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Staging ground: Pittsburgh acting studio creates new theater troupe

Three people sit on a couch with the middle person holding their head in their hands.
Pittsburgh Performance Photography
Ensemble Actors Theater
Left to right: Joseph Martinez, Jordan Moore and Jaime Slavinsky star in "Secret Hour," at Ensemble Actors Theater.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

Alongside the Three Rivers Arts Festival, Pittsburgh Pride and everything else going on this week, Pittsburgh is getting a new stage troupe. And it’s the result of one local theater veteran’s passion for teaching acting.

The company is Ensemble Actors Theater, which will stage the Pittsburgh premiere of Jenny Stafford’s 2023 comedic drama “Secret Hour” Fri., May 31, through Sat., June 8. Ensemble is an outgrowth of Ensemble Actors Studio, founded by actor and educator Jaime Slavinsky.

Slavinsky, who grew up in McKees Rocks, graduated from Point Park University’s Conservatory of Performing Arts and found work on local stages. In 2011, she founded Organic Theater Pittsburgh; the troupe’s debut production — Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” with Slavinsky in the lead role — made a splash.

Organic was active only a couple of years, but Slavinsky continued acting — she starred in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s 2021 outdoor “Barefoot in the Park” — even as she got more into teaching the craft, with gigs at Donna Belajac Casting and local studios, schools and theaters including North Side Urban Pathways Charter School and Little Lake Theater.

“I absolutely fell in love with it,” she says.

The next step, launching her own studio, came when she found affordable rental space in her old hometown, McKees Rocks. “This is going to be my only chance to do this, ever,” she recalls thinking.

Since opening in February 2023, Ensemble has hosted night and weekend classes and workshops for more than 150 adult actors. They’ve ranged from beginners — the most popular class is Acting 101 — to pros, and in age “from 18 to 80,” says Slavinsky.

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Slavinsky, who’s also trained at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company and London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, is a big proponent of lifelong learning for actors. But classroom work gets you only so far. As she puts it, “You have to get up there.”

Ensemble Actors Theater is, in part, a means to give students that opportunity.

“Secret Hour” stars Slavinsky as Kate, a professor of ethics who requires that her students never lie to her, and whose marriage takes a turn after she and her husband create a game in which they reveal to each other secrets about themselves. Joseph Martinez portrays the husband, while the play’s other two roles go to Ensemble students Jordan Moore and Ovis Mangum. (In an invitation-only showing, the main roles in selected scenes will be performed by understudies.)

The director is Chris Clavelli, a New Castle native who’s made a name on the regional theater circuit. It was Clavelli who tipped Slavinsky to the play, which Albany, N.Y.’s Capital Repertory Theatre world-premiered as the winner of its Next Act! New Play Summit. (Clavelli directed a production in Maine in March.)

Slavinsky describes “Secret Hour” as confronting “real things that real people go through.” It’s being staged at Lawrenceville’s Javo Studios.

And yes, Slavinsky is well aware that a world where audiences for most performing arts groups remain notably below pre-pandemic levels might challenge a fledgling troupe. With no more than 40 seats available per performance of “Secret Hour,” even six sellouts wouldn’t mean a break-even box office.

Of course, that’s par for the course for performing arts groups of all sizes, who rely heavily on grants and individual donations to keep afloat. Still, Slavinsky is looking for Ensemble to stage two shows a year, probably contemporary work, and to build a track record with which to court funders. Meanwhile, she says, she’ll push forward with the mantra that has sustained so many artists over the years.

“There’s something about the work that we do,” she says. “You just can’t not do it.”

More information about “Secret Hour” is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: