Matt Morrow, the new Associate Artistic Director of City Theatre, talks about his work with City Theatre, what excites him about new writers, and his recent return to Pittsburgh.
Tammy: Pittsburgh seems to inspire a boomerang effect. People grow up here or come to study here, then leave, and come back for work or to raise a family. You had previous connections to Pittsburgh, you received your BFA in directing from Carnegie Mellon University in 1996, and you’ve directed for Bricolage Production Company a number of times. What is it about Pittsburgh that brought you back this time?
Matt: Honestly, it’s City Theatre. City Theatre offered me an opportunity to make a living full time as an artist, and in today’s economy that’s gold.
Tammy: What’s it like being back?
Matt: Well, I’m still new—very new—even though I’ve been back a few times to direct at Bricolage, so when I came back this time, it was in August and I was actually surprised by how beautiful the city is, how lush, how green, how hilly. The topography is so dramatic and beautiful.
Tammy: They call Pittsburgh the San Francisco of the East Coast, I think for that reason.
Matt: That’s exactly what I thought, and even though it’s a small city or a large town, however you look at it, it does have an edge to it. It doesn’t seem like people are afraid of dark ideas here.
Tammy: How do your colleagues feel about your coming to Pittsburgh, how do you explain leaving New York to them?
Matt: I think for the most part everyone who knows me has been really supportive of the move and has seen this as a real opportunity for me. But there’s always a stigma around leaving New York. That’s probably just in me. There was a part of me that had to get over the idea that “oh, I’m giving up.” I still have an apartment there.
Tammy: Well, it’s close. You’re just a mega bus ride away, only seven or eight hours—
Matt: Yeah, it’s just past doable to do it on a regular basis. I lived in New York a long time, with moderate success, but not consistent success, and I was getting tired of holding down a part-time job to support my art habit. But I’ve always been first and foremost interested in new work, and that’s all City Theatre does. I don’t think I could work for a company that just did revivals—not that I don’t like re-envisioning revivals, but if I’m going to devote my life to something, it’s going to be developing new plays.
Tammy: And that’s really City Theatre’s focus.
Matt: We only do plays that have been written in the past five years and we’re committed to commissioning and developing new work. Last year I directed Tami Dixon in Southside Stories for the MOMENTUM Festival and we’ve been developing it together from the beginning, which is the way I often work with a new writer.
Tammy: MOMENTUM is coming up the first weekend of June. How do you see MOMENTUM working in terms of City Theatre’s mission and new play development in Pittsburgh?
Matt: I think the MOMENTUM Festival is at the heart of what we do—supporting the life of new plays. It’s a birthing ground and very exciting. We usually do between three and four pieces in the festival a year augmented by special workshops and panel discussions to facilitate a dialogue among the participating artists and local community. I love that our season begins with the Young Playwrights Festival (six new plays written by middle and high school students) and ends with MOMENTUM, showcasing professional writers at different stages in their career and writing process. It’s a wonderful way to bookend our season and our mission. Right now we are gearing up for both. Submissions are rolling in for YPF and we are in the final phases of programming this season’s MOMENTUM Festival.
Tammy: This season you directed Kim Rosenstock’s Tigers Be Still, with an all-local cast. How’s that been received?
Matt: Very well, it’s one of the best shows of the season in terms of ticket sale. I think I cast it really well and audiences have loved it. It’s not an easy show. It’s dark and funny at the same time, but it deals with really dark, tricky subject matter. It has been a real challenge here in that it’s being presented in a town part of whose identity is about being depressed, so it’s a hot button issue; people take real ownership of it here.
Tammy: You have an ongoing working relationship with Jennifer Haley, you’ve directed Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom for Bricolage and are currently developing Haley’s play Froggy for ACT next season. You’ve also been collaborating with Tami Dixon, developing her play Southside Stories. Is there something about working with female writers for you or is it just a coincidence?
Matt: I guess I know more women. In my everyday life more of my friends are women. I think that comes from my upbringing. I was raised by two older sisters, a really dynamic, powerful mother figure and my dad was a firefighter in St. Louis and he wasn’t home a lot, so I relate to women more. I’ve worked with male writers mostly on musicals, like Sean Jeremy Palmer on Great White and Groove Factory by David Boyd, but it’s not male or female. The writers I’m attracted to are not afraid to look into dark places with honesty and sensitivity. I think they are all fiercely inventive with form, and detailed and authentic with character. I know they sound like the best writers in the world! I’m also attracted to writers who are clearly responding to something, an issue, an idea we are facing right now.
Tammy: When Tami started developing Southside Stories, she rigged together this “story cart” on wheels, it reminded me of a hot dog stand or ice cream cart, and she’d pull out a chair and set up on Carson Street and talk to people, generating a lot of material. Tell me about that collaboration, what was the process like? Were you involved early on?
Matt: Tracy Brigden (Artistic Director of City Theatre) paired Tami and me up together. Since I’m not from Pittsburgh and don’t really know a whole lot about Pittsburgh, when she chose me, I didn’t feel like the right choice at first, but once we started working on it, I realized Tami needed somebody she trusted. This was her first real outing as a playwright, other than Midnight Radio at Bricolage (where Tami does most of the writing). We had a weekend retreat at my studio in Brooklyn where she brought all of the monologues she had transcribed and we just dumped them out on the floor and started piecing them together, reading them, finding themes and seeing how they worked together. Out of the process of assembling this collage of other people’s stories, Tami’s voice, along with her journey as a Pittsburgh artist and what Pittsburgh meant to her, started to emerge in a natural organic way that felt honest.
Tammy: I love that it’s about the Southside and it’s going to premiere at City, on the Southside.
Matt: We made a big leap during MOMENTUM last year and we have another big leap to go, and I think we’ll be there when we open in the fall.
Tammy: So do you see yourself staying in “da ‘burgh?”
Matt: One beautiful thing about Pittsburgh is that I feel like the connections that I’ve made here are going to be lasting, no matter what I do or where I go, I will always have a home here. I see the theater community like I see the city. It’s big and small at the same time, maybe I wish it was just a little bigger— not to say there’s not a lot of theater activity happening. It’s not a place that lacks in resources, like New York where there are so many people trying to do their craft, but everything is really expensive. Here you can pretty much get a space for free somewhere to do something. Sometimes I feel there’s a little bit of a self defeatist attitude, maybe stemming from the mill worker mentality coming from Pittsburgh itself. But like I said, I’m still really new—
Tammy: It’s often a city with an inferiority complex, despite the great work that happens here.
Matt: At the same time, the other thing I’ve witnessed is that if you’re ever in need, they really rally around you. It’s a hard working, dedicated, scrappy community with a lot of exciting, ambitious work being made here. My being here now feels like a real gift to me as an artist. I suppose it’s true that it’s all in the timing.