A fast food restaurant in a dying town opens for business in Salt Lake City March 27-28, when Mr. Wheeler’s, a new play by Rob Zellers, gets a staged reading in Pioneer Theatre Company’s Play-By-Play series. Zellers, who co-wrote the biographical sports play The Chief, a sensation in Pittsburgh, is on campus at the University of Utah for the weeklong development of his new work.
“Wheeler’s — oddly enough, like most of my plays — was inspired by a setting,” the playwright told me. “It was my favorite fast food restaurant when I was growing up in Youngstown, Ohio. It was also inspired by the many wonderful students I encountered in all my years as a teacher.”
Shana Gold (who directed A Public Education in Play-By-Play 2014) directs the reading of Mr. Wheeler’s, which is billed this way by PTC: “Life is a challenge when you work at a moribund fast food restaurant in a decaying inner city. But don’t underestimate the resilience of the scruffy band of young people who work the breakfast shift at Mr. Wheeler’s.”
“I come from a city where young people must make a decision whether to stay or whether to go,” Zellers explained. “Those that stay must of course figure out how they’re going to make that work because many roads have been closed to them. The decay and deterioration of much of the infrastructure as well as the ethos of what built their community poses great challenges for the stayers. But families, a certain way of life, a certain voice are still somewhat present and some young people decide to work with what remains — to build or rebuild with what they have. The minimum wage is a serious obstacle. Crime. Poor schools. Some of the adults in these kids’ lives.”
The reading cast includes Equity actors returning to PTC: Corey Allen, Austin Archer, Carleton Bluford and Robert Scott Smith, joined by September McKinnon, Latoya Rhodes and Aldo Uribe. John Geertsen is stage manager.
Readings will be held Friday, March 27 at 8 PM, Saturday, March 28 at 2 PM (a talkback follows) and Saturday, March 28 at 8 PM at Dumke Auditorium of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Dr., in Salt Lake City. Get tickets here.
Alabama Story had a reading at Dumke Auditorium in the inaugural Play-By-Play series in April 2014 and would later get its mainstage world premiere at PTC in January 2015.
Pioneer artistic director Karen Azenberg confirmed to me on March 24 that the PTC Play-By-Play New Play Reading Series will indeed return for a third annual season in 2016. Attendance for the series grew between 2014 and 2015, she said.
Zellers’ plays have been developed at Pittsburgh Public Theater, Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, The Lark, PlayPenn, New Harmony Project, Carnegie Mellon and Wake Forest Universities.
Rob Zellers, whose day job for more than a quarter-century is serving as education director at Pittsburgh Public Theater, shared some thoughts about his new play with me.
Mr. Wheeler’s is set “a decaying inner city.” Because of your work at Pittsburgh Public, I associate you with Pittsburgh, a city with a rich history of success, decay and renewal. Is the play modeled on Pittsburgh?
Rob Zellers: It’s a Rust Belt play. It happens to be Youngstown but it could be Pittsburgh, Erie, Buffalo, Detroit, Reading, Bethlehem. Pittsburgh adjusted and survived better these others — I’m more interested in those places that are still struggling.
How much is your play about “hope” in relation to decay?
Rob Zellers: Hope, of course. But tempered by the real challenges that face the residents of these cities. I must admit that some days it all looks possible and some days not.
When you write, how aware of “theme” are you, or does that emerge later?
Rob Zellers: I am not aware or thinking about themes when I begin. Themes creep in along the way and some of them even start steering the action. But at the beginning, it’s about the place — usually a single room (with a lot going on outside that room) and the people that enter and exit that room.
Your play Harry’s Friendly Service, which premiered at Pittsburgh Public Theater, one of your artistic homes, was also a “workplace” play, set in a declining steel town. Is this a trend with you, an attraction to working class people and settings? Why are you naturally drawn there?
Rob Zellers: I believe that our national debate is missing the voice of the working class. That voice has value. It needs to be one of the voices in the room. Unions were one way to represent that voice but as we all know they are fighting just to survive. I have another play that is set in 1890 when the iron workers were getting displaced by steel. Another play in the 1980s when all of our steel mills closed their doors. We know that’s the way of the world — things keep evolving and we have to change with the times, but that’s easier said than done. There is going to be displacement, whole communities are going to be devastated, lots of casualties. How do we — how should we — go forth are very interesting questions for me.
With Gene Collier you co-wrote The Chief, about Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney, and it became the most successful play in the 40-year history of Pittsburgh Public Theater. It was made into a film. Does it get any licensing life in regional theatres, or is it primarily a hometown title?
Rob Zellers: The Chief has had very little play outside of Pittsburgh because it is perceived to be a play about a guy who owned a football team in Pittsburgh. But there’s very little about football [in it]. It’s a story about an Irish immigrant born at the turn of the last century who had a unique perspective about the world for someone of that generation and who I think has a lot to say that we can learn from today.
What’s next for you? What else are you working on?
Ron Zellers: I have begun work on a jazz musical about the life of Billy Strayhorn: mid-20th-century America, the struggle for civil rights just starting to emerge; a musical genius who was entirely out of the spotlight; a gay, African American man in the testosterone-driven world of jazz; and the complicated collaboration with his mentor, Duke Ellington.
Was there a specific moment in your career when you said, “I want to write for the stage”?
Rob Zellers: I’m a late-in-life playwright. I only picked this up about a dozen years ago. I’ve always loved stories and the important role they play in a culture. So it was going to be a novel or a play. Plays won out because I love dialogue and the idea of having the story occur in the moment with the audience present — and the sense of magic that can be created when everything comes together.
Read my earlier interviews with the previous 2015 Play-By-Play playwrights, Wendy MacLeod (Slow Food) and Josh Tobiessen (Speculator Spirits).