“Justin and I met when we were teenagers at the Arena Players, the oldest African American continuously running theater in the country, in Baltimore - we were about 14 years old. We did four shows a year and trained in acting, singing, dance, technical theater, and playwriting.” Monteze Freeland starts right out the gate, telling me his story of how he came to Pittsburgh – a story of so many artists choosing to live here instead of places like New York, LA, or Berlin – and start something up, in this case, The LAB Project, Freeland and Lonesome’s new theater.
“We both came to Pittsburgh for college, attending the conservatory at Point Park University. About five of us came to the Arena Players theater. It was like going to school with my friends. I graduated and Justin went to NYC, and I traveled between Pittsburgh and Baltimore, working, and decided to settle in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh really afforded me the opportunity to do that. “
“In Pittsburgh, there is a great network of theater - just by capacity, there are so many theaters that have allowed me to play a range of characters – Bricolage, Kuntu, Prime Stage. In Baltimore, there is Center Stage, but it doesn’t really afford you the opportunity of the diverse theater community that exists in Pittsburgh.”
I saw both Justin and Monteze perform at the whirlwind Bricolage Urban Scrawl this past Saturday night at the New Hazlett Theater, blowing me away with their performances: Monteze’s character in a tutu on a public bus and Justin’s moving performance as a typecast black man in Vanessa German’s one act, The Script. Justin Lonesome has performed with Pittsburgh CLO for a few seasons, then going on the national tour of Jersey Boys at the top of last year.
Claims Freeland, “Theater gave me a purpose, got me off the streets, and it saved my life and saved my friends’ lives, and I believe it can do the same for Pittsburgh youth.”
Pittsburgh has a legacy of working with youth in need of a purpose – just take Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, Hip Hop on Lock, MGR Foundation, and the many artists who work with youth through school and community residencies through Gateway to the Arts as prime examples of how the arts empower kids to succeed. The LAB Project hopes to build on that legacy through their program in 2015 entitled Playing Ground, an ensemble of young actors highlighting socially relevant issues of the day, touring Pittsburgh Public Schools and speaking directly to urban youth and the issues they face, every day.
Featuring Justin Lonesome inThe Script by Vanessa German and directed by Mark Staley. In the background from left to right: Hayley Nielsen, Andy Nagraj (only his legs can be seen) and Meleana Felton
Freeland and Lonesome hope to grow their ideas into a theater school to serve underserved, impoverished communities. Hopefully, this can assist the goals to reinstate art education in our schools, especially as we know that it’s not just math and reading that bolster student achievement, it’s the arts – improved overall grade point averages and decreased dropout rates for teens who’ve taken art, across the socio-economic spectrum. The Conference Board recently released a report called Ready to Innovate, citing the correlation between creativity and the arts with workforce readiness, innovation, problem solving, and more – all skills needed for the next wave of workers. It’s not just about training up artists, it’s about training up citizens. Seems like The LAB Project gets it.
Seems like they really get it about our changing population, too. Though 2010 census data claims that our county has started getting slightly younger, we still host an aging population of arts patrons, and that’s a serious issue for theaters who need to build audiences. The LAB Project has a goal to hit up the community of 20 – 40 year olds, cultivating them to become theater patrons. Freeland posits, “Many theater subscriber bases will be obsolete in the next 20 years or so, and we need to get people excited about theater – on a Friday night, going to see a play is just as viable as going to a bar or going to a movie.”
Or, a yoga studio, which is the set for Women Say F*&#, Too, part of the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, coming right up May 9 – 11. The LAB Project currently does not have its own dedicated space, but rather seeks to use “found space” not unlike Quantum Theatre.
The LAB Project will host its official launch party on Friday at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 7 – 9 p.m. and all are welcome. Their first full production is August 14 – 31 at Pittsburgh Playrights Theater, 937 Liberty Avenue with a production of The Gospel Singer by C. S. Wyatt Mils MJ James.