Mark Clayton Southers melds troupe, center

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The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company's upcoming production of 'King Hedley II' will move from Playwrights' intimate home at 542 Penn Ave. to the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, a change announced earlier this month.

It will be the eighth of Wilson's 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle to be performed by Playwrights. However, it will be the first to be staged in a theater the size of the August Wilson Center, and the first performed outside of a Playwrights venue.

Mark Clayton Southers, 48, the new artistic director of theater initiatives at the August Wilson Center, has also run Playwrights Theater on a shoestring budget since he founded it in 2003, all the while maintaining a full-time job as a heavy equipment operator for U.S. Steel.

He resigned from that job after 18 years in late December, hoping to be selected as the artistic director for a mid-sized theater company in Fort Worth, Texas. Within a week, he learned that he had not been chosen for the Texas job and later that same day, he received a call from August Wilson Center CEO Andre Kimo Stone Guess, who quietly had been hoping that Fort Worth would not come calling.

"I didn't want to complicate his life by insinuating myself into it on behalf of the center," Mr. Guess said. "But I said to myself, if he doesn't get that job, I'm offering."

Mr. Southers and Mr. Guess met during Playwrights' production of Mr. Wilson's "Jitney" last spring. When he learned that Mr. Southers was contemplating leaving town, he was alarmed.

"I thought, 'What does it say about Pittsburgh that he has to leave in order to pursue his dream? And what does it say about the August Wilson Center that a son of August has to leave in order to make his mark in the world?' "

While Mr. Southers will remain artistic director of Playwrights Theater for the foreseeable future, it was clear that changes would come for the small company in the wake of his new position. The relocation of "King Hedley II" is the first such change.

"The impetus for it initially was that we're looking at bringing in some name actors," Mr. Southers said. "In order to be able to afford that, we'll need more seats. That's just the realistic aspect of it."

The play will also be moved from its scheduled late April run. It will now run June 2-11.

Playwrights Theater's current space, a second-floor venue at 542 Penn Ave., seats less than 100 and presents the action within feet of the first row. Veteran director Eileen Morris, who has directed four plays in the Cycle for Playwrights, will handle the transition to a much larger venue.

"You have a beautiful space here," Mr. Southers said. "It's like a graduation. Although we may lose some of the intimacy, we'll gain in comfort."

Mr. Southers will design the set for "King Hedley II," as he has for the previous seven productions, and as he plans to for the final two. He intends to become the only man to design sets for and produce the entire Cycle, and Playwrights will become the only company to stage the plays in 10 consecutive seasons.

Those final two productions -- "Gem of the Ocean" in 2012, to be directed by Mr. Southers, and "Radio Golf" in 2013, directed by Ms. Morris, also are planned for the August Wilson Center. The rest of the Playwrights Theater seasons will remain at the Penn Avenue site.

"We want to fill the [August Wilson Center] up," Mr. Southers said. "We want folks who don't traditionally get a chance to see August Wilson to come."

The production of "King Hedley II" will complement the center's upcoming revival of the August Wilson Reading Roundtable, scheduled to begin next month. That series began in Mr. Southers' home in 1998, and was on at least one occasion attended by Mr. Wilson himself.

The center also plans to establish the August Wilson International Theater Festival under Mr. Southers' direction. That event will bring in companies from around the world to stage all 10 plays in the space of two weekends.

"The thing that was always in the forefront of my mind," Mr. Guess said, "is that when we do theater, we'd better do it right. That name on the front of the building is kind of heavy."

In Mr. Southers' mind, "King Hedley II" will be the first step in living up to that legacy.

"The idea is to bring August Wilson home."

Sean Collier is a freelance writer and performer living in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at .


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