Mark Clayton Southers is a multi-hyphenate artist — actor, playwright, director, theater manager and founder of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

In his two-decade journey in the theater world, Southers, 60, has also been his theater company’s chief carpenter, electrician and primary set builder, a skill set acquired from decades as a steelworker.

His 12-year side gig as a photographer for the New Pittsburgh Courier and Kuntu Repertory Theatre in the 1980s and ‘90s taught him the importance of hype, which came in handy when he began building his own theater company and producing his own plays in the early aughts.

With the recent purchase of the 120-year-old Madison Elementary School in the Upper Hill neighborhood called “Sugar Top,” one of the highest points in the city, Southers can add another hyphen to his resume — theater owner.

Last week, Southers and his chocolate Lab Mama Cocoa gave me a tour of the school that graduated its last pupils 16 years ago and has sat empty ever since.

“I didn’t even have to do a walk-through,” he said when the possibility of buying the school was presented to him. He jumped at the opportunity despite its daunting price — nearly $400,000.

“I already knew [the school] because I was here from kindergarten through 7th grade,” says Southers. “I spent half of my young life at this school, so I knew it inside out.”

Madison Elementary School in the Upper Hill’s Sugar Top neighborhood. Photo by Tony Norman.
Madison Elementary School in the Upper Hill’s Sugar Top neighborhood. Photo by Tony Norman.

After a year of negotiating and inspections, Southers cashed out his steelworkers pension to buy the school outright from the Schenley Heights Community Development group. The deal closed in July.

Visibly limping from an auto accident that nearly killed him seven years ago, Southers radiates joy as he shares his plans for building a multi-purpose performance center with theater arts as its focus.

“Now that we have a building with classrooms, we can really get down,” he says. “We’re going to have two theater spaces — a main stage downstairs and a black box theater on the second floor. We might even build a cabaret space in our lobby, but that’s down the road.”

Southers says one of his highest priorities is to build classroom-level training facilities for aspiring professionals who will work behind the scenes. A grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to teach young people in the community skills like lighting, sound design, scenic design, carpentry, fight choreography, stage management, props and makeup has helped immensely.

“It will be an opportunity for [trainees] to work side-by-side with professionals hired for the show,  so they’ll have hands-on experience.”

Southers has also opened his enormous space to painters and other visual artists who will occupy classrooms that will be converted into work studios. They will also have access to a gallery Southers is building.

Southers entering the stage at the old Madison Elementary School. Photo by Tony Norman.

As we walked through hallways stacked with seemingly endless aisles of desks and other old furniture, there was no hint of buyer’s remorse — only upbeat scenarios of what will unfold once the first production at Madison Elementary is staged in spring 2023.

The first play will be a staging of “Blue Grass Mile,” which Southers wrote to explore the tremendous accomplishments of America’s first celebrated athletes in the 19th century — Black horse racing jockeys. “Blue Grass Mile” is the seventh entry in Southers’ 19th-century cycle of plays. There are three more on the horizon.

Asked if he aspired to pursue a Broadway trajectory similar to that of his mentor, August Wilson, Southers is pensive.

“There’s a misconception that Broadway is the holy grail of theater,” he says. “I don’t agree with that at all. The highest point in theater is where I’m at: Being my own boss, making my own calls, my own decisions, writing my own material. I see ownership as being the highest point.”

“Once I started my own theater, I found a change in my writing. I didn’t have to worry about whether someone would like it enough or not to produce it. I was able to give myself the green light.”

Dear readers: I hope you’re enjoying the change of pace in my weekly column in NEXTpittsburgh as much as I am. I’m also working on a new podcast with my friend and fellow journalist Natalie Bencivenga. In Other News will launch in early 2023! Stay tuned!

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.