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The Pittsburgh-Monaco Connection

Pittsburgh guys who write plays about steelworkers and alley brawlers can win awards for those plays. They can even win awards named after Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco.

So it happened with James McManus. The Donora native, 32, earned his master's degree in dramatic writing from Carnegie Mellon in May; in August, he learned he'd won the 2006 Princess Grace Award for playwriting. The honor includes a $7,500 cash grant and a year's residency at New Dramatists, a venerable New York City-based nonprofit center dedicated to emerging playwrights.

Earlier McManus plays Dorothy 6 and The Night They Drugged the Orange were both semi-finalists at the O'Neill Playwrights Conference. But the Princess Grace Award -- which he won for his thesis play, Cherry Smoke -- is more promising still. Previous honorees include Tony Kushner and Adam Rapp.

Aside from the access the residency will give him to other working playwrights, New Dramatists will get Cherry Smoke published and help set up public readings -- important steps toward a potential stage production. Through New Dramatists, "You get a legitimacy," says McManus. "The hardest thing is to get people to read any new play that you're writing."

The son of a steelworker, and the nephew of a few others, McManus didn't grow up dreaming of a career in theater. But reading August Wilson's Seven Guitars showed him that the people he knew could be the subject of art.

His work strongly reflects Wilson's influence. The biggest production of a McManus play so far was 2004's Dorothy 6, a Wilsonesque domestic drama inspired by the true story of laid-off steelworkers standing guard over a shut-down blast furnace. "Jim is a very dedicated writer," says playwright Mark Clayton Southers, who directed Dorothy 6 for Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Co. "He kinda goes into his own little mode and you don't hear from him, and he's cranking it out.

"I think he has the ability to put the voice out there of the working man," adds Southers, himself a heavy-equipment operator for U.S. Steel.

Cherry Smoke is set in contemporary Pittsburgh. McManus says it's "a big dirty love story" about an alley brawler named Fish and a young homeless woman named Cherry. It's inspired by people he grew up with in Donora. "I kinda feel I was lucky in the sense that I got out," he says. "So many of the kids didn't, and their stories have always interested the hell out of me."

"Fightin's my trade," says Fish in the play. "Some guys lay brick, I bust your fuckin nose open." "I'm a lucky girl," says Cherry.

McManus and his wife, Laura, live in Squirrel Hill, and plan to move to New York, for his residency, in March. But they did visit Manhattan in November, for the awards gala. The invitation, McManus recalls, indicated that "[t]he princely family of Monaco and the board of trustees" offered their congratulations. The playwright wryly notes that "My princely family at the Squirrel Cage" did the same.

Mining Drama

Nearly a year after 12 coal miners died underground in West Virginia, ongoing investigations into the Sago Mine disaster are keeping the story in the news. Jerry Starr wants to do his part, too. The Mount Lebanon-based writer, retired sociology professor and longtime social activist has written a play called Buried, a docudrama about the disaster meant to raise consciousness about the role of inadequate safety rules, poor enforcement and sheer greed. It received its Pittsburgh premiere with a Dec. 4 staged reading at Downtown's Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.

It wasn't a full production, and the house, if packed, was small: About 70 friends, theater folks and even union officials, many at Starr's personal invitation. The opportunity for rehearsal was limited, and after an early read-through Starr was still doing rewrites less than a week out. The latter was no small task: The play was based on months of research, and Starr had already cut it from 35 characters to a still-large 22, and from 13 scenes to 10.

But in many ways the Dec. 4 event was as a good a staged reading for a new play as you could get in Pittsburgh. The all-star cast included Doug Mertz, Bingo O'Malley and Helena Ruoti. The director was Pitt's Marci Woodruff. And labor singer Anne Feeney not only contributed an original tune, but joined Susan Powers to provide musical transitions between scenes.

Starr, a first-time playwright, admits the docudrama format is challenging, often privileging exposition over dramatic conflict. But he says reactions to the reading were overwhelmingly positive. In fact, the Pennsylvania Labor Education Center, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, has provided a small grant to help him market Buried to potential stage producers. And in May, San Diego's 6th @ Penn Theatre will do two staged readings.

Public-access station PCTV videotaped the Dec. 4 reading to help with the marketing effort. Ultimately, Starr hopes, Buried will function like docudramas before it, such as The Exonerated (about death-row inmates) and Guantañamo, functioning as educational tools and providing an impetus for social change.

click to enlarge Going all New York on us: James McManus
  • Going all New York on us: James McManus

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