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Leading Ladies in the Arts — Part 2

In Part Two of a two-part series, we continue speaking with women who have risen to leadership positions in Pittsburgh-based arts organizations.

Michele de la Reza, Co-Founder and Artistic Executive Director, Attack Theatre
Michele de la Reza

Michele de la Reza, Co-Founder and Artistic Executive Director, Attack Theatre

Michele de la Reza moved to Pittsburgh from New York City to join the Dance Alloy, a modern dance repertory company that has since merged with the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. “One of the things that I recognized in Pittsburgh was this wonderful, creative, openness to new ideas and new explorations in the arts. People think big cities are where you can push the envelope and be more cutting edge, but Pittsburgh, partly because of the economic and physical space it afforded, allowed for experimentation. That was a really fertile ground for founding a company and considering new methods of creation and avenues for performance, said de la Reza, a Juilliard-trained dancer.

That was the foundation of Attack Theatre, which she co-founded with Peter Kope, now located in Lawrenceville. “For Attack Theatre, collaboration and interdisciplinary work is part of our DNA. It is a dance company, and we work with a tremendous number of other arts and cultural organizations using movement as an essential part of living and learning. We are energized by the notion of how dance and movement can interface and integrate with different art forms,” she said. The company has collaborated with such local arts organizations as Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh Opera and the Warhol. 

Education is also a core tenet of Attack Theatre, as they bring dance to over 5,000 learners each year, from schools to community centers to board rooms.

In dance specifically, de la Reza said that women are significantly more represented than their male counterparts, but the opposite holds true in choreographic and leadership roles. “There are powerful examples of women as choreographers and leaders historically and currently within the dance field, but proportionally, leadership has been more dominated by men.” 

She is encouraged by the growing number of female leaders in the Pittsburgh area at many cultural organizations, noting, “It is critical that there is representation and diverse voices of all types of leadership roles, to have a voice at the table, and to offer a perspective that is helping to shape the larger decision-making and ecosystem of our cultural community.”

Elizabeth Elias Huffman, Artistic Director, Pittsburgh International Classic Theatre
Elizabeth Elias Huffman

Elizabeth Elias Huffman, Artistic Director, Pittsburgh International Classic Theatre

Elizabeth Elias Huffman is a Monongahela native, beginning her artistic director career in New York with The Beacon Project. She moved on to Los Angeles and eventually formed the successful International Classic Acting Project (ICAP) “I have always been an advocate for people of all walks of life doing classical theater. In 2009, I moved to Portland, Oregon to become Interim Artistic Director of The Classic Greek Theatre of Oregon and continued to work regionally and internationally until 2020 when I moved back home.”

What brought her back to the area was that she realized how much she loved and missed this area of the country.  In February 2023, she was appointed the new Artistic Director of Pittsburgh International Classic Theatre (PICT), formerly known as Pittsburgh Irish and Classic Theatre. The company’s name change was intentional. “We will continue to produce classic and Irish plays, but I’m also very interested in developing international connections.” As a Middle Eastern artist herself, she is connected globally and is intent on working with actors from every cultural diaspora represented in Pittsburgh. “I want to tell stories from all over the world and level the playing field to include actors of all nationalities in our programming,” she said.

PICT is currently restructuring and rebuilding the company after a two-year hiatus. Within her first six months, the organization cleared their debt and is moving forward to begin producing its first season in September 2024.

Although Huffman said that there are continual challenges for women in arts leadership positions, in that women have to work harder to prove themselves despite their level of experience, she does feel that huge strides have been made. “We pushed on that glass ceiling to where it’s high enough that the younger women directors who are coming up are grabbing these leadership positions because of all of us who fought so hard and couldn’t get anywhere. I have seen a huge leap forward in women in leadership positions and also women of color in particular. It is wonderful to embrace these changes and to witness it finally happening for women.”

Rona Nesbit, Executive Vice President, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
Rona Nesbit

Rona Nesbit, Executive Vice President, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust

Rona Nesbit is a former CPA by trade, having worked in corporate America, and she grew up in the construction business. In the late 1990s, Carol Brown, the former President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, saw the value that Nesbit could bring to the organization, particularly at a time when the Trust was in the midst of a major building campaign. Although she could not have foreseen this path into the arts, Nesbit relishes her role.

Regarding the Trust’s founding 40 years ago, Nesbit explained, “The concept was urban renewal through the arts. In the mid-80s, Pittsburgh may have been in its decline with the steel mills closing and losing population; that is what made this concept interesting and groundbreaking.” The first project was the historic renovation of the Stanley Theater into the Benedum. “Prior to the mid-80s, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh CLO and other groups were all performing at Heinz Hall. Having another beautiful performance venue to help showcase the great arts that are produced and presented here was the mission,” she said.

Since then, the Trust has acquired and built such other venues as the Byham, the O’Reilly Theatre, visual art galleries, and more. Even though people may think of Pittsburgh as a sports city, she said that at its core, Pittsburgh is a deeply cultural city, as the Cultural District attracts more visitors than all three major sports teams do, combined.

Nesbit said that while Pittsburgh is still a ‘paternal’ city, women have made great strides in arts leadership. “It is really exciting to see talented, passionate women in these positions. Sometimes the impression is with nonprofits, you don’t have to worry about making money or shareholder value. I would argue that it’s almost more challenging. We have to live within our checkbooks every year. We’re really stewards of money we are entrusted with, and I would argue that it takes even more creative leadership than perhaps some other kinds of industries,” said Nesbit.

She added that women in these positions also provide a support system, especially not being the only woman at a meeting. “Walking beside people who are so passionate about what they do every day is a really wonderful experience.”

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