Three Prime Stage performances at New Hazlett Theater explore the theme of “courage” this season.

By Nick Eustis

In addition to producing its own creative work, New Hazlett Theater, known simply as the The Hazlett Theater when it first opened its doors to the Northside community in 1889, serves as an affordable rental facility for other nonprofits. Its goal is to create a hub for a diverse range of artists and performances. Prime Stage Theatre, one of New Hazlett’s
current occupants, is now preparing for the beginning of its 22nd season.

“Our mission is to entertain, educate, and inspire—to discover literature through theater,” said Wayne Brinda, the artistic producing director and co-founder of Prime Stage. Brinda and his wife Connie originally founded Prime Stage as a way to address something missing in Pittsburgh’s theater scene.

“I was a director of Playhouse Jr. for five years, and I noticed that there was a real gap between what was then children’s theater and adult theater. There was nothing in between,” Brinda said.

Playhouse Jr. is the children’s theater program at Pittsburgh Playhouse, which focuses mainly on adaptations of fairy tales and classic literature. Shortly after its founding, Brinda received a phone call and the direction of Prime Stage changed.

“I got a call from Wilkinsburg School and they said, ‘We have kids that aren’t reading. Is there any program that you have that can help us get these struggling kids to read?’ and I said, ‘Sure!’” According to Brinda, Prime Stage collaborates with Pittsburgh area educators to brainstorm possible shows for the upcoming season.

“The programs and the plays that we do are drawn from middle school and secondary curriculum, and also themes that are connected into the curriculum, not just the literature and the stuff on reading lists,” Brinda said. Prime Stage also actively seeks out partnerships with organizations and nonprofits who would pair well with the shows being put on that year. The partner organizations help with promoting shows and supplementing Prime Stage’s educational programs.

This season Prime Stage will partner with the National Steinbeck Center for “Of Mice and Men” and the Center of Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh for “In the Time of the Butterflies.”

“What’s happening with the Steinbeck Center is they’re going to provide us with information about John Steinbeck that we can put in our educational programming,” Brinda said. “The executive director is going to do a Skype call with the audience and talk about Steinbeck.”

Once a shortlist of plays is finalized, an overarching theme for the season is chosen. The 2018-2019 season theme is “Courage.” This theme is represented in each of the three shows in different ways. The season’s first play, “Of Mice and Men,” tells the tale of two men trying to make a living in Depression-era California.

“We looked at the courage of [the main characters] George and Lennie, and their courage to find the American Dream. Also, the courage of what George has to do to deal with Lennie,” Brinda said. The season’s next show, “In the Time of the Butterflies,” tells the story of the Mirabal sisters and their opposition to the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, for which they faced political persecution and worse. The final play of the season, Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” tells of Viola, a teenage girl who disguises herself as a man while searching for her long-lost twin brother. “With ‘Twelfth Night,’ here’s this young girl who thinks she’s lost her twin brother in a shipping accident, and she has the courage to search for him,” Brinda said. Twelfth Night will also feature a sensory-friendly performance in order to make it more accessible to those with sensory difficulties. “Some of the lighting is adjusted, the sound effects are adjusted,” Brinda said. “It’s to make it so it’s not so jarring for people on the [autism] spectrum and those with sensory issues.”

With its mission to connect all people to literature and theater, Prime Stage makes every effort to be accessible. “Whether it’s the Northside community or the regional community, our goal is to serve the community, not just entertain the community,” Brinda said.

“Of Mice and Men” runs from November 2 to 11. “In the Time of the Butterflies” runs March 8 to 17, 2019. “Twelfth Night” runs from May 3 to 12, 2019.