O'Hara Township native Lynne Conner is a playwright and a scholar of theater history at the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently researching a book for the University of Pittsburgh Press about the history of Pittsburgh's theater scene.
How did you decide to study Pittsburgh's theater history?
At first, I had a typical educated person's attitude about their hometown: "I'm a special person, so I'll go off to a special place and learn about that instead." I had bought the line that no good theater happened in places like Pittsburgh. But I came back to Pittsburgh to get married and study here at Pitt. I loved history, and before I took this job, I ran a theater company at the Heinz History Center for three years. I wrote everything from historic monologues to complete plays.
I would go through the archival material and it was fascinating. It was immediately apparent that so much had gone on here that I had no idea about. There were scores of theaters, just in Downtown alone. The first theater productions date back to Fort Pitt, and the first playhouse was built in 1812, on Third Street.
What's an episode of that history people should know about?
Here's an example. In the Post-Gazette a few years ago, August Wilson talked about how when he started a theater company [in 1968], they didn't know a guy named Walter Worthington had run one 20 years before.
Worthington actually participated in five African-American theater companies, beginning back in the 1920s, but I couldn't find anything about him. Then I come across 12 boxes of Worthington stuff in the History Center archives. It took four days to go through them, but I found scripts that he wrote. They were all crumpled up and hard to read, but they ranged from religious dramas to more political things. One was a play about African Americans in heaven. He belonged to this company called the "Curtaineers," which was a black/white community theater group that came out of the 1930s. They existed for 20 years, and black and white actors worked together in front of black and white audiences. And it's totally been forgotten.
Were you tempted to stage one of the plays you found?
I don't know that it matters so much. Plays are a form of civic discourse, a cultural activity in which a community talks to itself. There are all kinds of playwrights who are unknown because their contributions stay in their city. But my attraction is always to theater artists whose work is about building the community that they're in. The texts don't need to be done over and over again. I'm approaching this from the idea that it's all of interest and all valuable. Well, not all of it. It wouldn't necessarily correspond to my interests as a theatergoer.
How do people respond when they hear about your research?
When I said I'm working on a book about Pittsburgh theater history, my cousin in D.C. said, "Well, at least it will be short." That's the overriding assumption people make, but in fact the problem is there is so much to write about.
About the only thing that gets Pittsburgh written about nationally is the American Conservatory Theater, and then Pittsburgh is used as an object lesson in what happens when you put sophisticated theater in a working-class town. What happened is Bill Ball got CMU and the Pittsburgh Playhouse to join forces, so his experimental theater company was in residency here [in 1965]. It lasted for little more than a year, then it moved to San Francisco. The story that gets told is that they did cutting-edge plays that offended conservative Pittsburgh audiences. But when you talk to members of the company, you find out the management was fiscally reckless and people wanted Ball out.
But it's hard to shake the perception that we're a cultural backwater, isn't it?
The way we've identified our national culture has taken regional sites out of the story. It's all New York for theater, and depending on how hip you are, maybe you'll open the door and let in Chicago or Seattle. But the "national culture" is fictitious. All art is local, just like all politics is local.
We look at Carnegie Mellon University because a TV star went there. But it has spawned generation after generation of local theater companies, and that's at least as important. That story hasn't been told because we're always looking from the outside in. I want to look from the inside out. To me, it all starts and ends here.