Pittsburgh Public Theater's new artistic director, Marya Sea Kaminski | Blogh

Pittsburgh Public Theater's new artistic director, Marya Sea Kaminski

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Maybe it’s too early to ask Marya Sea Kaminski what kind of artistic director she’ll be at Pittsburgh Public Theater. After all, Kaminski, currently associate artistic director at Seattle Repertory Theatre, was just hired here last week, and she won’t move to Pittsburgh until next summer.

Marya Sea Kaminski
  • Marya Sea Kaminski
But Kaminski is young (40) and new to town, and her resume has a little edge to it — including Seattle Rep’s spectacular recent community-centered staging of The Odyssey (more on which later). The Public is Pittsburgh's largest independent theater company, with a $7 million budget and a contemporary, 650-seat theater in the heart of Downtown's burgeoning Cultural District. And in announcing her hiring, the Public's board chair, Michael H. Ginsberg, called Kaminski "one of the most dynamic artistic leaders in the country." All of that makes her intriguing enough that we asked about her plans here anyway.

Short answer: Kaminski (first name pronounced “mar-RYE-ah”) thinks the Public has a great legacy, and that outgoing artistic director/managing director Ted Pappas (who led the Public for an impressive 18 years) has done a great job, both artistically and fiscally. But Kaminski also says she is committed to developing and showcasing new and underrepresented theatrical voices.

Kaminski, a native of Rochester, N.Y., grew up loving theater. “My dream was always to run a theater company,” she told CP last week, speaking by phone from Seattle. She first made her mark in Seattle with Washington Ensemble Theater, the adventuresome troupe she founded with friends in 2004, after grad school there. WET developed new plays and produced works like edgy playwright Adam Rapp’s Finer Noble Gases. “We did anything we wanted,” she says. In 2005, WET staged Sarah Kane’s Crave in a small chamber, with the audience permitted to watch only through an aperture which hid the actors from the waist down; during the course of the show, she says, the chamber slowly began to fill with water.

Seattle alt weekly The Stranger called WET’s formation “one of the world-historical moments for Seattle culture” when it gave Kaminski its 2010 Theater Genius award. “Everything about WET’s shows declared a new era of ambitions and artistry: The designs looked like art installations, the texts were funny and unnerving and smart, the performances were revelatory,” wrote The Stranger’s Brendan Kiley. “You could expect to walk into WET and leave with your idea of the world nudged in a new direction. And Kaminski was at the center of the success …”

Kiley also cited Kaminski’s 2010 performance in the title role in Electra, at Seattle Shakespeare Company, as well as “her playful but serious Rachel Corrie at Seattle Repertory Theatre [and] a frustrated and sexually ravenous Hedda Gabler at On the Boards ....”

Kaminski is also well known as a solo performer, with credits at New York City’s fabled PS 122 and the Edinburgh Fringe, in Scotland. In 2012, she wrote and starred in Riddled, a rock musical incorporating parts of the Bonnie and Clyde story. Her performance was “electrifying,” wrote Seattle Metropolitan Magazine in naming it the best performance that year by a Seattle actress: “a Debbie Harry with a gun fetish and a dark past …”

Kaminski took her current position at Seattle Rep in 2014. There she led the Rep’s ambitious Public Works Seattle project, meant to foster “long-term, authentic partnerships between regional theaters and local nonprofits to create theater of, by, and for the people.”

The project’s signal achievement thus far is this past September’s production of The Odyssey, which illustrated Kaminski’s emphasis on “connections” in theater, including those between the performer and the audience. The show culminated more than a year of intense collaboration with community-based groups including senior centers, a women’s shelter and the Boys & Girls Club. The show, Todd Almond’s musical adaptation of the classic, featured 130 people on stage, only a handful of whom were professional actors.

“Artistically, it was really exhilirating,” says Kaminski. But “the real poetry of it,” she says, is how the production expressed the values of “equity, imagination and joy” by literally putting the city on stage, so that performers could see themselves in the audience and vice versa: Cast members ranged from ages 2 to 87, she says, from the disabled and military veterans to people who had experienced homelessness. Other performers included members of the Purple Lemon collective and members of the Seahawks Blue Thunder drumline.

The show had four performances over a single weekend, and admission was free. Of the 4,000 people who attended, Kaminski says, half were first-time theater-goers. Kaminski adds that the Rep collaborated with groups whose clients or members would also benefit from the artistic experience — like the Boys & Girls Club youths who got to learn iambic pentameter.

Many theater companies do community outreach: Pittsburgh Public Theater’s long-running Shakespeare Monologue & Scene Contest for local youths comes to mind. And there are more than a few parallels between Kaminski’s Seattle experience and the Public’s record here.

For example, both companies’s current season includes Stephen Karam’s Tony-winning The Humans. The Public has often produced the plays of Pittsburgh native August Wilson, and this season The Rep (based in Wilson’s own longtime hometown of Seattle) is staging Wilson’s Two Trains Running. And on her website, Kaminski names as two of her favorite acting roles Brooke Wyeth in Other Desert Cities, and Betsy/Lindsay in Clybourne Park — both of them dramas that the Public, too, has staged in recent years.

In researching Pittsburgh, Kaminski said she heard complaints that the Public these days is too “traditional,” she acknowledges. While the company does regularly stage new work — sometimes including edgier fare like Venus in Fur and Between Riverside and Crazy — its schedule often hews toward familiar if respected titles like The Fantasticks, Death of a Salesman and The Diary of Anne Frank.

Kaminski, in fact, praises the Public’s recent production of Peter Shaffer's 1973 chestnut Equus, which she caught while in town. She also extolled the Public in general: “I‘m really struck by the incredible legacy there.” Of Pappas, she said, "I believe I have big shoes to fill." She is also impressed by Pittsburgh: “I just think the energy there is unbelievable.”

Kaminski is now working to choose the Public’s 2018-19 new season with Louis A. Castelli, the Public's longtime director of external affairs who was simultaneously promoted to managing director. But her influence here likely won’t be completely felt even then, because she says she anticipates building on choices Pappas has already sketched out. So maybe we’ll have to wait for 2019-20 to see her influence fully bloom.

In any case, Kaminski said her first job here is to “listen and learn.” But, she adds, “I am also thinking about equity and representation.” Even while honoring the Public’s 43-year legacy, she says, she’ll be “looking for opportunities to increase representation [and] really interrogate who we’re centering.” She means to pursue further opening the theater to women artists, artists of color, and LGBTQ artists.

In terms of theatrical choices, there might be some clues in the Rep’s current season. Side by side with Hershey Felder’s one-man show about Irving Berlin, for instance, there were Familiar, Danai Gurira’s play about a Zimbabwean-American family, and Erica Schmidt’s new adaptation of MacBeth, in which the story is retold by seven young women playing all the parts. The latter came to fruition as part of the Rep’s own new-play development program.

“I don’t think the classics are always conservative,” she says. She adds, “I am curious about how we can stretch them open to galvanize a new audience for them.”

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