The Company of Pittsburgh is a new innovative theater company dedicated to bringing musicals of all sizes to an intimate stage. John Allen Biles is the Founding Artistic Director of this company and is thrilled to be here in the city, working with local actors. As both an actor and now Founding Artistic Director, John is an interesting case. He’s talented, ambitious, and loves Pittsburgh artists. He took a dream and made it reality – which is apropros, considering his 2013 season is all about dreams. And after reading the press release for his upcoming 2013 season opener, Man of La Mancha, I knew I had to interview the guy who was brave enough and creative enough to take such a war horse and reimagine it so boldly. Enjoy the interview!
Hi John! Thanks so much for coming by the site. Tell me about yourself. On your website, it says you were born and raised in Pittsburgh but you live in New York. Fill us in on a bit more details.
Well my website is outdated. Haha. I’m kind of surprised the domain name is still under contract. I gave up my website when I moved back mainly because I was focusing more on getting this company off the ground and didn’t feel a strong need for a website here as any acting work I got would be another way for me to get the word out about the theater company. But I was born here and raised in Shaler Township. I lived in New York City from 2000 until 2012. I live here permanently now.
You graduated from Point Park and NYU. How important do you think studying theater in college is to the success of an actor?
20 years ago I’d say not a huge amount, but nowadays every school seems to have an intense theater program. These programs have seemed to take the place of the specialized non-collegiate “schools” that were much bigger a few decades ago. Most of these programs offer very specialized training and showcases in both NYC and LA. So without that training you will start with most of the time a step behind the competition. There are always exceptions to the rule, of course.
You have quite an impressive resume, and have done a ton of regional jobs. In fact, I had the pleasure of seeing you perform just recently in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s awesome 1776. You’ve also done a lot of work in New York and on tour. Can you describe what working in Pittsburgh is like, compared to other places?
It’s not much different. Theater done by pros and by good people is the same pretty much anywhere. I think the one big difference is, in New York, unless you are doing a Broadway show or major off-Broadway show its easy for you to get lost in the mass of theater there. But here you can really promote your show well. Every opening feels like a big deal, whether its Off The Wall, PMT, CLO, Public, City, Bricolage…etc.
What would you say is the most unique thing about Pittsburgh arts?
I think its the feeling that I get the no one is in competition with each other. Each company seems to have its niche and supports each other like brothers in arms rather than enemies.
Alright, let’s switch gears and discuss your theater company! (Check out their FB page for more info!) You describe it as an “innovative new theater company, dedicated to bringing the most essential pieces of musicals of all sizes to an intimate stage”. That sounds very impressive! So first, tell me about the genesis of the company.
Well, when I started planning to move back to Pittsburgh in the fall of 2011, I knew I wanted to start a theater company to make work for myself and my friends and talented Pittsburgh actors who I knew weren’t getting the work they deserved. I also knew that I loved performing musical theater and I truly enjoyed it in an intimate setting. Spectacle is great, but I love watching intimate, chamber musicals the best. I recognized that in Pittsburgh there is still a lack of consistent professional musical theater jobs available, there are more than a decade ago, but its still not as much as other major cities such as Philly or Washington D.C. So I thought there might be a great niche to fit into. Jump to last November and I had just self-produced The Last Five Years at Off The Wall. With a cast of myself and one other person and a team of relative unknowns by Pittsburgh audiences, I was able to get pretty damn good audiences. We had basically no budget but we still pulled out what I think was a simple, clean, polished high quality product. I took away from that experience two things. First, the idea of a new musical theater company in this town really excited the musical theater acting community. And second was the knowledge that audiences responded well to this type of show…lack of spectacle, intimate setting. I had demand for this in both audiences and the talent-base. I figured we could really try to rediscover many musicals of all sizes under this same formula. Unless there is some spectacle that is absolutely necessary such as the chandelier in Phantom, any musical will be considered.
Your first production of the 2013 season for Company of Pittsburgh is the Tony Award-winning musical Man of La Mancha. It’s not an easy undertaking, to say the least. What made you decide to begin 2013 with that production?
We went through a wide list of shows and narrowed it down to a few productions. We knew we wanted to start with a well known piece but needed a show that we could really conceptualize with our unique vision. La Mancha presented the best of both worlds. A proven commodity and a piece where you can really have a lot of fun breaking it down and giving an intimate interpretation of the show. It just so happened it fit really well with the idea of overcoming great odds so it fit our want to do [title of show].
How has it been directing such a classic, as well as some very talented cast members, including Darrel Whitney, whom I will be interviewing. 🙂
I’m actually not directing it. I’m the artistic director of The Company so I have an overall vision for the shows that we want to do and how they should fit into our mission and image. Ted Watts, Jr another Point Park grad is directing the show. He’s a great friend of mine and studying for his MFA in directing at Pace University in New York. We start rehearsals on May 6, so we are in pre-production mode right now.
The Company of Pittsburgh is still in its infancy. Where would you like to see it in five, ten, or even twenty years? What are your plans for it?
In 5 years I’d really like us to be considered as the gritty, professional, exciting musical theater company. Kind of like The City Theater for musicals. I’d like in 10 years this company to producing at least 4 musicals a year and a 5th new work from a Pittsburgh writer or writing team. And of course I’d like our own home within the next 20.
You’re an actor, director, and now a founder! How has it been wearing so many hats, and how do you juggle it all?
You can add teacher to that list too as I’m a faculty member at Pittsburgh Musical Theater. But, its not easy and frankly I’m learning on the fly. I’ve had to learn some hard lessons. I just have to trust the fantastic team around me and my own instincts.
Finally, your season is all about dreaming the impossible dream, which I love! This segues very nicely into my last question: what advice do you have for performers whose dream it is to act professionally and make a real living out of it?
Its not for the faint of heart. You need a huge backbone and thick skin to survive. Take the time to spend at least 2 – 3 years in either New York, Chicago or LA. It gives you a new perspective on the business and really gives you the strength to make it anywhere, to paraphrase the lyric. And finally, take the time to go on vacation, go to a wedding, get married, have kids. Don’t let your whole life be defined by whether you get that next show. It’s too short. Just understand the business and luck determine who succeeds more often than talent, so if you aren’t careful you’ll go a few years and realize that you haven’t taken time for yourself.