Stage Fright | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Stage Fright 

With a scarcity of stages, finding a place to perform is high drama for area theater companies.

"Hi, John." Actor John Imro, imposingly tall, tromps in from the chill of an early November night through the sidestreet door of the cavernous, warehouse-like Strip District building that houses Open Stage Theatre. He's greeted by Open Stage co-founder and artistic director Ruth Willis, who's awaiting the dress rehearsal of the one-man play Barrymore, in which famed actor John Barrymore hires a New York theater for one night near the end of his life, for one last performance.

is about, among other things, the intersection of life and art, and a man facing his fate the only way he knows how. But gazing at the stage that's dressed to look like a stage in New York circa 1942, Willis says of the play, "We like it because it's a rented theater."

Rented theaters are something about which the company knows plenty. A couple of years ago, the South Side's City Theatre decided it needed both its stages full time, and told the four troupes who hired space there to look elsewhere. Scheduling required Open Stage to vacate sooner than the others, and the group scrambled; for one season it rented the University of Pittsburgh's Henry Heymann Theatre, in Oakland, but had time to stage just two shows there, one less than Willis had hoped. Moreover, says Willis, "The audience dropped terribly."

So Open Stage's board president suggested this warehouse space, a combination banquet hall/bingo parlor/beer distributor which needed work but seemed worth a shot. Willis says Open Stage spent about $15,000 building seating risers and a lighting grid in its new Strip District home, and completely overhauling the building's electrical system.

The company produced its first show here in 2002; ticket sales picked up. But when the original tenant from whom they were subletting one-third of the 10,000-square-foot space dropped out of the picture, Open Stage had to take over the lease or lose the space entirely.

Now the company is handling the $3,500 rent alone, plus utilities, and Willis says it hasn't had much luck attracting renters to defray the cost. After Barrymore closes Nov. 23, Open Stage plans a one-night staged reading here in December, plus two more full-scale productions in the spring. But Willis doesn't know how long the company can foot the bill for the space; she won't confirm rumors Open Stage has lost its lease, but says the company is remaining under "an arrangement" with its landlord.

Noting the trouble other theater groups have had finding venues, Willis cites a recent headline she saw in a Cleveland newspaper about the lack of performance space -- "Critical stage," it read. Willis says support for the arts is down all over. "I don't think theater can die," she says. "It can be done in garages. But it is at a critical stage right now."

While "crisis" might be too strong a word, when it comes to space, Pittsburgh theater is at a tough juncture. In August -- within months of the departure of the last of City Theatre's outside tenants -- the venerable city-owned Hazlett Theater, the former home of Pittsburgh Public Theater which has also hosted countless other companies over the years, closed its doors indefinitely. Alternatives exist, but even if you can find one that meets cost, seating, technical and other requirements, availability is typically limited: Don't even try to book a stage, for instance, during the spring and fall busy seasons.

All that leaves groups including Open Stage -- even if their shows don't have any songs in them -- in a game of musical stages that has a rotating cast of winners and losers, but which most would rather not have to play at all.

When David Jobin interviewed to become managing director of City Theatre, the search committee asked what he thought the company's biggest problem was. Jobin says he answered: "The fact that you rent your space out." Giving renters a place to play under its roof, Jobin believed, diluted the 28-year-old City Theatre's identity. Moreover, it denied the company the flexibility to program its own shows most effectively.

Jobin got the job, and five years later, he got his wish: The last two outside theater groups who rented performance space at City Theatre concluded their final seasons there in 2003.

City Theatre gave tenants of its 270-seat main stage and 100-seat "black box," the Lester Hamburg Studio Theatre, up to two years' notice, which sounds like plenty of time to relocate. But most theater companies aren't like fast-food franchises that can build their own homes, or office-based businesses for whom any storefront will do.

True, well-heeled backers and a massive fund-raising campaign got the Pittsburgh Public Theater a gleaming new Downtown palace, the O'Reilly Theater. And at the other end of the spectrum, the fledgling Barebones Productions staged its skeletal first show in the back room of a vintage-clothing store, and plans the second for a storefront rock venue/art gallery.

But most companies aren't as well funded as the Public, or as new and scrappy as Barebones. Among Pittsburgh-based, non-university affiliated companies, only a handful own their own spaces. Even rarer are groups such as Quantum Theater, which made its name by staging plays in old warehouses and even, in one case, a cemetery. (Click Here for "Theaters in the rough".) Most companies, no matter how edgy, want someplace to call home. And even if their budgets were bigger, groups would still have to track down spaces that are the right size and fit their artistic personalities.

Some say too few such spaces have yet taken the stage. "Pittsburgh desperately needs a couple theaters, one probably about 500 seats, one probably in the 200-to-300-seat range, theaters that are available for rental full time," says consultant David Nash. Nash was for several years the vice president of operations for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, where among other things -- including overseeing the renovation of Downtown's Byham Theater -- he catalogued the area's stock of performance spaces. More recently, his Stowenash Associates and the firm Dewey and Kaye were hired by the Northside Leadership Conference for a Heinz Endowment-funded viability study on the Hazlett Theater, a job that's made him intimately familiar with the challenges facing theater groups.

Nash says companies of modest size can get stuck between small spaces they've outgrown and bigger theaters, such as the Byham, that they don't need and can't afford. "It's a perennial issue, especially for those who do not affiliate themselves with a college or a university, or those who don't have large budgets."

One such group is the Unseam'd Shakespeare Company. Laura Smiley founded the troupe in 1994 with a bunch of fellow University of Pittsburgh graduate theater students eager to contemporize the classics. Their ties to Pitt let them snag the stage at the Stephen Foster Memorial for early shows; they used what was then that building's basement social hall for their third show, a production of The Duchess of Malfi for which they covered the walls in black plastic tarp and lit the stage with flashlights hung from the ceiling on chains.

In later seasons, Unseam'd roosted at Luciano's, an Uptown bar, and finally at City Theatre's Hamburg. "Every year, it's sort of been what's available," says Smiley.

For the past seven summers, what was available was the Hamburg. The intimate, easily reconfigured 100-seat space jibed with Unseam'd's in-your-lap approach to Shakespeare and Wilde just as the theater's location near East Carson Street's nightlife echoed the company's funky vibe.

Smiley is grateful for City Theatre's generosity over the years, which included free rehearsal space and even help with props and costumes. She just doesn't know where to find a viable understudy.

Wherever her company perches next year, Smiley anticipates doing only two shows instead of the usual three. And that's in spite of the fact that she and Unseam'd board member and marketing head Lisa Remby know the terrain as well as anyone: Last December, working with an informal group of performing-arts folk called the Coalition for the Acquisition of Performance Space, they completed a detailed inventory of such spaces. They found that Pittsburgh had only four that are rentable with any regularity. Two -- Gemini Theater, in Point Breeze, and the newly renovated Kelly-Strayhorn, in East Liberty, scored high on the report's ratings system. A third, the 500-seat Veronica's Veil Auditorium, needs renovation, according to the report. And the fourth, the Hazlett, has since closed, though there's a plan to re-open it (Click Here for "A Hazlett Theater Encore?") "It's really getting worse," says Remby says of the space shortage. "It's coming to a head."

The dilemma of some former City Theatre tenants puts the competition for performance space into especially sharp focus, both artistically and economically. City Theatre's Jobin is sympathetic to Unseam'd and to the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, an annual showcase of one-act plays staged by a range of local theater companies which had spent a decade at the Hamburg and is similarly still out of doors; in fact, Jobin says the Hamburg might be available to both companies next year if they're really stuck. But he still offers no apologies for City Theatre's decision.

Jobin recalls being at a car dealership a couple years back and overhearing a conversation about his employer. A woman was raving to another customer about the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, which then too produced shows at City Theatre. The show she was calling the best she'd ever seen was Master Class -- not a PICT production at all, but one of City Theatre's own.

Likewise, Jobin says, "I can't tell you the number of times I heard from people, ‘I will never go to City Theatre again after blank blank show'" -- about a show that really wasn't theirs. Often, he says, it's not a question of a show's quality so much as its content, since tenant companies often put on work much different than what City Theatre produces.

And of course, only one company at a time can occupy any given stage. Jobin notes that City Theatre's two best-selling shows ever, Mondo Mangia and La Dolce Vita, were produced in the past two years, at the Hamburg, in calendar slots previously held by other companies. This November's production of Lovely Day was delayed a week to accommodate the actor for whom the show had been written -- something the theater couldn't have done with another tenant in the way. And this past summer the theater was able to extend the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch for five weeks -- bringing in an added $50,000 in box-office revenue, versus the $5,000 it could have earned from renters.

Sitting with Jobin in his theater's roomy, comfortable café, beneath the pressed-tin ceiling of the former social hall of the Bingham Street Methodist Episcopal Church, it's easy to forget that City Theatre was itself once homeless. The company began life in 1975 as a peripatetic, city-run troupe that gave free performances in schools, parks and housing projects; later, an expansion by the Pittsburgh Public Theater forced it out of the Hazlett Theater, and a subsequent decade-long residency at Pitt ended when the university's modest Bouquet Street theater was slated for demolition. More than $1 million in fundraising allowed the company to purchase and renovate the church which has been its home since 1991.

"That was the best thing that ever happened to City Theatre," says Jobin. "You can really use [a new space] to solidify your brand."

Jobin, who's still an Unseam'd board member, understands that space is tight: After the Hazlett closed this year, the City Theatre fielded calls from the displaced. But from his vantage point, things are tight for City Theatre, too. "We got such a bad rap," he says, "and I look at the companies in town who've never showed any sense of generosity. I'm like, ‘At least we did it for 10 years.'"

A pair of young actors stand in the immaculate, vault-ceilinged lobby of Pitt's Stephen Foster Memorial, running lines for Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children. On stage inside the Oakland theater, a woman is painting the wooden wheels for a big horse cart, a prop for the play set in war-ravaged Europe.

Down in the aisles, Yvonne Hudson is giving a tour of the theater, which earlier this year reopened after extensive renovations under the name the Charity Randall Theatre. Hudson, communications director for Pitt's theater department, points out the improvements $2 million can bring to a beautiful space built in the midst of the Great Depression: newly upholstered plush red seats -- 478 of them. New line sets backstage for hanging scenery and lighting. Up in the rear of the balcony, a new tech booth.

A prime target, certainly, for homeless theater companies. But if you're looking for theater space, the Charity Randall is probably already booked.

Here's why. About 600 Pitt students take theater classes each year, including 150 undergraduate theater majors and 30 grad students. They get dibs on the Randall and the Henry Heymann Theatre, the 153-seat black box downstairs, says Hudson -- not only for classes but also for two student productions each semester. Some of the remaining time is rented to outside companies such as Pittsburgh Musical Theater, which will stage its holiday show this year here in December, and Attack Theater, a local dance company which in September staged a two-weekend collaboration with the Japanese group Nibroll. But the bulk of the non-Pitt time is reserved by the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, which of four former outside tenants of City Theatre is the one that's landed most surely on its feet.

PICT "lucked out with Pitt," says Andrew Paul, the group's artistic director. PICT spent six of its eight seasons at City Theatre, but the group knew to start searching for a new home even before it got its two-years' notice. That search fell inside the three years the Charity Randall was closed for renovations, and PICT was first in line: After Pitt takes its dates, PICT has a three-season right-of-first-refusal deal for whatever's left.

Compromise was involved: Since Pitt is busiest in the fall and spring, PICT must basically confine its season between May 1 and Aug. 30, forfeiting its customary early spring dates. And patrons might need to pay $4 for parking, which City Theatre provided free.

But though the company feared its audience wouldn't follow it across the Birmingham Bridge, Paul says, "It's actually worked out really well for us." Ticket sales are up by at least 20 percent, sales to students by even more. Pitt has even accomodated special requests, such as letting PICT revive its hit production of Copenhagen in the Heymann this November, outside its season.

But few theater companies can follow in PICT's footsteps by seeking refuge in local institutions of higher learning. Carnegie Mellon University has a prestigious theater program, but its stages are rarely available for rental. Point Park College has a renowned program, along with the Pittsburgh Playhouse complex, with its three Oakland theaters of various sizes. But it houses not only the student Conservatory Company, but also the professional Pittsburgh Playhouse Repertory Company and the Playhouse Dance Company. "There is no downtime in these theaters between August and May," says Lynda Burkel, the Playhouse's development director.

"We get calls all the time" from groups looking for performance or event space, says Hudson -- maybe 20 a month. "Usually the date isn't available." If the nights aren't busy with performances, the stages are filled with sets, and the afternoons booked for rehearsals and classes. That makes it difficult to accommodate even requests from within the university. "There's a bit of a space crunch on campus."

Two-and-a-half years ago, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater was reborn as a performing-arts space for the second time in less than a decade. An earlier large-scale renovation of the 1920s-era East Liberty movie theater hadn't been quite enough to make it succeed as a nonprofit venue, then known as the Regent Theater.

But a second fund-raising campaign generated about $1.4 million. In the 15 months after it reopened in May 2001 bearing the names of local heroes Gene Kelly and Billy Strayhorn, the 341-seat theater was rented out 43 percent of the time; in the current 2003-04 fiscal year, the nonprofit Community Theater Project Corporation projects a usage rate of 75 percent. Interim general manager Robert Neu jokes, "Our big problem is that everybody thinks the theater is named for some blonde named ‘Kelly Strayhorn.'"

What the theater's popularity says about the availability of performance space here depends on whom you talk to. For Joyce Meggerson-Moore, of New Horizon Theater, the Kelly-Strayhorn is one piece of a local theater scene where space is available, though not necessarily affordable.

Founded in 1992, New Horizon performed over the years in venues including a Homewood dinner club, Uptown's Musicians Union Hall, the Lawrenceville branch of the Carnegie Library and the Kingsley Association Community Center, in East Liberty, before settling on the East Liberty Lutheran Church. The church staff were cooperative, but the space was a social hall, not a theater: It had no raised stage, subpar lighting and sound and, as with every other space over the years, as soon as New Horizon fixed it up, lots of other groups wanted to use it for meetings. On weeknights, the group couldn't even start rehearsals until 9 p.m., and had to strike its sets after every show.

The company, which specializes in African-American theater, wanted a more professional space that could accommodate its three shows a season, each of which runs for four weeks, and preferably each show's month of rehearsal time, too. After some searching, New Horizon lit upon the newly re-opened Kelly-Strayhorn -- but it took a year to work out the financial and scheduling details.

Like many smaller theater companies, New Horizon is heavily dependent upon grant income and operates on a shoestring. One of its marketing strategies is to have its shows at the same time every year -- one each in September, February and May, at least two of which are months when stages are at a premium. Among the 100 or so groups who have used the Kelly-Strayhorn since May 2001, New Horizon is the first with a long-term deal for multi-week shows, which allows it to both stick to its traditional calendar and earn a discount on the theater's rental rates. As a bonus, the fully equipped venue is a treat for performers. "The actors now, it's just like a different feeling for them," says Meggerson-Moore. "Because they have a space that's a performance space."

But because it's space that's occupied three out of every four days, New Horizon can rehearse there only the week the show opens. Thus it must find, and usually pay for, alternate spaces, such as the nearby Penn Theater, the director's house and East Liberty Lutheran, which is also where it still builds and stores its sets. Another catch: Having a bigger space not only allows New Horizon to draw larger audiences, it requires it: Its first production at Kelly-Strayhorn, September's Outrun the Rain, put 30 percent more bodies in seats than last year's season opener, but the company's budget is up 50 percent, mostly due to higher rent.

Still, says Meggerson-Moore, it's more affordable than the $2,000-a-week Hazlett, which New Horizons considered before it closed.

New Horizon's search convinced her theater space is available in Pittsburgh. But Meggerson-Moore says, "We'd like to have our own space, but it's the lack of money for renting the space."

"If you know of any benefactors," she adds, "that's what we need."

Buck Favorini takes the Kelly-Strayhorn's significance one step further: The longtime director of Pitt's Department of Theater Arts believes that as far as theaters go, things in Pittsburgh have seldom been better. He notes that Pitt's Heymann Theatre is just three years old; that PICT, Pittsburgh Musical Theater and Attack Theater have all found space at Pitt; and he guesses that the Kelly-Strayhorn still has available weeks (it does). He's also in favor of theater companies sharing spaces, and thinks more cooperative ventures would help address any difficulties.

"We're a small town," he says. "For a city of [Pittsburgh's] size and shrinking, we certainly do not from where I sit have a shortage of theaters."

Others likewise regard whatever shortfalls there might be as nothing especially steep, or all that peculiar to Pittsburgh.

"Small arts organizations in most cities have trouble finding space," says Marilyn Coleman, who chaired the committee overseeing a recent study on the viability of the Hazlett Theater. "It costs a lot of money to run a theater," adds Coleman, executive director of ProArts, a nonprofit service organization. "It's not that bleak a picture."

Mark Clayton Southers would agree. When the old Penn Avenue Theater (formerly the Upstairs Theater) went dark, Southers, a playwright and founder of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company, bought the gear and rented the space as soon as he could. "I was excited more about the opportunity than what it would cost," says Southers, by day a heavy-equipment operator. Southers has seen the downside of managing a theater space: Five canceled rentals last year cost him $8,000. But the space is regularly used, and Southers plans to start an additional company there in January.

Indeed, Carolelinda Dickey, a consultant for nonprofit arts groups, says what's most notable about Pittsburgh might be the number of small theater companies that survive here. Still, "What we don't have in the that 500-seat space that the other cities have that is perfect for dance companies and theater companies," she says. "Every city has one but us."

One thing standing in the way is simple economics: A 500-seat theater might not be able to support itself catering exclusively to local troupes -- yet it still wouldn't be large enough to accommodate touring acts, who usually have one or two nights to draw as many people as possible. Theaters that are big enough for touring groups -- the 1,300-seat Byham, Downtown, for instance -- are prohibitively expensive for small troupes.

Still, "We did not hear people say, ‘I can't get work done because I can't get a space," says Dickey. "I think in the issue more than space alone is the lack of coordination on availability."

From his vantage point at the Kelly-Strayhorn, however, Robert Neu does see a need for more stages: His theater turns down at least one of every three inquiries because the time is already booked. Yet even at 60 percent usage for its 2002-03 season, the theater recouped just 34 percent of its operating cost from rentals, covering the rest with gifts and contributions. Still, he says, "There's a shortage of good space. If somebody wanted to buy a nice warehouse in the Strip …"

When Open Stage Theatre was launched 11 years ago, its first home was a North Side church where after Saturday night shows it had to strike its sets to make room for Sunday services. So artistic director Ruth Willis is quite comfortable with the idea of sharing space. Noting that Open Stage is dormant in the summer and at Christmas, she says, "It would be wonderful if some of these other groups could come in when we were dark" -- a win-win situation, she'd think.

While sharing space isn't as easy as it might sound, some companies are trying new strategies. For instance, Prime Stage Theater, which lost its home when the Hazlett closed, took advantage of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's recent interest in accommodating smaller arts groups Downtown. In a building the Trust bought this year for about $500,000, Prime Stage outfitted the first floor with sound and lights for its youth-theater shows; it opened its first production there, Holes, on Oct. 31. At fewer than 100 seats, the 937 Liberty Ave. space meets Prime Stage's size needs except its big Thanksgiving-week student matinees. For those, the crew will just hand-truck the small set down the street to the Byham.

Prime Stage is excited about its new home, but managing director Robert Wood says the search wasn't easy. "I think a lot of us were saying [about a space], ‘It's out there, it's out there,'" says Wood. "I think we had to come to a realization that it wasn't out there, and we had to start from scratch."

Ironically, to accommodate Prime Stage the Cultural Trust displaced another small performing group, prior tenant Attack Theater. But Trust President Kevin J. McMahon says the organization, long associated with Broadway musicals and big-foot arts groups, wants to continue developing alternative spaces for smaller groups. The Trust even has more underutilized Downtown venues in mind -- but, McMahon adds, "None of these spaces make money," and the Trust-subsidized cost of operating 937 Penn is "much more than what Prime Stage could possibly afford."

Elsewhere Downtown, options are limited. The O'Reilly Theater is held year-round by Pittsburgh Public Theater, and even the smaller adjoining cabaret space is likely to be booked almost solid by the Civic Light Opera, says McMahon. There's also the brand-new High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, with its 415-seat main stage and 100-seat black box. CAPA is booked almost solid during the school year, mostly with student performances and classes, and next summer is uncertain because the school might hold a student arts camp, says Principal Michael Thorsen. But that doesn't stop people from calling. "Every time I'm turning around I'm fielding another request," says Thorsen. "I have people asking for next September."

Many inquiries are about one-night meetings, events or shows. One longer-term inquiry came from Pittsburgh New Works Festival, whose director, Jeff Leonard, says, "CAPA's just a perfect fit for us."

At this writing, CAPA had still not committed to any outside theater groups. Another inquiry, though, came from another former City Theatre tenant: Open Stage Theatre. Ruth Willis sounds as enthused about CAPA's main stage as most who have seen it. "Oh whoa whoa whoa whoa," she says. It has state-of-the art electrical, plus 10 traps, places where the stage can be raised or lowered. "It's just fabulous."

CAPA's bookings are tight, Willis knows, but "We could slim down our next two shows" so they're small enough to fold up nightly to fit the calendar.

But on a November night in the Strip District, Willis, actor John Imro, director Art DeConciliis and crew can't worry about such prospects, nor even about the fact that just weeks ago the company's managing director and marketing/operations director both resigned; they've got Barrymore to put on, starting with tonight's dress rehearsal. At 8 p.m., the big darkened space echoes when Imro, playing the famed actor, booms out a shred of Shakespearean verse from backstage, then emerges to a house of 100 empty seats.

Drunken, paunchy, clutching a bottle and singing limericks, the Barrymore of playwright William Luce's imagination addresses the house. The set features a chair covered with a tattered white sheet, cardboard boxes overflowing with junk, a skull on a column. Barrymore, staggering, snarls, "I can't believe I forked out good money to rent this godforsaken dump just so I could run a few lines for a night."

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