGBTQIA+ community the opportunity to celebrate with stories created by and for the community.” 

What are your hopes moving forward? And what do you believe are the biggest opportunities and challenges for theater in Pittsburgh today? 

“Our goal is to create art that captivates and inspires audiences, keeping them coming back for more. The abundance of theater arts opportunities is a significant advantage for us. Currently, our focus is on ensuring that we can offer fair compensation to the talented artists who contribute their time and skills.”

PITTSBURGH INTERNATIONAL CLASSIC THEATRE (PICT) 

Artistic Director: Elizabeth Elias Huffman

  • Performance venue: Varies. 
  • Founded in 1996 as Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre.
  • Recent productions: What Do I Wear? 2500 Years of Theatre and Fashion Gala, The Studio at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, and the Mon Valley YMCA in Monongahela.
  • Upcoming production: The second Bards From the Burgh, a play reading series coming to City Theatre’s Lillie Theatre, South Side.
Elizabeth Elias Huffman

Why is theater worth the risk? 

“I ask myself that every day. I cannot and do not want to imagine a world without live theater but the struggle to get our companies funded, to actually be able to employ a staff and offer fair wages to our artists, to provide a safe and clean place to play in and to allow the imagination not be hamstrung by cost is harder and harder these days. It has always been the central struggle of doing theater in America, and I am the artistic director of a company that has staged professional quality classical productions and there are not many classical plays with only two or three people in them. … I can’t think of any unless they are contemporary adaptations of classics that are created by financial necessity, which is often all we can afford to do,” Huffman said.

 “But is it worth the risk? Yes. It is a risk not to support and create theater. The society that understands the place the arts has in our lives, is one that thrives and feeds the souls of our communities to be more compassionate, more tolerant towards each other. In a world of harsh often violent realities, it can be the one place where we feel we can leave our troubles at the door and witness together something of power and beauty and then we can then share our feelings and responses with other people, strangers maybe, who might be sitting next to us, and then actually talk to each other afterwards.”  

What is your target market? 

“I want to get as much diversity in my audiences and onstage as much as possible. I am a very international person who has made a career telling stories from every cultural diaspora that exists and I want to expand my programming to reach every walk of life and that what we do onstage make them feel welcome and excited to be there that what I program can speak to them, whoever they are or want to be.”

What role do you see your theater company playing in the broader cultural landscape of Pittsburgh?  

“One new PICT initiative that I have been working on is that I want to bring whatever I do in Pittsburgh to the Mon Valley area where professional theater would be welcomed and has not existed up to now.  PICT has always been a place where the classics have been at the core of who we are, and I want to take it up to the level of excellence that I have come to expect when I see theater in London or New York. We have the talent here. All we need is the financial support and the belief that we can make it happen,” Huffman said.

“PICT also has strong educational programs in the past, and we are in the process of creating another new program to go to high schools called What Do I Wear, Period Costumes in Performance. We want to reactivate our three-act program and our senior programs also once we get back on our production feet.”

What are your hopes moving forward? And what do you believe are the biggest opportunities and challenges for theater in Pittsburgh today? 

“It is the collaborative opportunities that are most interesting to me. This town has so many talented people living here it blows my mind – highly creative artists,  universities with richly educated theater-makers teaching and creating and so artistically exciting that I want to form more partnerships with companies and universities … which is where I think theater is headed. … Share the costs, create something outside of your box and leave myself open to learning something about a part of our city’s community that I did not know anything about. I am always so curious and interested in everything…and I welcome those collaborations. But it all comes down to mooney and support. That is the challenge we all face.”

The Collective 

Artistic Director: Michael Campayno 

  • Performance venue: Carnegie Stage, Carnegie, PA.
  • Founded in 2021.
  • Recent productions: Sweeney Todd and The Crucible.
Michael Campayno

Why is theater worth the risk? 

“I’m definitely into a very specific type of theater that is social justice and really points a message at the audience and helps the audience ask questions. So, if we’re talking about that sense of theater, I definitely think it’s worth the risk because not only is it allowing us to constantly express, but it, it really does hold up a mirror to an audience and allows us to ask questions and allows us to think about a lot of different themes and topics and conflicts,” Campayno said. 

What is your target market? 

“Yeah. I am definitely a pre-professional company in that we start kids when they’re freshmen in high school. And we have students all the way up till gap years, which is we’ve, we have a student who’s 20 and she’s two years out of high school. So that’s the specific audience with that. I just look for students who really want to grow and who are really committed and, and, and ready to learn.” 

What role do you see your theater company playing in the broader cultural landscape of Pittsburgh?   

“Yeah, that’s a beautiful question. I love that,” Campayno said. “In terms of The Collective, I’m hoping to just reach a lot of students who are interested in theater and, let them realize that no matter what success looks like to them, in the sense of like if they want to go into theater for a, a college degree or if they just want to keep it in their lives, I’m hoping to inspire them that they can, you don’t have to go just get a, a degree in theater to be able to do theater. And I’m really hoping to change the conversation about education in high school.” 

What are your hopes moving forward? And what do you believe are the biggest opportunities and challenges for theater in Pittsburgh today? 

“So just the idea that we all can help each other out, and I wish at some point we would all just come together and build something big that could really help all of the students in the market in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh could be one of those cities that directly just funnels kids into huge colleges and even to New York.”  

Ensemble Actors Studio 

Artistic Director: Jamie Slavinsky 

  • Venue: Varies. 
  • Location: 703 Yunker Street, Suite 400, McKees Rocks. 
  • Founded in 2023.
  • Recent production: Secret Lives, at Java Studios, Lawrenceville.
Jaime Slavinsky

Why is theater worth the risk?  

 “I think theater is worth the risk because storytelling is still a powerful and vital means to connect our community anywhere around the world, but specifically here in Pittsburgh to stories that matter. Stories that can affect change within the community. I mean, theater has been around for millennia, right? for thousands of years. And just because we are moving towards a much more dependence on technology now that doesn’t mean that it negates or takes away the power or the feeling of being in a room with a group of people who are there to be inspired or enlightened or entertained. That will never change, it’s about human connection,” Slavinsky said.  

What is your target market? 

“So, we have folks from about, I’d say 13, all the way up to folks in their 80s. But you know, we’re technique-based. We are very much like an acting conservatory or an acting studio that you would find in New York,” Slavinsky said. 

What role do you see your theater company playing in the broader cultural landscape in Pittsburgh? 

“I would like to be able to provide opportunities for professional actors in Pittsburgh. So, every show that we do is going to employ at least one actor’s equity member. I’d love to be able to provide more opportunities for professional actors in Pittsburgh to work. And that is alongside the students who are taking classes at the studio,” Slavinsky said.

“And I mean, that’s why it’s called Ensemble. The root of the word ensemble means together. And it’s about creating this togetherness. We celebrate diversity, we encourage diversity, and just about choosing stories that really will impact the community.”  

What are your hopes moving forward? And what do you believe are the biggest opportunities and challenges for theater in Pittsburgh today?  

“Well, my hope moving forward is that we will be able to produce at least two full-scale productions a year, along with, an annual play festival to give many more opportunities to directors and local playwrights and actors,” Slavinsky said. 

“If we want to keep this theater machine running in Pittsburgh and you know,there’s only so much money to go around. So, you’re going to have to tell stories that are going to bring people into the door. You’re going to have to produce work that is going to get people to put their pants on, get in their car, drive down to your space, and give you 20 bucks or 30 bucks or however much it costs.”