Ted Pappas of Pittsburgh Public Theater. Photo by Brian Cohen.

“Sometimes, for some occasions you need to throw a big party, invite a lot of people… and feed them,” grins Ted Pappas, artistic director for Pittsburgh Public Theater. Even though the Public is celebrating a milestone—its 40th anniversary year which kicks off in October—Pappas isn’t talking about an event per se. Rather, it’s an entire season of celebration that will push the range of the company and feed the more curious side of the region’s theater goers.

The anniversary season he’s assembled is designed to show off what the Public Theater does best, a mix of genres. Billed as “The Season of Legends,” the schedule features an American classic, a musical, a Shakespearean work, a world premiere and a show that drew rave reviews in New York. Pappas knows that it’s an ambitious undertaking, particularly when most theater companies stay within a more limited sweet spot. Anniversary years offer opportunities to celebrate—and to stretch.

Nattily attired in a checkered blue sports coat and color-coordinated sneakers, Pappas sat down to offer this preview. “I don’t know that we could think of a way to start with a production that would say, ‘happy birthday’ better than The Glass Menagerie,” he notes. “Not only was it the very first play that the Public produced, but it’s certainly one of America’s greatest plays.”

Following Tennessee William’s classic, comes a world premiere, L’Hotel, which fits into the theme of Legends. “You have figures like Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and Sarah Bernhardt coming together in a strange Parisian hotel,” Pappas explains. “It’s a timely comedy with an underlying theme that deals with what is art and how important is fame?”

Ted Pappas photo by Brian Cohen

In January, the stage shifts to a musical, with My Fair Lady. “One of the hallmarks of the Public is our range, and it’s here with this big musical, one of the best known musicals, in fact,” Pappas says. The show enjoyed a revival last year on Broadway.

Revival is a theme that draws a parallel to the Public’s founding. Forty years ago, there wasn’t a vibrant theater scene in Pittsburgh. The city had been a must-stop on the pre-Broadway circuit. But a dry spell combined with a lack of a suitable venue with the loss of the Nixon Theatre chipped away at its ranking as a center for theater. Into that void stepped Joan Apt, Margaret Riek and Ben Shaktman, who founded the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Their timing was good as regional leaders were beginning to realize the potential the arts had for revitalizing a city. In its inaugural season, the Public staged three plays The Glass Menagerie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Twelfth Night.

Pappas is mindful of that history. He started staging productions for the company 21 years ago and came aboard as artistic director in 2000. In that time, he’s seen Pittsburgh’s theater scene blossom. “It’s night and day,” he says, adding, “One of the reasons we’re able to do these big productions is because there is this incredible talent pool here in Pittsburgh. You can actually make a living here as an actor.” He traces that not only to the Public but to the quality of the city’s other theater companies.

Time to party! Photo by Brian Cohen

Another key to Pittsburgh’s theatrical renaissance was the emergence of perhaps its most important local talent—playwright August Wilson, who has long been associated with the Public. In fact, the company opened its home, The O’Reilly Theater, in 1999 with a production of Wilson’s King Hedley II. “It was essential in this season that we would have a Wilson play,” Pappas says. “He was with us from the beginning when he moved from being a poet to being America’s best playwright of his generation.”

The Public will be offering Wilson fans a rare treat. How I Learned What I Learned was Wilson’s last play, a one-man show that punctuates his Pittsburgh series. The play covers his emergence as a struggling writer in the Hill District and how the people around him inspired the vivid characters in his plays. “He was supposed to perform this play at the Public, but unfortunately he died far too young,” Pappas says. “We’re fortunate to be able to present this play since its rights are not being granted elsewhere. It’s a great finale to the Pittsburgh cycle and I think the audience will find it profoundly interesting. It’s funny, sassy and angry. It matters.”

From Wilson, the Public moves to Shakespeare, with a production of Othello. Classical theater is a passion of Pappas’, and he directs this production. He sees making the classics relevant to contemporary artists one of the most difficult and rewarding challenges for a director.

The season closes with a play that was a hot ticket on Broadway last year and once again focuses on the theme of legends, this time in the form of Barbra Streisand. Buyer & Seller is a fictional account of a store housed in Babs’ basement where the only customer is Babs herself. “I went to see it in New York and I had a tough time getting a ticket,” Pappas says. “I thought after a year I’d be able to get front row center but I was lucky to get a seat. And after a few minutes I thought, ‘I have to get this play here.’ Luckily, I knew somebody who knew somebody.”

Reflecting on his upcoming season, Pappas says he’s happy not to have played it safe and ultimately its success will be judged on a number of levels. “Are we proud and happy with the quality of the productions?” he asks. “Did we do on stage what we set out to do? Were we true to the heartbeat of the playwrights?”

A secondary aspect is box office. “Will people attend the plays?” he asks. “Will Shakespeare play well? Will there be crossover?”

Ted Pappas ready for the 40th season at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Photo by Brian Cohen.

And finally, there is the direct contact he receives from patrons—even when he’s grocery shopping at his local Giant Eagle. That’s the great thing about Pittsburgh and its theater community he says. There’s a sense of approachability between artist and playgoer. Some of the most meaningful feedback he receives is in the lobby of the O’Reilly where would be critics are not shy about offering their opinions.

Again, Pappas points out the challenges this season brings to set directors, actors and musicians. He’s confident that both his company and Pittsburgh is up to the challenge. “We’re a major theater town now, one of the best,” he says. “We produce great performers—Wilson, Gene Kelly—pure geniuses. And go to a performance in New York and you’ll see in the programs that this person is from Carnegie Mellon and this person is from Point Park.”

Taking a breath, the energetic 61-year-old Pappas offers this final sentiment. “If you ask what I’m hoping for from the season,” he pauses, “Lightning and awe.”

Join the party! The Pittsburgh Public Theater is hosting a happy hour to preview the upcoming season. Artistic director Ted Pappas will offer a sneak peak of the shows. In addition to cocktails and live music from vocalist Tania Grubbs, attendees can enter win pre-show dining for a year and can buy discount subscription packages. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the box office, online at ppt.org or by calling 412-316-1600.

Wednesday, August 27 at Downtown’s O’Reilly Theater.
6 to 8:30 pm.

Chris Fletcher

Chris Fletcher is the former publisher and editor of Pittsburgh magazine and the co-author of The Steel City 500 and Steel City Gridirons. He lives in Forest Hills and writes about all things Pittsburgh.