At 40 years, PPT’s birthday gift to itself is ‘The Glass Menagerie’
Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” is a “memory play,” a term coined by the playwright himself.
“Memory,” Williams wrote in the script describing the first scene, “is seated predominantly in the heart.”
For the Pittsburgh Public Theater, “The Glass Menagerie” is an apt choice to open its 40th season, as it was the very first show the theater produced way back in 1974. And it holds a prominent place in the heart of native Pittsburgher Joan Apt, whose dream of bringing a professional theater company to her hometown has remained a reality for the last 40 years.
“The first read-through of the play was under a huge elm tree on my lawn, shading my house,” Apt recalled.
Apt still lives in the stunning mid-century home in Shadyside, where she held the pivotal fundraiser that got the theater off the ground and where actors gathered for read-throughs.
Apt and longtime friend Margaret Rieck were resolute to raise all the money necessary for the theater’s first season — $350,000 — before it even opened.
“We had invited a very large group to the fundraising party,” Apt said. “Friends and acquaintances and community leaders and foundation leaders. We had all the money up front. We were determined not to be an albatross to the funding community or the community at large.”
Apt always loved the arts, and she knew how to fundraise. She grew up attending shows in Pittsburgh as a child and went on to minor in theater at Wheaton College. Once back in Pittsburgh, she was actively involved on the board of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, volunteered for what was then the United Jewish Federation and brought the America-Israel Cultural Foundation to Pittsburgh.
But what Pittsburgh was missing, she said, was professional theater.
So, together with Rieck, Apt sought to bring to Pittsburgh “quality, professional theater, for a wide-ranging audience of all ages and to do it in a fiscally responsible manner,” she said.
To say she met her goal would be an understatement.
Forty years later, the PPT is still running in the black — an accomplishment that eludes many arts organizations across the country — and continues to fulfill its mandate of producing a diverse catalogue of shows each season, from Sophocles to Shakespeare, from Arthur Miller to August Wilson.
“The essence of the Public Theater, and what Joan brought here, was a producing theater, not just a presenting theater,” said past PPT board president Stuart Miller.
The distinction, Miller said, is that as a producing theater, the PPT creates all aspects of its shows in-house, including the costumes and scenery.
“Joan brought producing theater to Pittsburgh and treated it as her child,” Miller continued. “She brought it to fruition, and she didn’t walk away. She hung around; she attended board meetings and was supportive financially. She watched her child grow. And we’re very, very strong.”
The Pittsburgh theater community has been enriched by Apt’s commitment to the PPT, according to Ted Pappas, who has served as the company’s producing artistic director since 2000.
“The idea of a permanent company of professional artists these days sounds logical, sounds doable, sounds absolutely normal,” Pappas said. “But I think when Joan and Margaret founded the company, it was a rarity.”
Using as models the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and the Alley Theater in Houston — much larger cities than Pittsburgh — Apt and Rieck were bold enough to try to replicate those efforts here, Pappas said.
“Joan took the hunger for theater and turned it into a company that provided a tremendous variety of shows with a professional standard,” he continued. “How audacious, how remarkable, how fantastic is that to say, ‘We need this; I miss this; let’s do it’?”
With a clear vision of what they wanted the PPT to be artistically and with a solid business plan, Apt and Rieck “struck gold,” Pappas said.
“Pittsburgh wanted it,” he said. “It was clear from the first season, and it’s clear 40 years later. Some theaters come and go, but with the Public Theater, it’s accelerated. And it has inspired the launch of myriad of companies, not just in Pittsburgh, but around the country.”
Apt’s Shadyside home, he said, was “the birthplace of the theater,” and he noted that this matron of the arts is still a vibrant part of the PPT.
“She advises me, she guides me, she pats me on the back,” Pappas said. “And she’s looking forward to the next 40 years, and I find that really inspiring.”
Pittsburgh native actor Tom Atkins — acclaimed for his turn as Arthur J. Rooney Sr. in the PPT’s one-man show “The Chief” — has performed in scores of PPT shows since its first season and is grateful to Apt for making a producing company in Pittsburgh a reality.
“I had a meeting with Ben Shaktman (the PPT’s founding artistic director) in a little room at the Playhouse on Craft Avenue in the spring of 1975, I believe,” Atkins said. “Ben offered me the role of McMurphy in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ in the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s premier season later that fall. It was the role of a lifetime for me then. There were only three shows in that premier season: ‘Glass Menagerie,’ ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Twelfth Night,’ starring Leonard Nimoy. ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ knocked the roof off that little black-seated theater on the great North Side, and we played to packed houses.
“I met Joan Apt and Margaret Rieck opening night,” Atkins continued. “Joan created the Public and I am forever grateful to her and her dear late husband, Jerry, for a lifetime of good work in my own home town. Pittsburgh theater-goers are blessed to have the Public.”
After 24 years at the New Hazlett Theater on the city’s North Side, in 1999, the PPT moved to Downtown’s cultural district, into the 650-seat O’Reilly Theater.
So far, the company has produced 275 plays by 222 playwrights and has employed 1,553 actors, Apt said.
Part of its mandate has been to “reach young people,” she added, noting that reduced-price student matinees have been offered since the theater’s inception; it has offered summer classes for the past 18 years; and, it has hosted its Shakespeare Monologue & Scene Contest for middle school and high school students for the last 20 years.
“I’m very proud of the Public Theater,” Apt said. “I wouldn’t change a thing. We’ve been true to our mandate, and our mission of producing quality, diverse plays in a fiscally responsible manner.”
“The Glass Menagerie” was chosen to lead off the new season, Pappas said, as a way to say “happy birthday” to the PPT.
“It’s a touchstone play for the company,” he said, adding that although the PPT has produced it twice before, this will be its first run at the O’Reilly Theater.
The “Glass Menagerie” runs Oct. 2 through Nov. 2.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.