A Tony Awards honor

Center for Theater Arts brought itself back from COVID-related hard times with an emergency fundraising campaign that exceeded its goal.

It was a proud moment back in 2015 when Joe Manganiello (Mt. Lebanon High School Class of 1995) appeared on Broadway’s Tony Awards telecast to present the inaugural Excellence in Theater Education Award. That moment became unforgettable for Lebo drama kids and parents when Manganiello gave a nationwide shoutout to his own favorite educator, legendary high school theater teacher
Cindy Schreiner. 

The Excellence in Theater Education Award links back to Pittsburgh in other ways: It’s co-presented by Carnegie Mellon University and its world-class drama school. This year’s award has a special, very local connection: Among more than 700 applicants, Billy Hartung, executive director of the Center for Theater Arts, was one of a handful of teachers to receive an honorable mention.

“I am very proud,” said Hartung. “We just wanted to exhale after the pandemic, and then this happened. It’s a massive compliment to our board.”  

Just two years ago, on the eve of its 40th anniversary, the center’s future was looking grim. COVID restrictions forced the school to shut down in March 2020. The yearly middle school musical and spring classes were canceled. Summer sessions were very much in doubt. 

Center for Theater Arts executive director Billy Hartung received an honorable mention Excellence in Theater Education award, given at this year’s Tony Awards. /Photo: Chrissy LeJeune

“Billy and I had to tell the board, ‘We’re not sure if we can stay open,’” board chair Marci Heckler recalled.

An emergency fundraising campaign exceeded its $150,000 goal. Just as important, Hartung led an ad-hoc “let’s put on a show” effort that that would have made Garland and Rooney proud.

“He worked from sunup to sundown,” Heckler said. 

The studio was equipped with plexiglass dividers, and the floor was marked with six-foot keep-your-distance squares. By June 2020, kids were singing in the parking lot while parents cheered from their cars. The center filmed and uploaded two summer musicals for family viewing. By the fall, students returned, with limited enrollment and mandatory masks. From there, it was a steady climb back to a pre-COVID normal.

“Out of the pandemic we rose,” Hartung said proudly. “We were only closed for
four weeks.”

The yearly fundraising gala came back in a big way earlier this year, when Broadway veterans Norm Lewis and Hugh Panaro joined Hartung, as well as the center’s staff and students, for Lifting Our Voices, a concert at Heinz Hall. Lewis and Panaro, who have both played the title role in Phantom of the Opera, appeared with Hartung in Side Show on Broadway in 1997.  

Last summer’s classes sold out, and the fall sessions are back to normal, with the center hallways crowded with students taking musical theater, acting, dance and voice classes. Kids from age 4 to 18 participate Monday through Thursday afternoons, as well as Saturdays. Fridays are reserved for classes for special needs students of all ages, as they have been
for years. 

What’s next for the center? Hartung is blunt: “It’s a massive thing to say we’re not closed.”

Heckler gives Hartung most of the credit for that, and for the center’s collegial,
welcoming warmth.

“This is his heart and soul, it’s who he is,” she said. “He’s so inspiring to the kids. He makes them each feel so special.”

“At the end of the day, I know—and I think the community knows—the impact we have had,” Hartung said. “I’m proud I’ve been able to lead the center at a time when it really mattered.”