Duquesne University, my undergraduate alma mater, is getting a new theatre. I’m thrilled for the students and community members who will get to enjoy the new black box theatre, but I’m sad that the era of the Peter Mills Theatre is coming to an end. For all that space’s quirks (and there were many), it was my artistic home for a long time.
I joined the Duquesne University Red Masquers theatre group at the start of my freshman year. At that time the Peter Mills Theatre was still under construction, so my first show at Duquesne was also the last show the Red Masquers did in the ballroom of the student union.
Putting on a play in a student union ballroom is challenging. We would rehearse in classrooms and found spaces until the week of the show. The Sunday before opening we spent the day erecting a theatre, including constructing support beams on which lights and masking curtains can hang. Then we carried the pieces of the set the several blocks up the road from the physical plant where it had been built in sections.
Only after all the construction was complete were we able to have our first tech rehearsal. It was a long day. After a few more dress rehearsals and far too few performances we had to take everything apart again, leaving no trace that a play ever happened there.
After years of working like that, the Red Masquers were anxious to have a home. That would be the Peter Mills Theatre, but it was far from a dream home.
At the time Duquesne didn’t even offer a theatre major, and the Administration was not anxious to spend a lot of money on a theatre. The compromise was that the University would build a “multi-purpose” auditiorium space that the theatre group could use but would also house business classes and other events. Unfortunately, the result was more “multi-useless” than “multi-purpose.”
The space was built with a sliding wall meant to divide the theatre for use as two classrooms. If you’ve ever been in a conference room subdivided with those types of sectional walls you know that you can often hear the meeting next door. In the theatre the sound baffling was even less effective since instead of a ceiling a theatre has an open grid for lights that allows sound to carry easily over the dividing wall.
The first day that two scheduled to teach classes in the bifurcated theatre space was also the last day that two classes were scheduled there after the professors complained about hearing each other’s classes. To my knowledge the wall was never used again.
The memory of that failed idea could never be forgotten though. The dividing wall panels slid in to large cabinets that used up what should have been wing space and prevented actors from being able to enter downstage unless they went through the house. But neither of those was the worst legacy of that failed wall.
You know how the most sought out seats in a theatre are usually those right in the center? Well that wasn’t an option at Peter Mills because the center of the house is where that damned wall was meant to go. Peter Mills is the only theatre I know of with a center aisle. And since that aisle deadended into the tech booth you couldn’t even use it to make a grand entrance.
Another major complaint about the Peter Mills Theatre was that there were no dressing rooms. Initially we dressed in a largely unused cafeteria. (During the second show in space a bunch of us had our stuff stolen from there while we were on stage.) Then that cafeteria was turned into a Burger King, so we got used to getting ready in some employee bathrooms.
There were other complaints about the Peter Mills Theatre too, but despite its many flaws as a venue, a lot of great shows happened there. I have so many wonderful memories from there.
During my 14 years in Pittsburgh I was involved with dozens of shows at the Peter Mills Theatre. After graduating I became a producing member of The Summer Company, a theatre group that often performed in Peter Mills. I also became one those omnipresent alumni. I’d occasionally appear in shows. I directed and choreographed Red Masquer shows. And when I wasn’t directly involved in a show I would often come to watch it, usually from the back row (preferably the house left side). Even after leaving Pittsburgh I returned to Peter Mills to see the Red Masquers do a production of a play I had written.
Peter Mills is where I had many theatrical milestones. My first produced play (a one-act I wrote as a freshman) was performed in Peter Mills. I directed my first one-act play in Peter Mills, and later directed my first full-length play there too. The show I’m most proud of as director was my production of Vaclav Havel’s Temptation. Can you guess where it was performed?
It was in Peter Mills, while rehearsing a different show, that my friend John said he had lost his choreographer for his upcoming production of MacBeth. It was there that I meekly said that I had done some choreography. It was there that John trusted me to be his choreographer for MacBeth (performed at Peter Mills, of course), which led to us collaborating as director and choreographer on 5 other shows (two of which were at Peter Mills).
I cannot say that Peter Mills Theatre was where I first performed as an actress, but it is where I performed many of my favorite roles including Hedda Gabler in Hedda Gabler, Cordelia in King Lear, Margaret in The Marriage of Bette and Boo (twice), Callie in Stop Kiss, and so many more.
The last time I performed in a play was as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a Red Masquer alumni show performed at Peter Mills Theatre.
It’s been nearly a decade since I left Pittsburgh. Now when I see pictures of Red Masquer shows I often don’t recognized anyone. In the fall I won’t recognize the theatre either.
To everyone involved in shows during the final season at Peter Mills and to all of those who will perform in the new Genesius Project space I send a message that I hope is still familiar:
In my old school we never said “break a leg.” We always said, “good show,” and it meant play it with love. So, good show, everybody. Good show.
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