Southers to lead theater initiatives at August Wilson Center


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On Friday, Nov. 12, Mark Clayton Southers quit his job, cutting himself adrift from the financial security of 18 1/2 years as a heavy equipment operator at U.S. Steel's Irvin Plant.

"It was a leap of faith," says the theatrical triple threat, feeling that a huge load had been lifted. "Sometimes you have to close a door to get a door to open."

On Nov. 18, a door he hoped would open stayed shut: Mr. Southers received word he would not get the artistic directorship of a black theater company in Fort Worth, Texas, a job for which he had survived a long process of interviews to make the final three.

Then, later that same day, an unexpected door did open: Andre Guess, president and CEO of Pittsburgh's August Wilson Center for African American Culture, offered Mr. Southers a newly created position as the center's artistic director, theater initiatives.

So starting Dec. 1, a Pittsburgh theater dynamo will be employed full time in theater. Of course he already has worked in it full time, even while supporting himself and his family as a steelworker, but now he'll be paid.

Mr. Southers, 48, is the founder and head of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre (2003-present), in the Cultural District, along with its signature Theatre Festival in Black & White (2004-present). He is a playwright with more than a half-dozen scripts produced here and across the U.S., and he is a stage director who has worked just as widely.

At the August Wilson Center, his creativity, entrepreneurship and nuts-and-bolts experience will have a larger scope. That's what Mr. Guess envisions in making the appointment.

"You have to think and work concentrically from local to regional to national to international," he says. He speaks of the "authenticity of the local," especially with theater, so "Mark becomes the perfect choice."

Mr. Guess describes the center as "a one-of-a-kind hybrid institution, [including] literature, film, music, theater, visual arts, dance and culinary arts" in its "quest to become the pre-eminent institution for African-American arts and culture in the world."

He cites August Wilson, who made Pittsburgh's Hill District relevant to the nation and the world. "What we needed was someone who understands the rich legacy that created August Wilson." But he also cites other famous black Pittsburgh artists, such as Billy Strayhorn, Earl Hines and John Edgar Wideman: "All had to leave this city to make a name for themselves; Mark won't have to leave to make his mark."

Mr. Southers will work with Shaunda Miles, the center's director of programming and cultivation. "I don't have a plan for him to execute," Mr. Guess says. "But at the top of the paper is August Wilson's name. ... [so] make us the best in the world at what we do."

Mr. Southers has plenty of ideas, the largest of which is an as-yet undescribed August Wilson Theater Festival. More immediately, he envisions a new Griot Ensemble Theater, which will program like New York's Signature Theater, producing three works each year by a different playwright, alternating established and developing. There will be play development programs and playwright and theater management fellowships and residencies.

Some of this is already in the works under Ms. Miles. But Mr. Guess points out that given the center's name, theater inevitably has a special place, hence the new position.

"I like to think I've been preparing myself," says Mr. Southers.

He grew up in the Hill, where he still lives with his fiancee and two children. From 1980 to 1992, he was a photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier. Then came the steel mill.

More importantly, then came August Wilson. In 1998 he met the playwright and poet at the Grahamstown Arts Festival in South Africa and was invited by him to the Edward Albee Theatre Festival in Valdez, Alaska. Encouraged and inspired, the steelworker took up playwriting and later founded Pittsburgh Playwrights.

While working at the center, he hopes to continue to have a hand in that company, especially the Black & White Festival and its tour through August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, where each play has been staged in the order of its writing -- the eighth, "King Hedley II," is due this spring.

Just before being offered the center position, Mr. Southers had written an optimistic letter to local theater writers, announcing his departure from U.S. Steel:

"I felt as though my artistic side was burning down to embers," he said. He described some of his plans and hopes, saying, "for right now, I'm happily unemployed and unhappily uninsured."

No more.


Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: crawson@post-gaztte.com .


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