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April 3, 2008

Books, Journals & More: A Closer Look: Lynne Conner

In standard texts on the history of the American theatre, Pittsburgh is barely an afterthought, according to theatre arts associate professor Lynne Conner, who recently discussed the treasure trove of findings in her third book, “Pittsburgh in Stages: Two Hundred Years of Theater.”

“Even though I was a trained theatre historian, I knew nothing about the regional history of my own city, except that it warranted almost no attention in the many national histories of the American stage,” said the North Hills native.

Those histories simply were not written with the proper scholarly rigor, and they dismiss or ignore what turns out to be a rich tradition and a vital component of the creation and growth of Pittsburgh’s cultural life, Conner maintained.

“Part of my argument is that we need more rigorous regional histories in order to create a true national theatre history,” she said.

“My research allows me to disrupt some of the conventional wisdom about national theatre history. For example, in one text there’s a discussion about how there weren’t many local stock theatre companies by such and such a time. But then I found in Pittsburgh alone there were many, many of them.”

Conner started writing “Pittsburgh in Stages” in 1996 as a byproduct of her work at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.

“As the playwright-in-residence at the Heinz History Center, my job was to research and write plays with local history as the subject,” Conner recounted. “I decided to do lectures on Pittsburgh’s theatre past, so I began going through their archives. Much later it clicked: This would be my next book.”

She soon expanded her search to the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania and the Carnegie Library’s Pennsylvania Room.

“The most astonishing archive is our very own, the Curtis Theatre Collection in the special collections at Hillman. It’s a breathtaking collection, with a tremendous range to it and it is a very accessible place,” she said.

Borrowing from lessons learned from feminist historiography concerning the biases inherent in relying solely on archival material, Conner also drew heavily on economic and regional histories, diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, biographies, periodicals, newspapers, playbills, reviews and critics’ columns.

Among the buried gems Conner found was an article by an anonymous theatre patron describing the wooden theatre built at Third and Wood in 1813; an aluminum-plated souvenir program from 1903 marking the opening of the Nixon Theatre; a Downtown theatre manager’s account book noting the “wretched business” of an appearance by Isadora Duncan, and photographs of Yiddish theatre skits performed in the Hill District in the mid-1920s.

“I really set out to write a history of the city, and the agenda of the book is to look at the evolving city through the lens of the theatrical experience and industry,” Conner said.

Completing the book took about 10 years, she said, with the actual writing taking two and a half to three years, mostly during summers.

While many theatre histories focus narrowly on so-called legitimate theatre and often opt to bypass work not deemed to be “important,” Conner expanded the range of theatrical inclusiveness in her study.

“Scholars may classify theatrical genres, but audiences do not care if what they enjoy is ‘really’ theatre or not. If you go back to the beginnings of Western theatre tradition, the Greeks saw ‘Oedipus Rex’ on the same day as a satyr play, which is very much a ribald and scathing satire — a little of ‘Oedipus Rex’ and a little of ‘Saturday Night Live.’ The Greeks didn’t see those as inconsistent with each other,” Conner pointed out. “What I’m looking at is: It’s live and it’s on a stage — whether that’s a built stage or a space designated as a stage for a period of time. I wanted the book to be truly representative of what people like, of what audiences came to see.”

Her goal became to write a hometown stage history that acknowledges the social determinants — economic, cultural and demographic — that affect theatrical practice. This led Conner to codify eras in Pittsburgh’s history into snapshots as a way of organizing the book.

Chapter headings include: “Theater as Community Life: 1790 to 1830”; “Theater as Destination: 1870 to 1897”; “Theater as Big Business: 1897 to 1915”; “Theater as Regional Renaissance: 1940 to 1968,” and “Theater as Cultural Capital: The 1980s.”

“I had to make choices. Writing history, after all, is telling stories, so you’re making choices about what stories to tell,” Conner said. “I try to be consistent, no matter what era I was in, in always looking at the conditions of production and the conditions of reception: What the audiences were like, what the audiences wanted, why audience habits would change. And, as I make clear again and again, that had everything to do with the city’s changing economic patterns. Audience tastes informed how plays were written and where they were produced and how they were produced — it’s not the other way around.”

Similarly, there is an inescapable relationship between theatre and politics, she said, again referring back to the origins of Western theatre.

“The Greeks had play competitions for the best tragedies, which were all an attempt to use the mythic stories of the past to talk about the present conditions and present life,” Conner said. “If you look at the Renaissance or at Shakespeare you have the same situation — that never stops. It’s always a conversation between playwright and community: Playwrights responding to the community, playwrights pushing the community, theatre organizations pushing the community. That conversation is always about how we live our lives.”

As good historians should, Conner strove to maintain an even keel and not let her book deteriorate into a volume of civic boosterism or a personality-driven account of locals-made-good, as many hometown histories are.

“Obviously, my perspective is my perspective, and that leads me to look at something closely and that also leads me to ignore something else,” she said. “But I wanted to offer a narrative that is responsive to the connections between social behavior and theatrical output.”

Conner’s personal favorite era is the 19th century, she said. “I have a real weakness for the 19th century. Culturally, it’s always fascinated me. And then to discover there was so much going on in Pittsburgh. I knew there was a lot going on in the late 19th century, that was easy to discover, but to find out about the eclectic forms and trends of theatre was fascinating.”

Those discoveries included the founding of the Pittsburgh Theatre in Downtown, erected in 1833, which hosted, among other luminaries, Edwin Booth; the first opera house in 1865; a playhouse boom fostered by Pittsburgh’s transformation from trading site to production center in the 1840s; the rise of “variety theatre,” such as minstrel shows; the beginnings of “Smoky City melodramas”; the first residential professional theatres, and the emergence of American-themed drama.

Conner also is partial to the section on 20th-century African-American theatre in Pittsburgh. “I’ve very proud of that part of the book, partly because nobody knew about the richness of the black theatre here,” she said.

One of her discoveries involved Walter Worthington, a local political activist who founded the Green Pastures Community Theater in 1941 and who in 1972 chaired the committee that led to the creation of the African Heritage Nationality Room at Pitt.

Following Worthington’s death, his children donated many of his possessions to the Heinz History Center, Conner said. “That’s how I found out he wrote ‘Independent Hamilton’ in 1932. So there’s your first Pittsburgh-based African-American playwright of record,” she said.

Conner is indebted to Vernell Lillie, Pitt professor of Africana studies and a founder of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre, for insights into the local black community theatre. “Vernell told me about the Curtaineers, a very important troupe that nobody, really, had written about,” she said.

The Curtaineers started in 1940 as the first local integrated theatrical group, casting African-American actors in lead roles and performing at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House (later the Hill House on Centre Avenue) in the Hill District.

“They started as a means for solving the growing racial tensions in the Hill District because of the shifting in the dynamics of the population from a largely Jewish to a predominantly African-American population,” Conner noted.

She also researched the influence of African-American poets such as Amiri Baraka on local theatre development, including artists associated with the Black Horizon Theatre, such as the late August Wilson and the late Robert Lee Penny, who became a Pitt professor of Africana studies.

“Of course, August Wilson and Rob Penny were incredibly influenced by Amiri Baraka, as were many African-American artists,” Conner said. “Wilson was a poet first, same thing with Penny, and that movement of poetry of the streets to theatre of the streets is really a fascinating story.”

Finding information on the Black Horizon Theatre, however, was difficult. “There’s virtually no public record of their work, no references even in the Pittsburgh Courier. I got a lot of my data from Rob Penny’s hand-typed resumes, because that told me at least when and where they had performed.”

Conner’s experience writing “Pittsburgh in Stages” carries over to her teaching of theatre history.

“Just to be able to go into the classroom and talk about the way in which archival materials become the stories of history inverts the path of dialogue,” she said. “Normally, you’re taking a theatre history text and you’re trying to recognize that those are versions of history with selections of materials and so forth. I turn that around and say, ‘Look at this, an ad from the Gazette from 1819 of elephants being exhibited, and there’s a little writing at the bottom that says: He dances for his master and very correctly.’

“’What do you do with that?’ I ask students. Students are astonished by little things like that. This is using little pieces of the archival materials as a way to let them join the process of making decisions about what history is,” Conner said. “The students get it. They’re into it. They like to be under the hood, they like to be thinking about the processes of writing history crisply. So they learn not just how to read history, but how to write history. I would argue that teaching history should do that, always pointing out the choices that historians make as well as the fact that there are any number of other choices available.”

Ironically, Conner did not like history as a young student. “I thought as a school subject it was a bore. In a way I did like history; as a kid I wrote a timeline up on the wall of my bedroom. I just did that on my own. But I wasn’t fully engaged in history classes. I did have the interest, but I didn’t put that personal interest together with a professional career path until I got to the doctoral level. By then I knew I was interested in scholarship and the history of culture was very fascinating to me.”

—Peter Hart

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