Dec. 1 was Mark Southers' first day on the job -- the first one of those he's had in 19 years.
The new gig, as head of theater initiatives for the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, was a surprise twist in the script of his busy life.
For years, Southers, 48, has been the seemingly tireless jack-of-all-trades who runs Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.: He writes plays, directs them and gets them on stage -- often even hunting down stage furniture himself at flea markets.
Meanwhile, at U.S. Steel's Irvin Works, Southers had been a guy who drove trucks hauling industrial waste since 1992. Six days a week, the life-long Hill District resident rose at 4 a.m.; he piled rehearsals on shifts, first as an actor, then as a playwright. Sleep he stole here and there.
But Southers only seemed tireless. He'd long hoped to transition to a full-time theater job. In fact, this year he applied for a couple of them out of town.
On Nov. 12, he took a "leap of faith" and put in his last day for U.S. Steel. Six mornings later, he learned that a post he wanted, as artistic director of a black theater company in Fort Worth, Texas, had gone to someone else.
But that same afternoon, Southers got another phone call, this one from Wilson Center head Andre Guess, offering him the newly created, full-time theater job there. "We want to make you part of our family," he says Guess told him. "It was like I was in a trance," says Southers. During the phone conversation, he adds, "All I kept saying was, 'Cool.'"
It's a full circle of sorts for Southers, who began writing plays after hearing Wilson give a seminar in South Africa, in 1998. Southers subsequently launched, at his house, the August Wilson Reading Roundtable. Wilson himself visited once. "He read Turnbow in Jitney with us," says Southers. The Pulitzer-winner also advised, "Don't just read my plays, read other people's plays."
After Southers founded Pittsburgh Playwrights, in 2003, its calling card quickly became its knockout productions of Wilson's famed Century Cycle plays, once each season.
Southers' work at the Wilson Center will be rooted in the theatrical workshopping that served the late Wilson so well. "My focus is on uplifting African-American playwrights," he says.
In February, look for a new monthly reading series, starting with Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom but expanding to include new work. The workshops will give local actors a chance to work with nationally and internationally known playwrights.
Southers will also continue his work -- begun as a consultant to the Center -- on a planned 2012 festival hosting or staging all 10 plays in Wilson's Century Cycle. And he plans to start an in-house ensemble theater company, called The Griot.
Meanwhile, though he'll get more sleep, Southers won't slow down much. On Dec. 28, he starts rehearsals as director for a production of Ma Rainey at Florida's American Stage Theatre. (He's also getting married on the set there in February.) And he'll continue running Playwrights, whose next production goes up in February.
"I'll be able to get a whole lot done now," Southers predicts. "It's all theater for me from here on out. It's all theater."