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University of Pittsburgh professor Lynne Conner examines the history of local theater in Pittsburgh in Stages

Pittsburgh in Stages: Two Hundred Years of Theater

By Lynne Conner

University of Pittsburgh Press, 221 pages

It's a sad irony that, as far as the world is concerned, Pittsburgh's most important contribution to theater history is August Wilson -- a playwright who spent much of his adult life somewhere else. But thanks to University of Pittsburgh professor Lynne Conner and her book Pittsburgh in Stages, we have a new "Pittsburgh Cycle" -- a history of live theater in the city Wilson left behind.

As the title wryly reflects, this is an evolutionary history: tracking the theater scene's growth from rudimentary pioneer entertainment to big-dollar urban-development tool. And as with any good cycle, the story comes full circle. Pittsburgh theater began with productions staged in non-traditional spaces, like the old Fort Pitt and local taverns. Two centuries later, companies like Quantum Theater are using non-traditional spaces for reasons of aesthetics rather than necessity. Meanwhile, elsewhere, "[T]here are more noncommercial, resident theater companies than ... playhouses can accommodate."

While tracing that circle, Conner introduces us to a colorful cast of characters. She reminds us of the contributions of high-end companies like City Theatre and well-known patrons like Richard Rauh, who was instrumental in creating the Pittsburgh Playhouse. But we also meet such impresarios as Charles Davis, who handed out silver spoons to unaccompanied female patrons, alongside unsung heroes like black-theater pioneer Arminthine Latimer.

Throughout, Conner connects the development of theater with issues of gender, race and class. She notes the rise of the 19th-century "matinee lady," the professional-class spouse whose tastes helped elevate the content on local stages. She explores the history of black theater, too, finding its roots in the 1870s North Side and noting the practice of race-blind casting as early as the mid-1930s.

Such concerns echo those of, say, Francis Couvares, whose 1987 Remaking of Pittsburgh studied how cultural amenities reflected, and helped defuse, industrial-era class tensions. Conner notes symptoms of elite wariness about theater as early as 1803, when a leading citizen sent his son off to boarding school to keep him away from local stages. And in those pre-movie days when live theater was the only kind, the wealthy distanced themselves from working-class audiences not just with separate balconies, but separate theaters.

In fact, Conner shows how Pittsburgh elites were sensitive about the city's working-class reputation almost as soon as the city had a working class. Much like boosters of the Cultural District today, they saw a strong theater scene as a means of rehabilitating the city's image. Conner cites this bit of marketing from 1936: "There was a time when Pittsburgh was a 'key city.' ... [W]e have the beginning of one resource, the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Will we develop that resource or just go Pittsburghian and let it drag along till finally it dies of anemia?"

Perhaps herself infected by such defensiveness, Conner notes criticism of Pittsburgh audiences as too provincial, too Presbyterian, too ... Pittsburgh. And she seeks to dispel that critique whenever possible. In the 19th century, she notes, visiting theater companies often tested their material on Pittsburgh audiences; in the 20th, local companies took risks on experimental material -- and were often rewarded with sold-out crowds. (One company successfully staged a nine-act Eugene O'Neill play, Strange Interlude, alongside such commercial fare as the immortal work Daddy Dumplins.)

Skeptics, though, may suspect the lady doth protest too much. Pittsburgh took a drubbing in 1924, for example, when famed actress Eleonora Duse died -- literally -- after appearing at the Syria Mosque. Early accounts blamed an unattended stage door that trapped the already-ill Duse out in the rain. Conner casts doubt on this account: "It was a good story" whose made-to-order villain was "the cold, unfeeling, ugly industrial city of Pittsburgh," she writes. But she never disproves it.

Of course, it would be hard to prove a cause of death 80 years later. And Conner does show some skill at sleuthing elsewhere, as when she studies playbill advertisements to assess the demographics of 19th-century audiences. But at times, one feels she could have dug deeper.

Take her brief gloss on The Lower Million, a locally written 1878 play about the city's great railroad strike a year before. Here a local production explicitly addresses the very issues of class and power Conner is concerned with. But Conner barely mentions it, noting only that Million kept politics in the background, focusing instead on a love story between an inventor and his boss' daughter. True, the play's script has been lost, making analysis difficult, but Couvares' book -- which devotes only a couple of pages to theater -- finds space for a more thorough critique, based on secondary sources. (In the romance's happy ending, Couvares sees a bourgeois agenda: Middle-class skilled workers are shown to be "the key to the industrial system.")

To be fair, Couvares focused only on a few decades; Conner's work involves two centuries and a cast of hundreds. And unlike some of her peers, she avoids dense academic prose. Her writing is straightforward, and the theatrical history is spiced with a bit of drama: Each chapter begins with an imagined "scene," extrapolated from history and featuring players and ideas discussed in the chapter. Some of these sketches work better than others, but I appreciated the effort to liven things up.

Conner's narrative largely closes with the 1980s. ("[H]istorians need to put at least a decade between themselves and the history they narrate," she writes.) But in a brief conclusion, she sounds upbeat about theater's future.

Not only are local venues and companies thriving, she notes, but local new-works festivals are "a hopeful indicator for the future" since theater has always relied on the "playwright's ability to speak clearly to his or her own time." For local thespians and their audiences, her book may inspire the next act in Pittsburgh's unfolding history play.

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