Curtain Rises On Downtown's New Pittsburgh Playhouse

Oct 22, 2018

Visitors to Point Park University’s new Pittsburgh Playhouse, Downtown, are likely to be impressed. Visitors also familiar with the old Pittsburgh Playhouse, in Oakland, might well be wowed by the upgrade.

But if you want to hear from someone uniquely excited about the school's $60 million complex – which hosts its first production starting this week – ask Kim Martin.

Martin is not just a theater-lover. As Point Park’s producing director, she oversees the nuts and bolts -- and lumber and paint and costumes – of building shows for Point Park’s professional and student companies.

Martin was intimately familiar with the old Playhouse, starting with her days as an undergraduate Point Park theater student there in the 1980s. The building was steeped in lore, from ghost stories to performances by the likes of locally born future Hollywood stars Shirley Jones and Gene Kelly. But the venerable facility was a hodgepodge of three old buildings cobbled together and retrofitted over a few decades, starting in 1934. One was a synagogue, another a house, another an old German social hall, none originally built for theater. And with a leaky roof, an ancient boiler, and one of the nation’s last surviving rigging systems to employ manually hoisted sandbags, the Playhouse was a challenge to actually make theater in.

So Martin, who worked at the old Playhouse for years, is thrilled with all three live-theater spaces at the new Playhouse, with their state-of-the-art tech, including a modern counterweighting system for stage rigging.

“What used to take hours will take minutes,” Martin said.

Among other features, the 550-seat main-stage PNC Theatre boasts an unusual asymmetrical layout, with more seats on one side of the stage, and a balcony on the other.

“There’s not a bad seat in the house,” says Martin. “It’s so open, yet so inviting. So intimate.”

But on a behind-the-scenes press tour in September, Martin revealed what gets her most emotional about the new Playhouse.

“This is the thing that made me cry: our indoor loading dock,” she said. “The wood won’t warp in the rain before we get it inside.”

She also loves the big loading dock that means crew members will no longer have to take set pieces apart to get them inside. And the centralized wig, hair and makeup room that allows performers to come to crew in charge of those disciplines, instead of the other way around.

The main-stage theater is the largest new performance space downtown in nearly a decade. It’s just one highlight of the newly built, 90,000-square-foot structure on Forbes Avenue. The building has a three-story lobby and a grand staircase, and -- in addition to those two other theater spaces -- Downtown’s only full-scale soundstage, classrooms and rehearsal rooms.

The complex also includes brand-new facilities for scene-painting, props and costumes. Most of the spaces are visible either from the street – through plate-glass windows – or from publicly accessible spaces inside the building, so visitors can see where the work gets done.

While most visitors to the Playhouse might be audiences for live performance, there’s more to the complex. The new building connects on all three stories to several older buildings Point Park owns on the block, bounded by Forbes, Fourth Avenue and Wood Street. (The complex has long housed the school’s library, for instance.)

Point Park President Paul Hennigan says the new facility centralizes all phases of creation and production for students in film, TV and performance in “an entertainment-management center.”

“The Playhouse is the laboratory,” he said at the September tour, standing alongside a table-top scale model of the complex. “This is where it can all take place.”

Complementing the main stage are two black-box theaters – empty spaces, with walls and ceilings painted black – that can be reconfigured for any type of stage and seating arrangement. One of the black-box theaters seats up to 99, the other up to 200; both double as sound stages, the latter with a garage-style door that opens onto the Forbes Avenue sidewalk for other types of events.

As a whole, the new complex further expands Point Park’s footprint downtown. Located a few blocks south of the established Cultural District, it also broadens the arts’ presence in the neighborhood.

“Instead of now just having the Cultural District, there’s entertainment throughout downtown Pittsburgh now. And we think that’s a great thing for Downtown,” said Hennigan.

The first full production at the new Playhouse is a staging of the classic musical Cabaret by Point Park’s Conservatory Theatre Company. The production, which opens Thursday, is already sold out. Altogether, the complex will host 14 live productions this season, said Hennigan, including shows by the school’s professional theater company, The REP, and its nationally ranked Conservatory Dance Company.

With all that’s new at the Playhouse, some historic elements remain. For instance, the building’s exterior incorporates the salvaged and reconstructed terra cotta facades of three 100-year-old buildings on Forbes that were demolished to make way for the structure. Point Park also restored the stained-glass ceiling in the old Stock Exchange Building, one of the existing structures that connects to the new complex.

There are even artifacts from the old Playhouse. Martin, the producing director, says seven upright pianos (which get workouts during rehearsals for musicals) made the trip downtown. So did most of the decades’-worth of props and costumes from the old Playhouse’s cavernous basement.

Other staffers share Martin’s enthusiasm about the new digs. “It’s very exciting,” said Katie Colwell, the Playhouse’s event technical coordinator, and a 2016 Point Park graduate. “I don’t think many technicians get this opportunity [to work in a new facility], because it doesn’t happen very often.”