- Pittsburgh in Stages: Two Hundred Years of Theater
How does a city become a theatre destination? What particular regional constellations of history, geography, funding, and demographics are necessary for a thriving theatre community to flourish? Many theatre critics have held up Seattle and Minneapolis as successful civic models to be studied and emulated. Through innovative government partnerships, local play-development programs, and architectural restoration projects, these cities have nurtured and sustained their resident theatre artists and organizations. But in her new theatre history, Lynne Conner asks readers, “What about Pittsburgh?” Pittsburgh in Stages: Two Hundred Years of Theater traces two centuries of largely forgotten performance activity in a city that is usually only associated with steel mills and sports teams. Even Pittsburgh residents (like myself) who can attest to the current vibrancy of the local theatre scene will be surprised to learn how much drama was being staged here long before Andy Warhol and August Wilson put Steel City on the national cultural map. [End Page 128]
Conner’s detailed history is organized into ten chronological chapters that emphasize the changing role the theatre has played within the larger context of Pittsburgh’s cultural and economic development. Starting in 1790, this study positions theatre as the cultural lens through which the author investigates trends in local immigration, labor, industry, and social and religious practice. In order to demonstrate the ebb and flow of the financial commitment of patrons, philanthropists, and city agencies, the book draws mainly on period newspapers and economic histories. Although initially inspired by her research as the resident playwright at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, Conner’s work also relies on playbills and business records from a number of archives, such as the impressive Curtis Theatre Collection at the University of Pittsburgh. As a whole, this study does not just tell the story of Pittsburgh’s evolving theater community, it also reveals how the city’s persistent struggle for self-definition has played out on its stages over the last 200 years. “Indeed, the story of Pittsburgh’s theater industry is really the story of the city itself—a tale of community activity, investment, and identity that closely reflects the evolution of a frontier village into one of the United States’ major metropolitan areas” (xi).
Since Pittsburgh’s earliest theatre ventures, this paradoxical city has struggled to define itself both in contrast to and in imitation of that famous behemoth of theatrical talent and productivity that is New York City. In her first two chapters on “Theater as Community Life” and “Theater as Community Investment,” Conner illustrates the changes that led Pittsburgh to shift “from an outpost for soldiers and traders to a destination for immigrants, land settlers, and entrepreneurs” (20). She notes that one early sign of local interest in professional theatre was the construction of its first permanent, free-standing playhouse in 1813—a full three years before the act of incorporation that chartered Pittsburgh as an official city in 1816. Pittsburgh quickly became a training ground for young theatre professionals, as well as a testing site for traveling companies bound for Broadway. In 1822, a young Edwin Forrest wrote home about his company’s travels in western Pennsylvania: “I am much pleased with this place and its inhabitants, [it] is a sort of London in miniature, very black and smoky. . . . The theater is very old” (15). But despite the city’s ability to attract notable touring acts, Conner points out that Pittsburghers themselves could not agree on whether a thriving theatre industry was an indicator of high culture and refinement or a bastion of moral depravity. This tension was just one of the many socioeconomic factors that contributed to the theatre’s unstable position in the region’s cultural landscape.
As Conner’s study moves from the nineteenth century to the early twentieth, readers get a richer sense of Pittsburgh’s diverse theatre audiences. With increasing class stratification and racial and ethnic communities becoming more clearly defined, playhouse managers developed new strategies to increase attendance...