Throughline Theatre Company, the Pittsburgh area’s newest entry into the non-professional theatre community, closed its four-play inaugural season with a production of Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s The Underpants. They had opened the season with the Aristophanes classic Lysistrata in June, followed by Jean Anouilh’s modern take on Antigone and a new play, Bastards and Fools, by the company’s artistic director, Liam Macik.
In a theatre environment where it is only the standard musical comedies and maybe a Neil Simon chestnut or two that seem to attract audiences, this somewhat ambitious, somewhat arcane bill of fare might seem destined to stall the new company almost as it was leaving the gate. Still, these were young artists with a vision of what they wanted their theatre to be, and it wasn’t meant to be merely another venue for the standard summer theatre pap.
As could have been expected, audiences were hard to come by because publicity for the company was hard to come by because money was hard to come by. Theatre coverage in the major Pittsburgh papers is more often than not limited to the professional productions. The alternative press does cover the rest of the theatre community, but even here it doesn’t always get to everybody. Advertising costs are prohibitive when you are starting up; whatever limited funds you have are needed for production costs. While there were a few nicely filled houses, at best audiences hovered at just about the break-even point, and at times were disheartening. The first Saturday afternoon performance of The Underpants, for example, attracted an audience of three, at least two of whom were comps.
Of course this is not an unusual occurrence in the theatre; in my years in acting there have been too many times to count when there were more people in the cast than there were in the audience. If attracting a large audience is the mark of success, Throughline’s first season has probably fallen short of the mark.
On the other hand, if success is defined as getting a bunch of talented people who are committed to a vision of what theatre can be to join with you to make that vision a reality, then you might well say that Throughline has succeeded beyond anyone’s legitimate expectations. It is to the credit of all those involved in the leadership of the company that they remained upbeat throughout the season, and more important, that they remain committed to another season in the summer of 2011. The last thing I heard, as the set of The Underpants was being struck, was that there would be auditions in February. What they say about Rome, building, and days is also true of theatre companies.
Small theatre companies come and go in areas like Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania. In the years that I have been involved in the theatre, the list of companies that have disappeared is depressing—the Upstairs Theatre, Axiom Theatre, Timespace, Immersion, Open Stage, Center Stage Players, Sherwood Forest: it goes on. That there are still capable young people willing to devote their time and their talents to a project that may well go unappreciated is a testament to the attraction that the theatre has for those who love it.
The real question for those who love it is how to compete for an audience with all those other arts and entertainments out there, and how to do it without pandering. If anyone can find an answer, it will be energetic, dedicated young artists like the founders of Throughline willing to work with a will, knowing full well that their work may be in vain. After all, it may well be that it is in the work itself that there is the greatest satisfaction.