Region sets scene for local playwrights
If you want to make a Pittsburgh-based playwright happy, give him or her some space — on a local theater schedule.
“I don't think there are a lot of opportunities for playwrights here,” says playwright and actress Tami Dixon, producing artistic director at Bricolage Production Company.
Playwright Mark Southers agrees.
“Just to get a reading is a major milestone,” says Southers, the founder and artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.
Many theater companies support area playwrights with a variety of programs, such as those at City Theatre. Over the years, the South Side-based theater company has helped playwrights get grants to support their work. It has offered free writing workshops, panel discussions and space for writer groups and Dramatists Guild meetings. They have given dozens of young playwrights their first experience in production through an annual Young Playwrights Festival, says Carlyn Aquiline, literary manager and dramaturg at City Theatre Company.
But playwrights say what's needed most is not more workshops and readings, but an increase in fully staged productions.
It's not that workshops aren't helpful. But too many plays never become fully staged productions with actors, sets, costumes, lights.
“A lot of playwrights have found themselves caught in that situation where plays are developed but not produced,” says Tammy Ryan, who knows she's more fortunate than most.
Since 1998, Ryan, a Shadyside resident, has had seven of her plays staged at Pittsburgh Playhouse. Another of Ryan's plays may be performed there during the 2013-14 season.
“It's like I have an artistic home there,” Ryan says. “If I didn't have that, I don't know that I would be able to develop and take chances.”
For Ryan, the benefits go far beyond the gratification of seeing her words and characters come to life on stage. Returning to the same theater and getting to know the designers, actors and directors in the company makes it easier to follow her instincts as a writer, instead of trying to guess what sort of play the company might want her to write.
Companies such as Bricolage and Pittsburgh Playwrights routinely include fully staged plays by Pittsburgh-area playwrights in their season. Most notable is Pittsburgh Playwrights, which has staged well more than 140 one-act or full-length plays by area playwrights over the past 10 years.
“Pittsburgh Playwrights is all Pittsburgh playwrights,” says Southers. “It's always great to have stories that talk about Pittsburgh. But, they have to be good.”
Almost every season, one or more of the three theater companies in residence at Pittsburgh Playhouse includes a play written by a writer with ties to the community.
In addition to Ryan, those playwrights have included former Pittsburgher Thom Thomas, who now lives in Los Angeles, and Marcus Stevens, a graduate of Point Park University's Conservatory of Performing Arts.
That's largely because of a conscious effort on the part of Ron Lindblom, artistic director of the Conservatory of Performing Arts/Pittsburgh Playhouse, who says, if he had his way, he would produce nothing but new plays and focus on Pittsburgh playwrights.
“I would have no problem doing a whole season,” Lindblom says. “Nothing would make me happier than to find four plays by Pittsburgh playwrights and see what we could do with them.”
Besides the excitement and attention to be had by staging a world premiere production, there are benefits to doing works by local playwrights.
“It's always good when the playwrights are here, because you can work with them,” Southers says.
Unlike William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, resident playwrights are alive and available for consultation over how to interpret lines or character motivation. Moreover, because they already live here, companies save the expenses of transporting and housing them.
Some factors prevent producers such as Lindblom from doing even more new works by local playwrights.
For one, it's more difficult to construct a season of new works by local playwrights and continue to offer a balance of comedy, drama, musicals and classics.
That's particularly true for the Conservatory season, when students need to learn their trade by working on everything from Restoration dramas and Rogers and Hammerstein musicals to new works.
New plays often require additional rehearsal time to allow for rewrites and other unanticipated glitches that become obvious as a play moves from page to 3-D reality, such as adding dialogue to cover a costume change or fixing a speech that looks good on a computer screen but sounds wrong when an actor says the words.
Other producers and artistic directors are wary of new works, particularly when both the playwright and title are unfamiliar to audiences.
“You have to have that New York cachet for some theaters,” Ryan says.
That concern is not always warranted.
The most obvious example is Pittsburgh Public Theater's box office bonanza with “The Chief.” The highest-grossing show in the Public's 37-season history, every production of “The Chief” has played to sold-out houses since its 2003 debut.
Last fall, Tami Dixon's “South Side Stories” was so popular with City Theatre audiences that the run was extended.
Opportunities for playwrights are actually increasing here, says Ryan.
“It was a desert when I started out. There has been a remarkable change here,” Ryan says. “That's why there are so many playwrights here.”
She's particularly hopeful about a new program that's about to start at Bricolage. Three playwrights will receive five-week residencies and support from actors and dramaturges to move their scripts to production.
Bricolage hopes to include one of those plays in an upcoming season.
Even if that doesn't happen, all of the works will be better prepared to make that leap to full productions.
“We can't produce everything that comes through our door. But we can help playwrights get their work to the place where they can be seen and done at other places,” says Dixon, speaking as Bricolage's producing artistic director.
“I think there is a responsibility, and we are doing our part to fill a void here,” Dixon says. “The only way people can get to know your work is to see it done.”
Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or email@example.com.