by Genea L. Webb
For New Pittsburgh Courier
Mark Clayton Southers’ love for trees sustained his mind, body and theater company during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company founder and producing Artistic & Executive Director always enjoyed cutting down trees with his father as a child.
So, in the midst of the pandemic, Southers traded in his pen for a chainsaw and started “The Tree Squad” with his son, nephew and brother.
“I started it last year after my mother received an astronomical estimate to cut down four trees in her yard. We cut down her trees and it didn’t cost her a penny,” recalled Southers, an avid arborist.
He traveled to Ohio and purchased a used bucket truck and began cutting trees for other people. He even enlisted the help of some of the actors in his Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.
MARK CLAYTON SOUTHERS, founder of The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, has a love that few people know about—tree-cutting.
“The Tree Squad has helped me with my bouts of depression,” revealed Southers, who suffered a horrific traffic accident on May 11, 2015. That day, he was driving and his wife was in the passenger seat, when Southers had a coughing fit and blacked out. His Chevrolet Suburban crossed the double yellow lines and hit the side of a school bus, which only had the driver as its passenger. Southers was in a medically-induced coma for two weeks. Overall, he spent four months in the hospital. His hip was shattered due to the accident.
“Depression comes on you like a thief in the night and it sits on you,” Southers said. “Cutting trees has been freeing for me. When I’m in that bucket truck cutting trees, I don’t need my legs. I forget about my injuries when I’m sitting up there. But when I get to walk, it’s like Groundhog Day.”
Southers said the Tree Squad cuts trees three to four days a week and books appointments with a two-week time frame.
“That way I can still work on plays. I don’t want to book out too far in advance and then I have a production I’m working on, but I have to cut trees,” he said.
Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre recently debuted its third film at the Heinz History Center. The film is called, “Cyril.” A little about the film: When the newly formed Forensic Science Channel interviews forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, not only does he provide detailed insight into some of America’s most brutal and provocative cases—Jon Benet Ramsey, JFK, and O.J. Simpson to name a few—but new information emerges centered around murders that very rarely, if ever, make the headlines. The film stars Dr. Cyril Wecht, David Whalen and Sam Lothard.
“It is my hope that people learn something from the movie about how forensics works and I hope they enjoy it,” said the world-renowned forensic pathologist, Dr. Wecht, who portrays himself in the movie.
Southers plans to submit “Cyril” to some film festivals and see how it does. The film is currently more than two hours long and Southers and his crew are still working to pare it down to about two hours.
“The film was wonderful. People will really enjoy it,” said film attendee and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre supporter, Cheryl Long.
Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company was founded by Southers in 2003. It started as the resident company of Garfield’s Penn Theater and moved to a 75-seat space at 542 Penn Avenue in Downtown’s Cultural District in 2005. In 2011, the theater moved again in October into the Penthouse at 937 Liberty Avenue. Last year, the theatre moved to 819 Penn Avenue. Its first production of the season will be held in February 2022.
“We are hoping we can do that with COVID still around and the new variant,” Southers said.
The theater is committed to developing and showcasing the works of local playwrights from master storytellers like August Wilson and George S. Kaufman to promising new talent. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company seeks to nurture a racially and culturally diverse community of playwrights, directors, actors and technical specialists to hone their craft and to network creative opportunities.
MARK CLAYTON SOUTHERS
In the meantime, Southers is keeping busy with The Tree Squad.
“People should book us,” Southers told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “We don’t gouge you like other companies, and we enjoy doing the work.”