Pittsburgh Public’s leader reflects on four eventful years

As ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘Love Letters’ bring the season to a close, Marya Sea Kaminski talks about the warm feeling audiences crave

By Sharon Eberson

There’s free, family-friendly entertainment afoot in Alleghey County parks these sultry summer days, and it’s coming to you from the company that most recently brought us August Wilson’s Two Trains Running and an Agatha Christie murder mystery.

Pittsburgh Public Theater has ventured outdoors to deliver a swashbuckling tale of Robin Hood, retold in three venues boasting a Sherwood Forest vibe.

The hero known for robbing the rich to give to the poor invaded South Park Amphitheater last week. Next to take a turn as Sherwood Forest is the Boyce Park Wave Pool Parking Lot (July 1-2) and Hartwood Acres (July 8-9).

The show features Nicholas Robert Ortiz as Robin Hood, Arjun Kumar as Much, J. Alex Noble as Prince John and Little John, Jade Langan as Maid Marian, Lydia Miller as Muso, Allan Snyder as The Sheriff of Nottingham and music director Douglas Levine as Friar Tuck. José Pérez IV, the artistic director of Big Storm Performance Company, is the production understudy and fight coordinator.

“The fights are amazing. I’m working with a new fight director, Jose Perez, and they are epic,” the Public’s artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski said. “It’s just amazing storytelling; it’s funny and athletic.”

The cast of Robin Hood at South Park Amphitheater.
(Gregory Sciulli/Allegheny County Parks)

There is live music that propels the action, some “revelations” that separate this version from others, and it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s inherent humor in the fact that, “It’s almost the full story of Robin Hood, with five actors.”

The tale with origins dating back centuries appeals to the child in all of us.

In a conversation that covered her four years leading Pittsburgh Public Theater, and the tumultuous times we live in, Kaminski was reminded how she fell hard for theater. 

“I’ve been reflecting back on my career and what the theater has meant to me as we’ve been in these really challenging times. The most powerful theater experiences have been multigenerational and intergenerational, starting from when I was a little kid and my Aunt Sandy took me to see Charlotte’s Web, and then The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. That was it. I mean it. I re-enacted Charlotte’s Web over and over. And every time I did, I cried like a baby.”

After last season’s outdoor performances of Barefoot in the Park, at Allegheny Overlook and the Frick Art Museum, bringing the family-friendly Robin Hood to the parks has felt like a bookend to the past year, Kaminski added.

With 2022 more than half-way over and the first in-person, post-shutdown season nearly done, she was asked to reflect on the years since arriving from Seattle to take over for the retiring Ted Pappas.

Before Kaminski and the Public staff can take a breather, the season finale takes them back to their O’Reilly Theater home for a Family Ties affair – Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter, who played the parents of Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton in the popular TV sitcom, will perform A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, July 20-24.

That wasn’t always the plan. 

Lesley Nicol (Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Patmore) was unable to bring her one-woman show to the Public – it first was delayed because of restrictions due to COVID, and then canceled due to the sudden death of Nicol’s husband, David Heald.

“The pandemic made us so nimble and so flexible,” Kaminski said. “There has been so much loss, in that I’m so sad that Lesley Nicol won’t be joining us. It had been such fun to be on that journey with her and to be walking through that story with her.”

Love Letters came along after many conversations about how to fill the void, fueled by Gross’ enthusiasm – he and Baxter have performed the play previously, and he announced the Pittsburgh show himself, on social media.

Amid the “loss and sacrifice” of recent years, Kaminski said there has been a silver lining.

Nicholas Robert Ortiz has the title role in Pittsburgh Public’s Robin Hood.
(Gregory Sciulli/Allegheny County Parks)

“Ultimately, over the course of the pandemic, I think it’s made more space for the artists, for our audience and for our staff to just be human, and to invite them fully in,” she said.

Back in 2018, Kaminski hit the ground running with her new job, but had little time to settle in, as the entertainment world was reeling from the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, a two-season pandemic shutdown and continued COVID concerns. 

There have been some noticeable efforts that have come about, due in part to watchdog groups such as Black Theatre United and We See You White American Theater, and the groundswell of support within the ranks and among the loyal patrons of most companies.

For example, many companies, including the Public, begin each production by acknowledging that lands where theaters now stand were once the homes of Native Americans.

There are other practices you may have noticed by reading – or downloading – your program. 

“There has not been a show we have done this year that has not seriously involved understudies. Understudies are the new reality for us,” Kaminski said.

This comes at a time when Broadway understudies and swings are much in the spotlight. In December of last year, Broadway League president Charlotte St. Martin intimated that COVID-related cancellations were partially due to a lack of “experienced” understudies and swings. She was immediately met with severe backlash from the theater community, and issued a hasty apology.

We know understudies and swings can save the day in times of illness or injury, but Kaminski carries the importance of their roles a step further. 

“It’s a business shift in our model to invest in them,” she said. “I feel like it’s a human shift, to really make space for folks to have full lives outside of theater. I think it’s really been a positive change in so many ways. If folks get sick, they are covered; they don’t lose their job. … It’s actually made me think, organization-wide and maybe even for life, like, we all kind of need an understudy now and again, you know?”

She mentions that understudy Amy Landis filled at one performance for Lenora Nemetz, during the run of Murder on the Orient Express.

“Amy worked and worked on that script, knew it backwards and forwards, and she may never have had to go on,” Kaminski noted. “And when she did, Lenora sent her flowers. Very classy.”

Another something new that was announced days before the pandemic shutdown in March of 2020 was when Kaminski and managing director Lou Castelli, while heralding what they thought would be the 2020-21 season, announced artistic residenciesfor director Justin Emeka and actress Helena Ruoti. Emeka is currently in residence at the Public, having just directed Two Trains Running, and next season will direct his own adaptation of the Bard’s comedic fantasy, titled A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem.

Kaminski said there will be announcements of more residencies in the future.

The 2022-23 season has already been scheduled, starting with the Lorraine Hansberry classic A Raisin in the Sun and including the premiere of prize-winning playwright Lauren Yee’s Young Americans and “A Christmas Story: The Play.”

Kaminski mentions Emeka’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem as “quite extraordinary” and a play that can “bring us together and warms our hearts.”

The artistic director has produced holiday variety shows at Christmastime, but this year, she will direct Phillip Grecian’s A Christmas Story: The Play, which she hopes can become a holiday staple. Kaminski revealed that there will be a local search for the actor who will play Ralphie, with details to come.

Allan Snyder as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood
at South Park Amphitheater. (Gregory Sciulli/Allegheny County Parks)

As the person who programs the season, much of Kaminski’s past four years have been spent getting a handle on patrons’ theatrical desires.

“What I’ve learned from Pittsburgh audiences,” she said, “and how they’ve responded to the various things that I’ve had a chance to program since I’ve been here, is I think they like to be left with warmth. You know what I mean? They are not looking for something too chilly, too cold, too analytical, too didactic. 

“I think we feel like we want to gather together around the campfire right now,” she continued. “And so, when I think of all the plays next year, all in different ways, it’s us trying to do what we do well – produce great stories with beautiful designs and topnotch artists, but it’s also sort of gathering around the campfire of a conversation. And I hope that, you know, it’ll leave us warm with laughter, with family, with imagination.”

Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Robin Hood continues at Boyce Park Wave Pool Parking Lot (July 1-2) and Hartwood Acres (July 8-9). Details, weather updates and free tickets (optional): ppt.org or 412-316-1600.

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