PITTSBURGH: The Steel City is filled with year-round activities for football fans and culture enthusiasts alike. There are three rivers that offer cruises and waterfront biking trails, and countless entertainment offerings. “Through the Cultural Trust and having the legacy of Andrew Carnegie, August Wilson, as well as the Hillman, Heinz, and Mellon families, there is a wide range of theatres, museums, and concerts,” says Wayne Brinda, co-founder and producing artistic director of Prime Stage Theatre.
American Theatre caught up with Brinda via email to learn more about producing theatre in Western P.A.
Who founded Prime Stage Theatre, when, and why?
In 1996, I co-founded Prime Stage with my wife, Connie Brinda, to fill a regional niche by bridging the gap between children’s theatre and adult theatre. The company and its mission were designed to entertain, educate, and engage audiences by bringing literature to life. The company’s goal is to produce theatre experiences for middle and secondary students, educators, families, and adults by bringing literature and topics addressed in the curriculum to the stage.
Tell us more about yourself.
It has been, and continues to be, quite an amazing journey. I’ve been a Secondary English teacher, have taught actors of all ages, directed numerous productions, and have led several local theatre companies since 1976—including the Pittsburgh Playhouse Jr. in its transition from producing fairy tales to presenting works of literature. After earning my Masters in Theatre from Penn State University, my wife and I co-founded Prime Stage, now in its 23rd season.
With the company’s strong education mission, it was imperative to learn all I could about education, pedagogy, and best practices by earning a terminal degree in education. This led me to the Ed.D. from Duquesne University in Educational Leadership. Currently, in addition to my role at Prime Stage, I am coordinator of Secondary Education at the Bradford, Pa., campus of the University of Pittsburgh, which connects me very closely to the challenges and strategies of teachers and their students in suburban, urban, and rural schools. This ensures that the productions and programs meet the interests and needs of both educators and students.
What sets your theatre apart from others in your region?
Prime Stage does more than produce plays. We present programs that blend education, literacy, and theatre. Prime Stage is the only theatre company in Western Pennsylvania that exclusively produces professionally staged adaptations of classic and contemporary literature, as well as topics drawn from the curriculum of middle and secondary schools.
To expand the theatre experience, we offer a number of educational related programs—at the theatre, in schools and at community locations—that enhance understanding of story themes and provide forums for in-depth discussions about the works. Audience discussions feature notable individuals connected to the works we present to enrich the experience. Recent guests have included Richard Blair, son of George Orwell (1984); author Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower); Academy Award-nominee Mary Badham (actor in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird); members of Maya Angelou’s (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) family, and Minou Mirabal, the daughter of Minerva Mirabal, who was one of the “Butterflies” in Julia Alvarez’s historical novel, as we presented the regional premiere of In the Time of the Butterflies.
What are the challenges of producing theatre in Pittsburgh?
Prime Stage serves two audiences: a diverse public audience and a range of schools. With Pittsburgh being a city of diverse ethnicities and cultures, we must attract and serve all audiences, including those with visual, hearing, and sensory challenges. In addition to the older age bracket in our region, there is an increased population of 25- to 34-year-old professionals; we must create experiences that appeal to their interests as well. Pittsburgh audiences tend to love musicals and shows with familiar titles, so there is also the challenge of producing and attracting audiences to new non-musical works and regional premieres. We are grateful for the support of local foundations and corporations that help sustain theatre and the arts in our region.
Tell us about your favorite theatre institution other than your own, and why you admire it.
My favorite theatre company is Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. In addition to the consistent quality of their work, the innovative ways in which they identify, build, and serve their audiences with productions and programs have long been a source of inspiration for me personally, and for Prime Stage. Steppenwolf’s education programs, and the range of programs for the youth of Chicago, are quite impressive in how they reach and inspire young people to discover, guide, and participate in theatre.
How do you pick the plays you put on your stage?
A key part of how the plays are chosen is the information we continually gather from teachers on our Teacher Advisory Committee, and other educators we have a relationship with. They share what they are using in their curriculum, what their students are reading, and what topics are trending or being addressed. Continual searching and networking with national and international theatres also helps discover what plays are being successfully produced that meet our mission and vision. I bring those titles to our Teacher Advisory Committee, who then discuss the potential for attracting audiences and the quality of the adaptation.
The suggestions are also discussed with our production manager and operations director, who look at the budgetary and production needs. Then the titles are presented to our board of directors, who make the final approval or suggest the search continues for other scripts. Part of the process is exploring the potential for working with local partners, serving our current and building new audiences, and providing enrichment programs. About every two to three years, we commission a new work which provides opportunities for playwrights and our artists, as well as for other theatres. To date we have produced about 20 regional premieres and 14 world premieres, three of which have been published.
What’s your annual budget, and how many artists do you employ each season?
The Prime Stage annual budget is $245,000. We employ 16 designers and members of the production staff each year. The administrative staff includes one full-time and 12 part-time employees, as well as two college interns—one in the education program and one with marketing. We contract about 30 actors depending on the scripts, and have a Pittsburgh Guest Artist Equity Contract to contract 1-2 Equity actors each season.
What show are you working on now? Anything else in your season that you’re especially looking forward to?
Twelfth Night just closed our 2018-19 season, which also included Of Mice and Men and the regional premiere of In the Time of the Butterflies, presented as part of the NEA Big Read Program. Next season we look forward to working with local organizations that address autism spectrum disorder as we produce the regional premiere of a play on the topic of autism, which will be directed by Steven Wilson. The project will include special events with members of the autistic community, educators, and families. We are also excited about expanding our accessibility programs. Sensory-friendly performances, which we have presented annually, will be offered for every production beginning in the 2019-20 season.
Strangest or funniest thing you’ve ever seen (or put) on your stage?
During a Of Mice and Men performance, the dog decided to improvise his blocking and play with the men in the bunkhouse. The audience loved watching how the dog became the star of this scene. At the curtain call, when the dog came out, the audience gave him a standing ovation.
What are you doing when you’re not doing theatre?
I enjoy reading fantasy novels and true stories about people. I also enjoy walking and exploring historical places where they let you go at your own pace. One amazing opportunity was visiting the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site preserved home in Philadelphia. You can let your imagination go as the rooms seem to share the background of his stories. Currently, I teach future teachers how to develop their students to be creative thinkers.
What does theatre—not just your theatre, but the American or world theatre—look like in, say, 20 years?
Theatre must use opportunities to bring adolescents, educators, and young people to theatre experiences that are rewarding, enjoyable, and uniquely special. We must provide ways for them to not only watch theatre, but participate in the creative process, understand how the process can meet their needs and interests, and how the theatre can become an important part of their cultural and learning lives. What are they reading? What are they not reading that they can discover? What are they getting from current sources of entertainment and pedagogy that can be realized in more effective, exciting, and aesthetic ways using theatre? This is what theatre should look like and can look like in 20 years as it remains relevant for another thousand years.