jakub | August 6, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Marya Sea Kaminski and Shaunda McDill: Making Pittsburgh Public

Marya Sea Kaminski and Shaunda McDill.

“We’re making history here,” said Marya Sea Kaminski, artistic director of Pittsburgh Public Theater, in a recent conversation with her new managing director, Shaunda Miles McDill. “But everybody probably thinks they’re making history, right?”

Actually, most leaders we talk to in this ongoing Q&A series don’t use language quite that dramatic to describe their work. But after talking to these two enthusiastic, ambitious, and candid leaders, I wondered why more don’t. Kaminski, who started at the job in 2018, and McDill, appointed in April, make a strong case for the continued relevance and significance of nonprofit theatre in a downtown venue for a wide and diverse audience—a cluster of concepts that, if you believe the doom-saying headlines and certain online trolls, are all currently endangered, and maybe not worth the candle anyway: nonprofit, theatre, downtown, diversity. The Pittsburgh Public, which operates out of the 650-seat O’Reilly Theatre, in the beating heart of the city’s cultural district, offers a powerful counter to all that, having announced a six-show season (these five mainstage offerings plus this special event) and doubling down, as McDill put it, on serving both longtime subscribers and new single-ticket buyers.

Both Kaminski and McDill spent formative years working with small ensembles—Kaminski with Seattle’s Washington Ensemble Theatre, McDill with Cornerstone Theater Company as well as a company she co-founded, DEMASKUS—and a certain DIY ethos still infuses their respective leadership styles, even as they helm a $5.5 million institution. Another important perspective, though, is provided by McDill’s most recent gig as program officer at the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments, which gave her a broad comparative view of local and national funding trends and priorities.

Between the two of them, we covered a lot of artistic and administrative ground. The following conversation has been condensed for clarity and concision.

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: You returned with a hybrid season in 2021-22, and then came back more or less fully in 2022-23. How did that season fare? Most folks I’ve spoken to about last season have said variations on: It was a mixed bag.

MARYA SEA KAMINSKI: That’s one way to put it. It was very unpredictable in terms of audience behavior. Speaking of the last two to three years, I feel like the pandemic catalyzed many things in our strategic plan that Shaunda is implementing now, in terms of how we want to serve the community and the relationships and partnerships we want to build and how we want to position ourselves. But it also catalyzed problems that were latent before the pandemic and then were exacerbated by it.

Pittsburgh is such an interesting city; I like to say it punches above its weight. We have a huge art scene; there’s so much arts and culture here, in some ways it outsizes our population. So connecting with audiences and what they’re interested in now has definitely been challenging. But I think that we’re starting to decode that. It’s the same with staff, the same with artists—everybody sort of has a new way of being in the world, and a new expectation of how much time they’re going to spend at home with their families and connecting with their community. We’re trying to meet that squarely.

One thing that was catalyzed during the pandemic and has really shaped the conversations that Shaunda and I are having from the artistic side, is, we were one of the companies that did online readings—we did a weekly reading for the first eight months of the pandemic, something like 40 Zoom readings—and while they were very low-tech, we got to stay really engaged with our artists’ community here, and got to work with more artists than we got to in a normal season and coming back from the pandemic. We’re really feeling that as a priority, as a way to serve the community and the extraordinary artists in Pittsburgh.

Speaking of the community and how much arts and culture is on offer, can you tell me how the Public fits into that ecosystem?

SHAUNDA MCDILL: When I first came to Pittsburgh, I was working at the August Wilson Center. I’m blessed to have worked in various organizations and landed at the Public, which I feel is this culminating experience. The relationships are there between Marya and I and various organizations; we are part of a unique collaboration with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Symphony. And being downtown in this moment, when every metropolis across the nation is trying to figure out, are corporations staying downtown? Will people continue to live downtown if we build back downtown? How do we do that? So we are in a really sweet spot in terms of being downtown right now, in a moment where so many people are focused on building back the region. I will also say that how we build back is important, right? One critique of Pittsburgh’s rebuilding was that people were excluded in the past—that how it was built wasn’t as inclusive, and then at some point, those who are downtown felt the need to now go out and service other communities, because those people somehow didn’t find their way downtown or weren’t included. I think the way Marya’s vision is set is to make sure that as we build back, we’re aware of not only our colleagues in the field, but also the people in the neighborhoods and communities that have traditionally been excluded and not seen as the prime targets for helping us to rebuild in the city.

I also want to say that, from the vantage point of being at Heinz Endowments and looking across the region, not only at downtown but at southwestern Pennsylvania, despite the challenges we’re facing, we’re still in a seat of privilege here. We have an endowment, we have many FTE employees. I consider us to be mid-sized in comparison to some larger institutions, but as we build back, Marya and I want to be stronger so we can support those who feel like they don’t have space, don’t have access. We are keenly aware of the number of organizations that need support and should be a part of our plan as we rebuild in the future, because they have access to far less than we even do right now.

MARYA: Shaunda, I always appreciate you saying that. It’s so easy to get into a scarcity model as we talk about audience behavior. But to be reminded of our privilege and the abundance, just in our space—we have abundant space to share, and it’s a great framework to move from.

Marya, you didn’t take over for a founder, but Ted Pappas had been there a long time. One issue with a lot of successions we’ve seen in the past few years is the sense that while some theatres have made some bold new leadership hires, it was less clear that their boards fully understood what was needed to support change at their theatres. Do you two feel like you’ve been set up to succeed? 

MARYA: Good question—a tricky question. Because it’s easy to look at all of the challenges that come with stepping into a new role and say, “Why didn’t anybody think of this?” When the board hired me, they had not done a search in 20 years. So they did their due diligence and were incredibly gracious and available and curious about my perspective. I think they were excited for what a new era of leadership could look like, and I think they still are. I think they’re thrilled about having Shaunda here. I don’t think it would have been possible for them to fully anticipate the challenges that were ahead of us, that were catalyzed by the pandemic, though those audience behaviors were changing for a long time, and these structural deficits have existed for a long time. So yes, there were challenges I was not set up for, but I don’t really know who could have been set up for them. Who I turned to were mentors: Chris Coleman and Braden Abraham and Sheldon Epps. I turned to people who might have an idea about this job, because I don’t know that anybody else fully grasps what this work is.

SHAUNDA: I have a lot of thoughts. The Public was in the portfolio that I had as a program officer at Heinz, so I had been looking at it for five years. I was part of the team that welcomed Marya when she first came to the city, and I saw the transition from the former leader to the current and was part of the funding structure in terms of how it was going to move. It was very interesting to be in that seat.

I had no expectations that anyone was gonna be able to set me up for success, so I didn’t measure it coming in. I feel like with the American theatre in this moment, particularly for me as a Black woman, I was like: “I don’t know that you know what I need.” All I can ask for is willingness, and I feel like Marya gave me that. The very reason I was even willing to take the job is because of who she is, in terms of being able and willing and wanting to ask the question, “Shaunda, what do you need?” and being curious about it and approaching it with the greatest level of sincerity and responsibility and lack of ego.

But I also was like, I still know what I’m going into. This is the regional theatre, the same one I refused to go into after I left Yale. It really hasn’t changed. Back then we were talking about the Lila Wallace Foundation and how to get people of color in—there were these grants, and it still didn’t work—and about how the blue hairs were dying. The blue hairs are still dying, it’s just a different generation. It’s the same conversation! So I was like, you don’t actually have what I need. But this is the difference: Going as a young person into these places, feeling like the gift exists inside these institutions and I’m privileged to be a part of them, vs. my perspective now as a grown woman saying, We are the gift. We’re coming in with an understanding that if you are willing to change, if you’re willing to wrestle with identity, if you’re willing to challenge some of these systemic ways of thinking and being, we may actually be able to provide a way forward. I would just close by saying I find such solace in the fact that the regional theatre was founded by three women, that the opera here in Pittsburgh was founded by women, that Carol Brown was the first president of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, that Margaret Rieck and Joan Apt were part of the founding of the Public—there’s this great tradition that we’re standing in, and it is why we’re in this moment right now, Marya and I, with what we have to offer.

I want to ask about the “We See You, White American Theater” document that came out in 2020, along with other movements for justice and equity in the theatre. You were at Heinz at the time, Shaunda, but Marya, you were at the Public. I just want to ask you about how that document, and the movement it represented, struck you then and how you’ve followed up with it.

SHAUNDA: The document was critically important. It’s part of the impetus for my return to the theatre—not just the document itself, because the reality is that could have been like, “We see you, white American philanthropy,” or, “We see you, white American unions.” It is all predicated upon our understanding of how we have built, resourced, and governed the structures that inform our humanity. I think the document has impacted everything we are trying to do; it has changed the way we’ve written our job descriptions. We are launching a new workforce initiative with the Pittsburgh Film Office that’s historic, to say: How do we go into communities and get people trained so that they can then work as a part of the unions, because we can’t find wig and costume designers who have an understanding sometimes of the culture and the hair? Pittsburgh has a problem with retention, and until we can be welcoming of all kinds of people and make sure that there’s a multitude of places for them to work and be, we will not succeed. The Public will not be successful. This is the reason why I was like, it’s time for me to stop giving advice and sitting in comfort and being like, “Why don’t these nonprofits do this?” I thought, if I’m going to be a part of solution, this is the time for me to do it. I see the greatest amount of opportunity right now.

MARYA: When we received that document, I was here with my managing director, Lou Castelli, and we were at a reduced staff. We were all processing the racial reckoning that summer, and we were at a standstill with our board. At the time, I was shocked when the document came out, partly because of its thoroughness. I really feel like it was like a gift, wrapped and delivered to white institutions. It was so clear, so comprehensive, and it could not be denied. So it was a conversation that as two white leaders of this institution Lou and I were grappling with, how to position that as the priority we both knew it was. We talked through every bit of it and we brought it to the board. While of course that sort of puts us as leaders on hot seats, I was grateful to be on that hot seat. Because I felt like the excuses were over.

It was the bell that rang that I think we all heard. And while it certainly has not solved the systemic problems of generations of trauma and violence, I love that as a field, we were called to dare to try and lead that. I think it also defined this era of leadership for all of us who were sitting in those seats, and now Shaunda. There are so many different chapters of the American theatre, and this is ours.

SHAUNDA: And can we also just lift up and acknowledge the people of color, the Black artists, who didn’t survive in the LORT world pre-“We See You, White American Theater”? There had to be people who were seen as the interrupters and disruptors, to whom the response was, “Why do they keep bringing this up?” and “They’re not a match for our organization,” and, “If you don’t want to be here, you should leave—you should be grateful.” I just want to acknowledge that there are people who’ve been in the field who have suffered, who have left, or who have remained and become silenced, and choked on their own silence—who because of their love of wanting to do the thing, the craft, the art, they didn’t all just leave. There were people who remained dedicated to the field even when the field wasn’t dedicated to them. But without them, I don’t think the board would have been ready, regardless of that manifesto, to hire a Black female as a managing director. It took some of those people for me to be sitting here. So I just acknowledge those sacrifices as well.

One big conversation in the field lately has been about why audiences haven’t come back at pre-pandemic levels, and whether theatres are really giving them what they want to see. A lot of folks have told me, based on either box-office receipts or just their own opinion, that audiences now want escape, celebration—they want to feel good. Obviously that’s not all they want all the time, right? How do you think about the mix of comfort and challenge in your programming? 

MARYA: I love your question. Right now, all bets are off. One of the things I’ve caught myself saying as we’ve talked about programming, and also some of the changes we’re making to the structure and how we interact with our audiences is, “We can’t upset the applecart. The apples are everywhere. It’s already upset!” How that manifests in programming is, I feel like we’ve made a promise to our audience about this being your Pittsburgh Public Theater. We have such a healthy ecosystem here: We have an amazing Broadway series, we have City Theater, which is dedicated to new plays, we have Quantum, dedicated to immersive and site-specific work. So what is our role in that? I would say rather it’s even more specific than new plays vs. revivals. To me it’s about investments in Pittsburgh artists, and daring to say that they belong in the canon—that Mark Clayton Southers belongs onstage next to Oscar Wilde. Pittsburgh has launched all these amazing artists: Billy Strayhorn, Andy Warhol, George Kaufman, August Wilson. So It feels like folly to not be investing in living artists here. 

And some folks are here for the ride. We’ve been doing these new-play readings, launched in the pandemic, and I feel like we have audience members who are here for the adventure. And sure, when we talk about change, I can’t help but think that there are some folks who come to the theatre, who sit on boards, who really wish we would change back. That just doesn’t seem like the right strategy right now.

How does this conversation look from your seat, Shaunda?

SHAUNDA: It’s measured risk, always. I remember Ben Mordecai telling us when he was our dean at the Yale School of Drama, “Theatre is the riskiest business you can enter—let’s just be clear.” This is all about risk. This is where we are. We’re in the heart of it. I also want to say like we are not a commercial theatre, and somewhere along the line LORT became like the commercial theatre stepchild. But that’s not actually what we are, right? We are the place for new work, we are the place for people who have a vision that is broad and diverse and inclusive and challenging.

I think Marya still needs time to sing. The freedom that some of the older guard had, I don’t even feel she’s experienced yet. So part of what I feel my job is, is to try to make things as stable as possible so that she can take the risks she wants to take in the context of a very risky industry. I’m sitting back excited, even in the risk of a six-show season this year, when many people are cutting back. I wouldn’t want it any other way. The excitement of the people when we announced, the feedback we’re getting, the way that we’re on track for our subscription renewals, is amazing.

The other thing I want to say: Marya talked about how that risk concept manifested artistically. I will say how manifests in management right now is around doubling down on our commitment to subscribers, and being more thoughtful and innovative around single tickets. It’s a both-and. I care about people who want to be subs and who love that process, but we’re not going to wrap our entire operation around those declining subs. I’m willing to take risks in this area, because I think when you risk in the area of relationship, which is really what we’re doing with patrons’ services, you always win. So I’m excited—I always tell Marya, the management is catching up with the vision she’s putting on the stage. She’s already gone, she’s out the gate, and our models have to catch up with the art that she’s creating.

Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre.

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