For an extraordinary variety of reasons better cataloged elsewhere, it is a confusing time to be a young person in America. Thanks to a blame game-y media environment, one needs only type in the phrase “Millenials Are Killing” into Google’s search bar to admire our various war crimes against chain restaurants and department stores (or whatever). This generational hostility has created a kind of disinterest in what Millennials actually feel about the world around them to older generations – which is what makes college theater a more important space than it has been in a long time.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Theater program features an unusual amount of agency for its student body. Besides playing host to a series of shows that are entirely student run, the program also allows its students to have a say in what mainstage shows, which are typically directed by theater professors, will end up making the cut. This season features an eclectic mix of classics with a twist and unconventional works by contemporary writers, and will likely be an opportunity to hear young voices in a raw creative setting.
First up at the University of Pittsburgh Theater’s fall season is Our Town. Originally written by Thornton Wilder, Our Town is primarily about the complexities of small town life in early 1900’s America. However, Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama isn’t your average slice of life Americana. Rather, it is a dark, complex reflection on life and death. The play is a working definition of minimalism in theater, featuring performances that, on the whole, are voice-less, and an omniscient narrator who directly addresses his audience.
Despite its familiar old-school trappings, director Ricardo Vila-Roger stressed to me that Pitt’s production would be immediate, and prescient.
“[Our Town]…is possibly even more important today, in that everyone is kind of rushing to get to the next thing,” Vila-Roger said. “Our main character [doesn’t realize] all she’s missed because she’s not paying attention to what’s in front of her. It’s the same today with cell phones.”
The production will also, unlike Wilder’s original production, feature a diverse cast. “We’re telling the story of a lot of people, not just one kind of person. If I’m going to create a town on stage, I’m going to create the town I’d want to live in.”
Our Town will run from October 5th to the 15th at the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre.
Next up is Parade, a musical based on a true story that was originally written by Alfred Uhry with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, this time directed by Rob Frankenberry. Of all the shows in Pitt’s upcoming season, Parade is easily the story that most encapsulates contemporary social discourse. Our main character is Leo Frank, a Jewish American accused of murder whose wildly unethical trial was a keystone moment in the founding of the Anti-Defamation League, as well as an inciting action in the reformation of the KKK.
The musical, set in 1913, follows several characters of some historical import, including an opportunistic journalist who capitalized on the event, a jury fueled by the distrust of outsiders, and the hapless man at the trial’s center.
Vila-Roger described the musical as “important, and very difficult,” It is also a potential moment for reflection for its audience and cast. “The music is beautiful, and I think the message – good Lord – is so important right now.”
Parade will be performed from November 9th through the 19th at the Charity Randall Theatre.
Besides Pitt’s mainstage shows, the theater also produces Student Lab shows, which are almost entirely directed and produced by students. The first student lab show is [title of show], an extraordinarily meta musical that is about its own creation and execution. Originally written by Jeff Bowen, [title of show] is quite literally a work in progress, beginning with the cast – all playing themselves in the show’s initial production – discussing what the opening of their new show should sound like as they’re performing their initial brainstorm. Pitt’s production will be directed by Alex Ditmar and will run from October 18th through the 22nd at the Henry Heymann theater.
Next comes Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck!, directed by Chloe Torrence and originally written by Jay Torrence. The play is a fictionalized retelling of a real tragedy that befell the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in 1918 when a train collided with the circus’ caravan, resulting in many of the performers’ dwellings being set ablaze. More than 80 lives were lost, and over a hundred more were injured. Roustabout, however, focuses on the colorful lives of those affected, and seeks to extract something more from the senseless accident. It will run from November 15th through the 19th at the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre.
Those looking for more originality and thematic complexity in their night at the theater will find that there’s plenty more to discover in Pitt’s Student Lab Show’s upcoming productions. There’s The Lifeboat is Sinking, a Shel Silverstein one act comedy about a woman who forces her husband to imagine their bed is a sinking ship and the boat’s dead weight his mother. The show will premiere alongside a production of An Oblation, a short one act written by the ever-inventive Taylor Mac, which is a comedy about two women who catalogue the deaths of friends and acquaintances at their own version of the last supper. Ann Amundson will direct both. Then, there is Victory on Mrs. Dandywine’s Island, written by Lanford Wilson and directed by Zev Woskoff, which is an Oscar Wilde-style spoof of high society. All three of these shows will be performed simultaneously on January 31st to February 4th at the Henry Heymann Theatre.
Pitt’s final Student Lab show will show will be Suddenly Last Summer, an underappreciated Tennesse Williams drama about a woman whose mental instability hides a dark family secret. It will be directed by Nic Bernstein and will run from April 11th through the 15th at the Henry Heymann Theater.
Meanwhile, the remaining Mainstage Productions will be a mix of the classic and contemporary, continuing with a production of Howard Ashman’s well-revered musical adaptation of the B-Movie cult classic, Little Shop of Horrors. The show will be performed on February 8th through the 18th at the Charity Randall Theatre and be directed by Reginald Douglas. This will be followed by a production of Upton Sinclair’s Marie Antoinette, directed by LeMil Eiland and running from February 15th to the 25th. The mainstage’s final production will be an original play written and directed by Cynthia Croot named Recoil. It will run from April 5th to the 15th.
At its best, university theater is a space in which people can essentially attend a show to see what’s next in American drama, and the University of Pittsburgh’s upcoming season has the potential to be particularly potent.