In the Spotlight / Forward motion helps arts nonprofit thrive

Producing artistic director credits dedicated board in nonprofit City Theatre's journey through rough patch to financial stability


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Tracy Brigden's office has a comfortable, shabby-chic look, a workspace punctuated by personal and theatrical mementos and cushioned spots for spending time with a pile of scripts.

The producing artistic director of City Theatre began her Pittsburgh journey in 2001, replacing 20-year leader Marc Masterson after his move to Actors Theatre of Louisville. She had been at Hartford Stage and the Manhattan Theatre Club, and came with a dedication to commissioning, developing and nurturing new works. She created the annual Momentum Festival of new plays, which has featured readings, workshops, panels and conversation between the audience and creative team.

"One thing that's remarkable to me -- and when I talk to colleagues around the country it is remarkable to them as well -- is that we have a community and this company has a board of directors that is so 100 percent supportive of the mission of this theater, which is to produce new work," she said.

"I have never had a moment in 12 years when anyone has questioned that mission. So I feel like I've been so lucky that I've been allowed to dream to my heart's content in terms of what's onstage."

Ms. Brigden, 48, has settled in not only to the job but to the area. She was married over the summer and with husband Michael DelGaudio and his two children, she now is a homeowner in Mt. Lebanon.

She said she often hears that people expect her to leave, perhaps knowing she has had offers from other companies. "I have no intention of leaving, and Michael and I decided we wanted the kids to go to school here. That's not to say I wouldn't consider it if I got a call from Lincoln Center, but this is where I want to be."

The company is on a forward-looking path these days.

The 2013-14 season began March 9 with the new work "Breath & Imagination," a world premiere co-produced with Hartford Stage. The play by Daniel Beaty tells the story of Roland Hayes, the first African-American classical vocalist to tour the world. In February, a City Theatre-commissioned play about the life of actress Judy Holliday had a New York reading with Tony winner Katie Finneran.

As bright as the future looks today, the path is never easy for a nonprofit theater company. That point hit home in 2008, when City Theatre had to tighten its belt to survive.

With the nation's economy crumbling and money for the arts drying up, programs, productions and staff were cut, and there were across-the-board pay cuts as well.

The company had been at the start of fund-raising to refurbish its facility, the former Bingham United Methodist Church at 1300 Bingham St., South Side. It had been there since 1991 and updating the Mainstage Theatre has been a goal of Ms. Brigden's since her arrival in 2001, but that was put on hold.

"We cut some things that were incredibly close to my heart, like the Momentum Festival, that to me were very integral to how we make our plays." The beginnings of a capital campaign to improve facilities also stalled.

"We had to just call a halt to that and stop all plans and just do whatever we could to save every penny to survive. I'm incredibly grateful that many things conspired to get us where we are today, which is back on track."

A private donation to the Artistic Excellence Fund allowed the company to elevate production budgets and bring back the Momentum Festival in 2010. With help from the Heinz Endowments, City Theatre also was able to pay off some loans and the mortgage.

The initial stages of a capital campaign to raise $6 million are under way. While improvements to the spacious lobby are still on City's wish list, the courtyard connector between the 254-seat Mainstage Theatre and the intimate Hamburg Theatre was given a makeover three years ago, courtesy of PPG.

"We are a debt-free organization at this point and we have what I would consider to be a very hearty financial stability," Ms. Brigden said. "And of course, the economy turned up a bit, which allowed people to feel they could spend whatever little bit of their hard-earned money on theater."

The operating budget this year is $2.7 million, with earned revenue accounting for 40 percent and contributions at 60 percent. These ratios are in line with other new-works companies such as the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., says City's managing director Mark Powers.

"Our board is very supportive and very connected to the mission," said Mr. Powers, who was hired when Greg Quinlan was let go in 2010. Mr. Powers had held the same position at Pittsburgh Public Theater. He also had been a marketing consultant for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and a City board member.

"The reason we have 45 people on this board is they like new work and they invest in it with us, financially as well as rolling up their sleeves, participating as a marketing task force. They really get involved in championing our shows."

Supporting plays and musicals that have not withstood the test of Broadway takes a leap of faith for audiences. An example is the wildly imaginative "Monster in the Hall," which Ms. Brigden directed last season. "Monster" featured new music, projections and a feisty teenage heroine who supplements her sometimes grim reality with an active fantasy life.

"My taste is a little bit populist in that I prefer a well-made story to something far more abstract," she said. "Although we have several plays each season that I think push the envelope, perhaps my taste and the idea of new work has allowed for us to have a slightly more balanced trajectory."

When she wasn't going about City's business and becoming a newlywed last summer, Ms. Brigden was stretching her wings and directing the musical "Next to Normal" for the Hanger Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y.

"What's important about [working at other theaters] is the same reason I think it's good for our local artists to work alongside people from other places, which is why I bring in actors, designers and directors. It reinvigorates and revitalizes and gives new ideas.

"When I go to other companies, I get challenged in different ways. I get to think just as an artist and not a producer, but I learn new things. I steal good ideas and when I go to a company that doesn't do it as well, then I feel better about what we're doing."

In 2010, she accepted an invitation from Ted Pappas, her counterpart at Pittsburgh Public Theater, to cross the river from the South Side to Downtown and direct Arthur Miller's "The Price."

"A big part of my job is matching directors to plays," Mr. Pappas said at the time. "She's a wonderful fit with a natural affinity for American realism. My decision was confirmed over and over again. She pounced on the project with strong ideas ... Through her I met some new actors, new ideas and connections."

Mr. Pappas invited her back to direct "Good People" in its local premiere this season at the Public, but colleagues are not always so welcoming, Ms. Brigden admitted.

Sexism and lack of diversity in the theater world drew national attention last year when the prominent Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis announced a season that had no female playwrights and one female co-director.

In an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Guthrie leader Joe Dowling and Lisa Channer, artistic director of Theatre Novi Most and a professor of directing at the University of Minnesota, agreed on one thing -- the dearth of women directors. Ms. Channer cited studies showing that 20 percent of plays in the regional theater system are directed by women, while 70 percent of theater tickets are bought by women. Broadway and commercial theaters are even tighter, she said.

"Everyone thinks the arts are so open and liberal, but I'd be lying if I said I haven't experienced forms of sexism my entire career," Ms. Brigden said. "One of the benefits of running my own company is that I get to direct what I want to direct when I want to direct it for the most part.

"There is still a world out there that thinks woman should direct plays by and about women -- even though a man can direct anything, a woman can only direct what she knows -- or that women aren't capable of being at the helm of a large production that involves a lot of money. No one would ever say that out loud, but I think the thought is there."

Back at home, the 38-year-old City Theatre marches to Ms. Brigden's programming beat.

In recent years, that has meant developing or commissioning a variety of works, several with a local twist. Those include Tami Dixon's solo "South Side Stories," "POP!," a musical about Andy Warhol by Maggie-Kate Coleman and Anna K. Jacobs, and commissioning Jeffrey Hatcher and Eric Simonson to create "Louder Faster," a farce about Pittsburgh native George S. Kaufman.

"In recent years, my vision as an artist and director has gone to the more theatrical -- again, still maintaining a well-made story, good character, a page-turner, strong writing -- but if you look at something like 'Monster in the Hall,' that's what I prefer to live in right now, where I can flex my muscles in the way the story is told. I think the audience has really come along with that style in this theater and probably in the American theater in general," Ms. Brigden said.

"As movies and especially television become more and more and better and better, what do we do in the theater that makes you want to leave your house and your 900 channels to see something different? It's because it's theatrical, it has some sense of style, as well as the camaraderie of an audience. That's what we provide that TV can't."

intheleadstories

-- Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960


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