Artist rendering of the public entrance of the new Playhouse as seen from Forbes and Smithfield Street.
“Willkommen! And Bienvenue! Welcome!”
Pittsburgh’s newest theatre complex, The Pittsburgh Playhouse, will open to the public this fall with a production of the classic Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret. As the home of Point Park University’s Conservatory of the Performing Art, the Playhouse houses The Conservatory Theatre Company and The Conservatory Dance Company as well as the professional company known as The REP. The new complex features three public performance spaces; the 560 seat PNC Theatre, the 200 seat Highmark Studio Theatre, and a 60 seat Black Box Theatre.
The University’s President, Dr. Paul Hennigan, was the driving force behind the development of the new Playhouse. Since the 1970s, the Playhouse and COPA have been across town in Oakland. With the opening of the new Playhouse, the entire campus will be consolidated into one location, creating his vision of an academic village that will strengthen the connection of the Conservatory to the rest of the campus community.
Located on Forbes Ave, the 92,000-square-foot Playhouse complex sits on approximately 1.6 acres, between Wood and Smithfield streets. The new facility wraps and interweaves two existing historic structures — the current University Center, formerly the Colonial Trust Company, and the Stock Exchange Building around a new central core that houses the performance spaces, rehearsal halls, dressing rooms, and shops.
At the end of July, I had the opportunity to tour Point Park University’s new Pittsburgh Playhouse with Alicia DiGiorgi, Director of Production and Stage Management. Despite the hustle and bustle of moving from the old Playhouse, and the imminent arrival of students, DiGiorgi and everyone I met on the tour were all smiles. The faculty and staff’s excitement and enthusiasm are contagious, making on this day, the Playhouse the happiest place in Pittsburgh.
The Marquee from Smithfield and Forbes
The public will enter on Forbes under the Playhouse marquee into a soaring three-story grand hall that spans the entire block between Forbes and 4th Street. On the Forbes end of the hall, to the right is the PNC Theatre, a richly appointed, modern proscenium house with the balcony seats in a unique asymmetrical layout. DiGorgi points out the orchestra pit (a first for COPA) that can be raised to stage level that will create a small thrust, parked at audience level for additional seating, or lowered to orchestra level to provide non-blocking views of the stage. Generous wing space for scenery and a counterweighted fly system along with first-class sound and lighting systems make the PNC Theatre one of Pittsburgh’s most beautiful and most beautiful performance spaces. The stage space is on par with Broadway’s Marriot Marquis and The Stephen Sondheim theatres in terms of size and facilities.
PNC Theatre, house right from the balcony
Across the lobby on the left side is the Highmark Theatre, a flexible performance space with seating for two hundred. The Highmark can be opened to an adjacent outdoor courtyard, which will provide the opportunity to share productions with the Downtown public at large.
The Playhouse lobby has a full-service bar on the main level and up the broad staircase a Café along with views into the costume shop with its restored stained-glass ceiling. Observation windows allow views into the rehearsal halls and other shop areas. On the third floor is the smaller 60 seat Black Box Theatre. The Playhouse’s opening production of Cabaret will be staged here. DiGorgi says the designers “love the intimacy of the space” and will meet the challenge of turning a new modern, fresh smelling theatre into the decadence and decay of pre-war Germany by “bringing over vintage drapes and artifacts from the original Playhouse.”
On the ground floor tucked behind the PNC stage and scene shop is a 3,200 square foot soundstage for motion picture and television production work. The COPA program recognizes that actors, dancers, designers, stage managers, directors, and crew don’t just work exclusively in on the stages of theatres anymore.
The architects, Westlake Reed Leskosky, have created a bright, open, accessible feel to the overall space, with lots of natural light from many massive windows. Those windows will offer the public an intimate view of the making of art, with unobstructed views of performance venues typically shielded from observation.
PNC Theatre, view from the apron, stage left
The new Playhouse is beautifully and brilliantly executed, from both the artistic and functional perspectives. Rarely does an organization have unlimited space, time, and money to design and build a new theatre, so compromises must be made. As the opening draws near, it appears that any compromises that may have been made in developing the new Playhouse were based upon sound judgment. Over time a new theatre takes on the character of the company which occupies it, and the company’s personality and performances are shaped by the theatre. The jury will be out until the facility has been used and the character symbiosis begins to take effect. Inevitably there will be those “We would have – should have – could have ” realizations as the theatre and dance companies adapt to their new home.
The opening season of the new Playhouse features multiple award-winning shows and the major dance concerts. The following four productions will give audiences a first chance to explore and enjoy each of the performance spaces. (As of this posting, The Rep has not yet announced their upcoming season.)
The Studio Theatre transforms into the seedy Kit Kat Klub for the Tony award-winning Cabaret Set in Berlin as the Nazis are rising to power, it revolves around young American writer Cliff Bradshaw and his relationship with English cabaret performer Sally Bowles. The opener will be directed by Zeva Barzell, COPA’s head of musical theatre. Performances are October. 26th to November 11th with a preview performance on the 25th.
The Highmark Theatre opens with The Coram Boy November 16th to December 2nd. This dramatic piece follows the lives of people from very different backgrounds over the course of several years in 18th century England at the Coram Hospital for Deserted Children. The dark twists and turns of this English classic are accompanied by the music of Adrian Sutton,
The highly anticipated first production in the PNC Theatre will be the Winter Dance Concert, December 7th to 16th. Point Parks Dance Program has just been ranked number five in the country behind Julliard at number four by On Stage Blog. This is an excellent opportunity to see the new theatre and learn why Point Park is “Hands down the best college in the country offering both a BA and BFA in dance.”
The PNC Theatre is the blank canvas for Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning masterpiece, Sunday in the Park with George, the fictionalized version of the real-life artist, George Seurat and the creation of his most famous piece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. A rich and expansive look at the creative process makes this the perfect opening musical for the PNC Theatre. Performances are March 15th to 24th with a preview on the 14th.
Rounding out the season are productions of Vinegar Tom which runs February 22nd to March 10th in the Studio Theatre, followed by History Boys April 5th-14th in Highmark Theatre. The season closes with the Spring Dance Concert April 18th to 21st in the PNC Theatre.
“We believe the new Pittsburgh Playhouse is a game-changer for Downtown Pittsburgh,” said President Hennigan, “Not only will it create a dynamic learning environment for students in our Conservatory of Performing Arts, but it will also allow their creative process to be an integral part of the Downtown experience.”
Already nationally recognized in academic circles and on Broadway, the move Downtown is going to raise the profile of both Point Park, and its Conservatory of Performing Arts. Along with the Playhouses’ proximity to the Cultural District’s theatres, Pittsburgh’s reputation as a multi-faceted theatre town will gain as well.
For tickets visit the Playhouse Box Office or http://www.pittsburghplayhouse.com/tickets