Pittsburgh theater scene gets a new company, The Phoenix

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Mark Clayton Southers and Andrew Paul know what they are getting into by starting a professional theater company in Pittsburgh, and yet, here they go again. The Phoenix -- the name of the new company -- rises not so much from ashes but from the idea of the mythological creature found in cultures worldwide, in keeping with the theme of culture clashes that runs through the three Pittsburgh premiere plays and one musical that form the inaugural season.

Rising from the ashes could be a theme as well.

Mr. Southers, founder of the 10-year-old Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, and Mr. Paul, last heard from as artistic director of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, the company he co-founded, have for several years journeyed together to festivals and plays in the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe as participants or explorers in the theater world.

Earlier this year, Mr. Southers lost his position as director of theater initiatives for the financially strapped August Wilson Center for African American Culture, and Mr. Paul was axed from PICT. When the dust had cleared, Mr. Paul got a call and a job proposal from his travel companion.

The Phoenix 2013-14 season

Nov. 1-23: "Blue/Orange" by Joe Penhall, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, Downtown.

May 8-31, 2014: "Blood and Gifts" by J.T. Rogers, PPTC.

Sept. 25-Oct. 9, 2014: "Passing Strange" by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, New Hazlett Theater, North Side.

Oct. 23-Nov. 15, 2014: "Miss Julie" by Mark Clayton Southers, adapted from the August Strindberg play, PPTC.

Tickets: Subscriptions, $120. Single tickets: $38 ($15 under 30); Showclix at 1-888-718-4253 or www.phoenixtheatrepgh.org.

"I love traveling with Mark because I knew his mind would be blown by some of the things he would be seeing. ... Not so much to duplicate it here but how you can seize what's happening in world theater and bring it to Pittsburgh," said Mr. Paul, who has trained and worked in Ireland and Poland.

Mr. Southers, who to that point was mostly confined to Pittsburgh, called the experiences "eye-opening."

"I was really lit up by sharing my enthusiasm for world theater with him, and we always had a lot of conversations about doing something collaboratively, but the reality was we both had our own companies," Mr. Paul said this afternoon, before an evening launch party at Playwrights' Cultural District space. "Circumstances change, and we are both sitting here without a full-time job. I see The Phoenix, for both of us, as an opportunity to stretch and renew our excitement for the profession."

Mr. Paul lives with his family in Las Vegas these days, a source of contention when the PICT board ousted him on the eve of the current season. He has since reached a financial settlement with the company that he said does not include a noncompete clause.

A key to launching The Phoenix was introducing a work by Mr. Southers, a play inspired by Strindberg's "Miss Julie" and reset in the post-Civil War South. It will be one of three works presented at the Pittsburgh Playwrights theater. The Phoenix's first production, opening Nov. 1, will be Joe Penhall's Olivier Award-winning play "Blue/Orange," directed by Mr. Paul and featuring stage veterans David Whalen and Sam Tsoutsouvas with newcomer Rico Parker. Mr. Paul also will direct J.T. Rogers' spy thriller "Blood and Gifts," set in Afghanistan during the Cold War.

The Phoenix also will allow Mr. Southers to stay home but go beyond the limits of producing only home-grown works, as dictated by Pittsburgh Playwrights' mission. After directing a well-received production of the jazz-blues-rock musical "Passing Strange" for Short North Stage in Columbus, Ohio, he'll bring the Tony winner for best book of a musical to the New Hazlett Theater at this time next year.

A confluence of circumstances led to this partnership.

Mr. Southers was struck by the mix of drama and musicals that he saw working for a small company in Florida. And while he awaited the inevitable word that he had been laid off at the August Wilson Center, where he felt "handcuffed" to do the programming he had hoped to bring there, the African-American repertory company Kuntu shuttered its doors.

"I had ideas about how to keep Kuntu going, and I called the board president, but he said they were ready to let go. Then I was thinking about starting a new African-American company Downtown," Mr. Southers said. Based on Kuntu's bitter experience with trying to drum up local support and his own work to win a racially mixed audience at Pittsburgh Playwrights, including the Festival in Black and White, he decided affordable theater for a diverse audience was the way to go.

Both men have the experience of creating theater companies from scratch and soldiering on through lean and leaner early years. The Phoenix launches with a proposed budget of $350,000 that includes $150,000 projected earned revenue and one employee, Gale McGloin, who worked for Mr. Paul at PICT. When the company's articles of incorporation are complete, it will file for nonprofit status.

Going forward, if The Phoenix evolves as hoped, the founders would like to export shows, with intact casts of local actors, to some of the places they have visited together.

"It would be great to make good on all of those connections," Mr. Southers said.

"August Wilson is America's Shakespeare," added Mr. Paul. "A top-notch tour would go over great in Eastern Europe, with simultaneous translations. To do that, and with Pittsburgh actors, that's another dream we share."


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


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