By Sharon Eberson
Marc Masterson had just delivered a show-by-show dive into City Theatre’s 2021-22 season when he was asked if putting it together posed one of the toughest challenges of his career.
“It’s not what you think,” the artistic director said with a laugh, perhaps a combination of relief and the joy of facing all the usual headaches and exhilaration of planning a new season.
Following a pandemic year of thinking off the stage and outside the box, the joy of welcoming performers and patrons back to the South Side might just wipe away any of the headaches and hard work it took to get everyone back in the same place.
City was among the leaders in innovative presentations during a season of theater shutdowns and safety mandates. Collaborations forged during that time and the company’s 47-year history, with theaters across the nation and others just a bridge crossing away, will persist in the just-announced season.
City Theatre partnered with Point Park’s Pittsburgh Playhouse for short commissioned works called “Homegrown Stories during the shutdown.” Now the companies will team again for one of the earliest indoor, in-person theatrical productions of the season.
In a special non-subscription event, City has reteamed with the Playhouse for its BUILDING BRIDGES project. The project received a $225,000 Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD) grant to develop “a community-centered world premiere production celebrating the narratives of immigrant and refugee populations in Pittsburgh.”
From Sept. 10-19, City and the Playhouse will present THE RIVERS DON’T KNOW, a community-centered new play featuring stories of immigration in Pittsburgh written by Donora native Jim McManus in collaboration with director Michael John Garcés and Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theater Company.
Local partners include ARYSE (Alliance for Refugee Youth Support and Education), The All for All Coalition powered by the Global Switchboard, Global Minds, Literary Pittsburgh, Jewish Family and Children’s Services Refugee & Immigrant Services, and World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.
Attendance for the play is free at the Downtown Playhouse. Its presentation will coincide with “Welcoming Week,” a nationwide immigrant inclusion initiative.
When the red doors to City Theatre open in October for the five-show subscription season, a renovated and expanded lobby will greet theatergoers.
During the 2020 pandemic days, City’s most visible contribution to the theater scene was the Drive-In Arts Festival at Hazelwood Green. But things also were happening behind the scenes on the South Side. Walls have come down to extend the lobby in the Main Stage building, while offices moved across Bingham Street into the former home of Landesberg Design. When completed, the new lobby “will be less crowded, more comfortable, bright and clean,” Masterson said.
City Theatre’s Drive In Festival at Hazelwood Green
All five shows will be presented in the 254-seat Main Stage, upstairs from the lobby. The smaller Hamburg Studio Theatre will be used for the Young Playwrights and Momentum festivals. It will also be available for use by other companies and artists, a cost-effective move that has been in discussion for some time.
Having all productions in the larger theater space should also make it easier to accommodate the seemingly ever-changing CDC, state, and Actors Equity safety guidelines for both performers and patrons.
The subscription season kicks off Oct. 9 with LIVE FROM THE EDGE by the Ashland, Ore., company Universes, which Masterson has worked with in various iterations for most of its 25 years. He called them “arguably the country’s leading hip-hop company.” LIVE FROM THE EDGE features music, poetry, scene work, and more, “and they’re funny and entertaining and topical,” the artistic director said.
Next, City reaches across the river for a co-production that had its roots at Pittsburgh CLO’s 2018 Spark Festival for new small-cast musicals.
The premiere of AN UNTITLED NEW PLAY BY JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE is by Matt Schatz (THE BURDENS at City) and directed by Reginald Douglas. He left City to become associate AD at Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.
CLO had scheduled UNTITLED to open at the Greer Cabaret last year, with Douglas as director. Masterson said UNTITLED will get a Main Stage production with the same creative team and possibly the same cast.
UNTITLED centers on an idealistic literary manager at a nonprofit theater who sees her purpose as spotlight new talent. However, her tone-deaf boss instead chooses a “pop superstar” to write the “hit” that will keep the theater from going out of business.
The next collaboration has an unusual twist; City Theatre will present a revival and renew its bond with the SITI Company of New York. And its longtime leader, Anne Bogart. Returning to Pittsburgh is THE MEDIUM — as in Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message,” the phrase that came from the first chapter of his 1964 book, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.”
THE MEDIUM, seen at City in the 1996-97 season, continues the exploration of the effect of media and emerging technologies on our perceptions, psyches, and personal lives.
“It will feature Will Bond, who in my view is one of the finest actors in America, revising his role,” Masterson said.
Bond earned an MFA at the University of Pittsburgh and is a founding member of SITI. The production will return to New York after it plays the South Side.
“To bring this piece back and take a look at it now, when it was written before the Internet took hold or before there were social media, it actually is a really interesting reference point. It will be a reexamination of that seminal book,” he said.
City also is renewing its association with the work of Dominique Morisseau. She has of late been on Broadway as the librettist for AIN’T TOO PROUD and the upcoming SKELETON CREW scheduled to star Phylicia Rashad in 2022. In Pittsburgh, we will see her PARADISE BLUE, directed by Kent Gash, founding director of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ New Studio on Broadway.
City’s production will include a commissioned score for the music-infused piece set in 1949 Detroit, where the Black Bottom neighborhood is gentrifying. Blue, a trumpeter and club owner, is torn between his home and leaving behind a traumatic past.
The season ends with the new play THE GARBOLOGISTS, Lindsay Joelle’s buddy comedy featured in the 2019 Momentum Festival and was previously scheduled as part of the interrupted 2020-21 season.
It’s been a long time from interruption to reopening, which City Theatre notes in launching its (Re)Open the Red Door Campaign.
Here’s a snapshot of what awaits beyond the red doors:
CITY THEATRE 2021-22 SEASON
Oct. 9-21, 2021 — LIVE FROM THE EDGE, created and performed by Universes. The topical performance tracks the evolution of language from childhood rhymes and community rituals to poetry and theater, hip-hop, and gospel.
Nov. 27-Dec. 19, 2021 — AN UNTITLED NEW PLAY BY JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE, book, music and lyrics by Matt Schatz, directed by Reginald L. Douglas, music direction by Douglas Levine, choreography by Kiesha Lalama. A world premiere co-production with Pittsburgh CLO.
Schatz returns to City (“The Burdens” 2019) with a musical comedy about the battle of art vs. commerce.
Jan. 22-Feb. 13, 2022 — THE MEDIUM, created and performed by SITI Company, conceived and directed by Anne Bogart. The play will go on tour from Pittsburgh and move into New York later next year.
March 12-April 3, 2022 — PARADISE BLUE by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Kent Gash. Returning to City Theatre for the third time, Morisseau (“Pipeline,” “Sunset Baby”) takes us to a gentrifying Detroit for a drama laced with jazz and intrigue.
April 30-May 22, 2022 — THE GARBOLOGISTS by Lindsay Joelle, directed by Monteze Freeland. This world premiere is an unconventional buddy comedy that goes along for the ride with first-time sanitation worker Marlowe and lifer Danny in the cab of a 19-ton garbage truck in New York City.
Subscription packages go on sale in August. Single tickets to all Main Stage shows will be available for purchase on Sept. 7, 2021. More at 412-431-CITY (2489) or BoxOffice@CityTheatreCompany.org.