Q&A: James McNeel and Monteze Freeland on co-productions, revenue sources, fundraising and more to come…
By SHARON EBERSON
City Theatre’s South Side campus has been buzzing since its big red doors closed on the 2022-23 season in May. This summer, there’s been activity aplenty on Bingham Street, in the construction shop and the black box Lillie Theatre, which has been home to productions by local companies including New Horizon Theater and Corningworks.
Now City is headed toward its annual fundraiser, The BASH, a street party on September 9 with locally sourced food and live performances, while rehearsals will be under way for the latest work from Brian Quijada, the writer, composer and performer behind Where Did We Sit on the Bus?
His latest work, Somewhere Over the Border, a co-production with Pittsburgh CLO and People’s Light of Malvern, near Philadelphia, officially opens the 2023-24 season on September 23.
Inspired by Reina Quijada’s journey from El Salvador to the United States in the 1970s and by L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Somewhere Over the Border “embraces the factual and the fantastical in its depiction of one young girl’s pursuit of the American dream. As Reina travels north to the Mexican border, she gathers friends, faces down dangers and holds tight to the memory of the little boy she left behind.”
Along with Border, offerings include a production of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-nominated Fat Ham – which was still Broadway-bound when it was announced – along with the holiday-timed show Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, South Side Stories Revisited by Tami Dixon, and Andy Warhol in Iran.
Between seasons, City’s Philip Chosky Production Center was in full swing, building sets for Front Porch Theatricals’ summer musicals on the North Side and two productions at the Chautauqua Institution, about 160 miles from Pittsburgh.
“When we opened the construction shop [in 2019], the intention was to allow us to do exactly what we’ve done this year, that we could actually start building for other companies, and it’s been busy nonstop since May,” said James McNeel, City’s managing director.
“As we talk about the state of [theater] and the state of City Theatre, we have to diversify our revenue beyond grants, beyond ticket sales,” McNeel added. “And that for us is rentals, building shows, it’s co-productions. It’s finding new ways of getting money to come in.”
The sets for Chautauqua came City’s way after Jade King Carroll, who directed City productions of The Revolutionist and Sunset Baby, became artistic director of the New York State arts venue that has been outsourcing sets since its own construction shop was shuttered.
Carroll and City’s co-artistic director, Clare Drobot, are “dear friends,” McNeel said, “and so Jade via Clare reached out, and we worked it out.”
For Chautauqua’s world-premiere co-production of Tiny Father with Barrington Stage (Pittsfield, Mass.), City staff members flew to Massachusetts, rented a 26-foot truck, got the set loaded in, then drove it to Chautauqua … Building sets for City’s shows on the South Side may seem like vacation after this summer.
“I hope we can continue to do work like that,” McNeel said. “I think, as a sector, we’re all looking for ways that we can share services. We have to find new efficiencies. And so that’s one option, for sure.”
McNeel and co-artistic director Monteze Freeland were in conversation not long after Pittsburgh City Council helped save funds that had been earmarked for Pittsburgh artists but was being targeted by Mayor Gainey’s administration for other uses. The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, along with City Theatre and other local groups, were key players in the funds being directed back as intended, even as so many nonprofit theaters around the country are experiencing layoffs and closures.
City Council took action on the heels of a detailed report on the re-direction of arts funds by Bill O’Driscoll of WESA. (Read it here.)
The nearly $2 million at stake “is a drop in the bucket,” McNeel said, ‘when you consider meeting the needs of Pittsburgh’s community of artists and arts organizations.
“To be honest,” he continued, “the amount of money that has been distributed from all the federal billions that were out there, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in Allegheny County and the City has been paltry and insignificant, and not near enough to make any difference, unfortunately. And we lag way behind comparable states in terms of the amount of federal money that’s been distributed.”
Finding funds in troubled times has had a here and there, which came up while mentioning City’s annual Young Playwrights Festival, October 29-30.
A two-time winner of the festival competition (2010 and ’12), playwright and theatermaker a.k. payne, also participated in City’s Momentum Festival and was the second artist selected by the company for support through the Kemp Powers Commission Fund for Black Playwrights.
McNeel recalled he was on the phone with a potential donor, “And the woman on this call, who was a former teacher, said, ‘I remember Young Playwrights. One of my students won it one year. Her name was Alexis Payne.’ And that was the segue of all segues, because I told her Alexis is now known as a.k., and they are on a flight from New York to Pittsburgh for a meeting because we gave them their first commission after graduating from Yale.”
McNeel laughed and said it was perhaps “the easiest money I’ve ever raised in my life.”
It was “a very Pittsburgh moment,” he added, and it was understood how rare it was to describe fundraising as “easy.”
Here’s more from a wide-ranging discussion, with more to come.
Q: To an outsider, it seems like it’s been a quiet summer. But it’s been pretty busy.
McNEEL: For us, the summer is our little tiny sliver when we can try to do some big-picture thinking, and it’s also when folks take vacations. But it’s been good because we’ve actually been able this year to keep most of our production team here. For a very long time, unfortunately, we’ve been furloughed in the summer, but we actually have been building sets for Chautauqua and Front Porch, which has allowed us to keep the team mostly intact this summer, which has been a long time goal. We have a big season this year. It’s an exciting season, but logistically a complicated one with the two co-productions. So I don’t really feel like we’ve had much of a break since we shut down in May.
Q: One of those co-productions is your opening show and it is also the second with Pittsburgh CLO. How does that work?
McNEEL: We have two partners on Border. People’s Light and the Pittsburgh CLO, we are doing a lot more of the sharing in the co-production, because we’re building that show here. … When we did Untitled a couple of years ago, that actually already had been mostly built by the CLO shops, so we then just had to adapt it for our theater. That was a little bit more of an embedded sharing in all the different pieces, whereas this one, their partnership with us is on the musicians and the music.
Q: It was nice to see New Horizon Theater at the Lillie. Will they be back?
McNEEL: We’re trying to figure out our calendar. They love being here, in a theater with Dr. Lillie’s name on it.
FREELAND: It was very special. [Co-artistic director] Marc Masterson and I, we were coming from dinner one night and we were rounding the corner and we saw people coming to the theater just standing around the sign, in awe. And it was like, ‘Oh, this is Dr. Lillie’s theater?,’ you know? So it was one of those moments where there was a silent invitation to a new audience, and we would love to have New Horizon back, because they help activate the campus and they produce shows that are in line with our missions, and they’re just good people. It’s always family there, you know? They have potlucks between two-show days that they invited our front of house team to participate in. And it’s just, it’s beautiful.
Q: Is it hard to juggle between the Mainstage and black box, with so much going on? You mentioned it’s a bit busier in the Lillie than it was last year, because Tami Dixon is back in the venue with South Side Stories Revisited.
McNEEL: You know, you can’t just put on a Mainstage production now and survive. Nobody can do that. … Prior to the pandemic, we would generate about $30,000 in rental revenue and we weren’t really advertising that you could rent the space. But then Marc came back [as artistic director], and it certainly was something I was interested in, and we kind of put our shingle out, and we more than doubled that revenue in our first year back. … Then we got support from the Benter Foundation last year, to help with a staff position. That’s Jason Clark, whose title is Operations and Revenue Manager, and … the revenue piece is all about: How do we maximize our greatest asset, which is this property? We are unique in Pittsburgh, we have this campus, but it’s underutilized in terms of pure calendar. … And now we are projecting for our budget this year, that we’ll have $150,000 in rental revenue. So in the span of three years that’s awesome growth. And it’s been great for New Horizons or Corningworks or just go down the list of other renters – we have two or three new ones that are going to be here next year. It’s another space in town for them, and I think it helps them as well, to be at City Theatre
FREELAND: Definitely. Opening up to not just the arts, but other institutions and corporations, they also like to use our space, for many reasons. And so that’s why I think it’s unique because we can serve our community, but then we can also serve other folks who may not naturally come to City Theatre. But now they’ve had a seminar here, or workshop here, and so they want to come back.
Q: I don’t think we can overemphasize that things are not back to normal after the pandemic shutdown. Partnering with other theater companies and with community organizations has always been a big part of how City operates. How does that helpe you as an organization?
McNEEL: Well, along with the possibilities of our campus, it allows us to have a larger canon of work available to us, by doing these co-productions. Those sorts of different branches of revenue are really a priority right now, as we try to claw ourselves back on ticket sales. Frankly, there are some worrying signs in terms of shifts and contributed revenue in town.
Q: Along with the City itself, almost every major foundation that supports arts and culture has had leadership changes in recent years. Mayor Gainey dissolved and then resurrected his arts council in a different structure. How do all these changes affect you?
McNEEL: The way I look at it is that, I mean, they are still very new into that role, and they replaced an administration that had a lot of continuity, that had been in that role for a very long time and had just had all the systems worked out. … And there’s a lot of issues facing the city. You know, I think obviously like every city in the country, the crime situation and the drug situation, houseless issues, I mean, those have to be a priority. It is that way for every mayor in every city in America.
So I understand how maybe the arts cannot be a priority in that moment. But I think they will get there. Right now it’s, how do you come in and deal with 20 different visions all at once? Everybody wants different things, and then you have to prioritize. That being said, I think the arts funding fight was an unforced error. And I think the council realized that a little late, but they did realize it. And it’s great that we saved a little under $2 million. $2 million is a drop in the bucket for what is needed.
Q: Getting back to what’s happening at City as the season is about to start: Next is THE BASH …
FREELAND: Yes! THE BASH, September 9th. ‘Taking it to the street’ – that’s our tagline.
Q: And now that you’ve had a few of these street parties, is anything new or different this year?
FREELAND: Last year was my first time ever going to THE BASH. I hadn’t attended the first one and then of course, the pandemic happened. And then, with me directing Clyde’s, I was really sort of hands off on a lot of the inner workings. So I literally came out of rehearsal, into a party, and I had a blast. Now, I’m not a big party goer. I’m not a big crowd person, but I had a blast. Because for me, I got to meet so many of the people who really love City Theatre, and who are here to celebrate all that we are and all that we strive to be. I had friends who were here and they said, ‘This was a cool time, this is a great event.’ And I was so proud of what the staff created as well.
Now I’m one of the people calling the shots. And so one thought that I had … we sort of had it that the VIP experience allowed you to get entertainment. I said, ‘What if we just let everyone be entertained?’ And so we’re putting the stage on the street, we’re going to have performances starting late enough in the evening to where the VIP and the general party ticket folks can come in and enjoy the same event in the same way. Now, if you want the VIP experience, you get the lounge, you get your own entertainment here, you get hors d’oeuvres and free drinks all night. And so there is a perk to becoming a VIP member. But I didn’t want it to be exclusionary. I wanted it to be inviting. So we’re just going to have a good old school cookout, music on the street, and we’re going to have themes of all of our shows throughout the entire campus, so that you can learn about the work that we’re doing.
Q: Is security for the party an issue?
McNEEL: I think it’s a very reasonable amount of security for an event of this size, and it would be the same on any street anywhere in Pittsburgh. I think what Monteze is saying, and this is what City Theatre has always done and has always been really critical, is that we are a counter narrative to what is I think sometimes a hyperbolic narrative about the South Side. That’s not to say that there aren’t issues here. But it’s just like, there are issues pretty much everywhere.
FREELAND: Not to go tangent on this, but trouble is everywhere, but Good is everywhere as well. And it really is about just staying open and aware to your surroundings. As James said, City Theatre is a safe space, not just physically, but psychologically safe. That’s what we work toward.
Q: So you’ve got THE BASH, and rehearsals for Somewhere Over the Border will be under way?
McNEEL: Brian Quijada, who’s just so dynamic, an extraordinary performer … you saw the story with him and his brother a few days ago in American Theatre Magazine, he will be here, I think, starting the second week of rehearsals through THE BASH, and then he’ll be back for the previews around opening. The director, Laura Alcalá Baker, is an extraordinary artist out of Chicago. She was down here for auditions a couple months ago and we went to a baseball game as a staff. So she’ll be here throughout, and she’s brilliant. The cast will be a nice mixture of local and national artists in that it’s got a terrific band of four local musicians, with Hugo Cruz in the pit. So it’s a really exciting team. And for us, it’s a big production. We’re talking six actors on stage, four folks in the pit – the co-production helps offset some of those costs. And then you get the word out, with CLO’s audience, which knows Brian’s work. That’s another way the co-production comes in.
Q: It is exciting to have Fat Ham coming after its Broadway success. And that also is a co-production, with TheatreSquared (Fayetteville, Arkansas).
McNEEL: When we do Fat Ham, with Monteze directing, that would get built here in Pittsburgh, and a full, normal rehearsal period, do its 3½ weeks of performances, and then we only have a one week layoff. So then we’d get the set down to Arkansas, down to TheaterSquared, and then Monteze and the cast and the key designers will all go down there.The way we’re doing Fat Ham is sort of your more ideal co-production [that the nine months between Border productions] because it’s back-to-back. It’s good for the artists. And what’s great about both of these [including Border] is that for the local Pittsburgh actors, they’re getting work outside of Pittsburgh because of these projects. That and exposure is a sort of ancillary but critical benefit.
Q: Do you have any casting to announce yet?
FREELAND: What I can say is that there are some local performers I’m very excited about, some who have not been at City Theatre for almost 20 years, and some local young artists who are coming up as well. In Fat Ham, the characters are very young, and we are working to cast inside of that space, which means providing opportunities for actors who have not had opportunities before, and also, working with an actor from the Arkansas community as well. It was important to me that it didn’t just feel like an all-Pittsburgh show moving to their region.
Q: You have a holiday show this year, which is unusual for City Theatre (since premiering the commission Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge by Christopher Durang in 2002). Why go that route now?
McNEEL: Pemberley is an all local cast, and an all local team. Kyle Hayden is directing that. For us, that’s a great partnership with Pemberley – we practically have, I think, the entire [Carnegie Mellon University] faculty and student body [laughs]. We were talking about diversifying revenue, so obviously, because I’m on the business side of it, I’m focused about rentals. But it’s even how we are programming. … And so for Pemberley, this is a big cast for us, with eight actors, and it’s us playing in the holiday slot, which is a space that we’ve not dipped our toes in, intentionally. But we felt like it’s time to see, can we put a show up that feels like City Theatre, that is on brand for us, but that can get into the mix of the quality programming that’s just so successful for other organizations in Pittsburgh. We’re taking a chance on this, but if it’s successful, what’s great about Pemberley is, there are two sequels, so we’ll know exactly what we’re doing in November and December for the next two years.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Subscription packages and single show tickets are on sale now and are available in person, over the phone, and online. For more information, cal 412-431-CITY (2489) or email BoxOffice@CityTheatreCompany.org.