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City Theatre's Marc Masterson reflects on a half-century of Pittsburgh theater

Marc Masterson is retiring after his second stint at City Theatre.
Michael Cannon Photography
Courtesy City Theatre
Marc Masterson is retiring after his second stint at City Theatre.

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If you want the long view on Pittsburgh’s theater scene — some 50 years’ worth — you could do worse than talking to Marc Masterson, who this week retires as co-artistic director at City Theatre.

Masterson, a native Texan, came to Carnegie Mellon University to study theater in 1974 and quickly became part of the local stage community. One troupe he followed was the City Players, founded in 1975 to stage free shows in local schools, parks and housing projects. As incredible as it might seem today, the funding came from federal tax dollars.

Masterson knew many of the CMU students, former students and professors who worked with City, but wasn’t involved with the company himself until 1980, when it hired him as artistic director. He remained in that role for 20 years, overseeing the company’s growth and its move, in 1991, from a University of Pittsburgh building in Oakland to its current home in a former church on the South Side.

In 2000, Masterson left town to become artistic director at the prestigious Actors Theatre of Louisville. A stint at California’s South Coast Repertory followed before — perhaps a bit improbably — he returned to City Theatre in 2018.

Masterson recalls the ’70s as a time of big changes in theater here. Pittsburgh, Masterson says, was seeing its share of a new wave of theater companies that produced their own seasons rather than hosting touring productions, and that did cutting-edge work.

“They were all kind of struggling, hand-to-mouth, let’s-get-together-and-do-a-show kind of operations,” he says. He cites adventuresome outfits like Pittsburgh Laboratory Theatre.

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Across the country, the drive to bring new and classic (i.e., non-Broadway) plays to audiences was growing: Masterson’s future employers, Actors Theatre of Louisville and South Coast Rep, were both launched a decade earlier. And Pittsburgh Public Theater staged its own first show within months of the City Players’.

Masterson’s early years at City included productions of plays by the groundbreaking likes of Sam Shepard (“Fool for Love”), David Mamet (“Sexual Perversity in Chicago”) and Arthur Kopit (“Wings”). His artistic collaborators included scenic designer Tony Ferrieri and actors Larry John Meyers and Holly Thuma.

Another highlight of the era was seeing the premiere production of a play by a then-unknown former Pittsburgh resident named August Wilson. Masterson was there when Allegheny Repertory Theatre staged “Jitney” in a space near Carlow College in 1982.

For its part, City Theatre shared the city-owned North Side venue now known as the New Hazlett Theater with the Public before moving to a 115-seat space in Oakland.

For a time, City earned revenue by supplementing its mainstage shows with performances in schools. As the federal dollars that launched it dried up, Masterson began courting funders. In the shadow of the faster-growing, better-capitalized Pittsburgh Public, it was rough going. Potential donors would challenge him, “We already have a professional theater, why do we need another one?”

Still, by the end of the ’80s, City was well-enough established to raise the $2.5 million it needed to buy and renovate its larger new home, on the South Side. (Old-timers will recall that before it became a citywide nightlife magnet, the South Side was a burgeoning artsy neighborhood, with rents affordable for artists.)

Masterson also advocated for the arts here more generally, co-founding the group now known as the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and joining the successful push for the then-new Allegheny Regional Asset District to fund not just the county’s largest arts groups, but smaller ones too.

Back in town after his turns in Kentucky and California, he found Pittsburgh’s theater scene in some ways similar to the one he’d left, and in other ways different.

One theater troupe still making its name when he departed, Quantum Theatre, had become one of the city’s signature companies. (Artistic director Karla Boos founded Quantum in 1990, and in its early years worked a day job as City’s development director.) And two groups that hadn’t even existed when Masterson left town, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. and barebones productions, were also now keystones of the scene.

City Theatre, meanwhile, had sharpened its focus on staging Pittsburgh premieres. Under the co-artistic leadership of Masterson, Clare Drobot and Monteze Freeland, the company weathered the pandemic in part by staging an innovative live outdoor, performance festival in September 2020.

Four years later, and despite the box-office success of productions like James Ijames’ Pulitzer-winning “Fat Ham,” City Theatre, like most other troupes, is still struggling with long-term trends that the pandemic only worsened, like the aging of the audience and changing philanthropic patterns.

Masterson’s last day on the job is this Friday. After doing some traveling, he plans to remain in Pittsburgh. In March, he’ll direct Noah Haidle’s comedy “Birthday Candles” for City. So he’s likely to be around for whatever’s next on the scene he did so much to build.

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: