Essays, Practice, Opinions

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Pittsburgh is nestled amidst the banks of three rivers: the Monongahela, the Allegheny and the Ohio which forms where the rivers meet at a confluence called The Point. There is something about this geography that defines Pittsburgh for me: the energy that’s created by the constant flow of water and the separation it creates. Houses cling to steep slopes that line the river with 712 sets of steps built into the hills to get to them. Driving up the Southside Slopes, the road is so steep it feels like climbing up a rollercoaster, this can’t be safe, you think as you drive at an angle that doesn’t seem possible. This topography has carved out many distinct neighborhoods often defined by ethnicity which include the Northside, the Southside (pronounced sah’side,) Easy Liberty, (s’liberty), Friendship, Lawrenceville, Polish Hill, Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Bloomfield (Pittsburgh’s Little Italy) and the Pittsburgh of August Wilson simply called, The Hill. Separated from each other by the landscape, over four hundred bridges connect us. In fact this “City of Bridges” has more bridges than anywhere including Venice. We span more spaces, connecting more people to each other on a daily basis than anywhere else in the world.

This is Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. WQED was the first public television station in the nation and Fred Rogers created his beloved program here. Many performers still in Pittsburgh created roles on that show: Handyman (Joe) Negri, Mr. McFeely (David Newell) Neighbor (Chuck) Aber, Mary Owl (Mary Rawson). The red trolley is long gone, but the friendliness of neighbors is a defining characteristic, the neighborhood block parties of the East End, the progressive dinners of Lawrenceville. And yet… this is one of the most segregated cities I’ve lived in. The separations run as deep as the ravines and hollows that divide the mostly segregated neighborhoods. The Hill, once the vibrant center of the African American community never recovered from the bite taken out of it by the construction of the Civic Arena (nicknamed The Igloo) in 1961. The latest construction of the new arena right across the street: the Consol Energy Center, reopened the debate for the community, (and left a gaping hole in the ground where The Igloo stood) ending with promises to put money back into this twice disrupted neighborhood, though time will tell. Tensions between the police force and the community sadly mirror the rest of the country. The beating of Jordan Miles, a young violin student by undercover police officers while walking home in 2010, echoes the tragic death of Johnnie Gammage at a traffic stop at the hands of Brentwood police in 1995. The fact that the officers responsible for Gammage’s death were not convicted, (one is now a police chief of the borough where the murder took place) and the current decision by the District Attorney not to prosecute the officers involved in the beating of Miles, sends the message that the more things change the more they stay the same.

When I arrived in 1988, I noticed that even the theater communities were divided along racial lines. Kuntu Rep led by founder and Artistic Director Vernell Lilly has since 1983 produced the work of Rob Penny, August Wilson, PJ Gibson, James Baldwin and others, employing the city’s many black actors. The two LORT theaters at the time, produced one black play a year at most, giving opportunity to just a handful of these artists once or twice a season. Not only was there not much cross pollination going on onstage, this segregation was (and to some extent still is) mirrored in audiences and reflected in the lack of collaboration between the “white theater” and the “black theater” here.

Now those lines have begun to blur with promising connections being made between theater artists, initiated by Mark Clayton Southers. Southers is founder and Artistic Director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company as well as Artistic Director of Theater Initiatives at the new August Wilson Center for African American Culture. About eight years ago Southers began what he called the Black and White Festival at PPTCO pairing white writers with black directors and black writers with white directors, bringing everyone to work together at least once a year. With the recent establishment of the August Wilson Center, black musicians, artists, dancers, actors, and writers are being showcased, developed and supported here like never before and I hope the city will support its spirit and vision. Fellowships are awarded every year among all disciplines, including writer Tameka Cage Conley, a novelist turning her talents to playwriting. The duet series partners artists of different mediums like spoken word artist, actress, poet and sculptor Vanessa German with Trumpeter Sean Jones to work together to create new work. Collaborations between companies are also forming. Earlier this year the docudrama, The Gammage Project written by Attilio Favorini and directed by Southers in a coproduction between August Wilson Center and University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre ripped off the scab from a long ago wound, some thought better off forgotten. A realistic re-enactment of the murder left audiences speechless and in tears, while the play’s method of examining racial profiling was almost too painful for the cast causing one actor to quit the show before opening. The recent co-production between The August Wilson Center and Bricolage Production Company of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman (again directed by Southers and starring Bricolage Producing Artistic Director Tami Dixon) was presented alongside a series of conversations about race relations, called Between the Lines that took place after every performance—bridging audience members across the set of a subway car, in emotional, painful and hopefully healing discussions. Under Souther’s influence AWC is also reaching out across the racial divide: next season in their series “Blacks and Jews” The Sisters Grey, a collaboration between local white playwright Gab Cody and African American playwright Lori Roper will be developed and produced. For a city that often seems in conflict with itself, Pittsburgh is constantly evolving.

The separations from within are also reflected in Pittsburgh’s relationship with the rest of the country. We are neither East Coast, Midwest or Southern, but border all three, although actually we are in Appalachia. Brian O’Neill calls us, The Paris of Appalachia in his book of the same name. Culturally we tend to look toward New York, but we remain a unique place. The confluence of cultures that settled here, gave rise to Pittsburghese or the “Yinzer” dialect, called “Yinzer” because of the word “yinz” a version of “y’all” (as in “Yinz  watchin’ the Pixburgh Stillers?”),  causing the New York Times to dub Pittsburgh “The Galapagos Islands of American Dialect.” The city is original in other ways. Often voted the Most Livable City, we’re an example to the nation of how to move from steel and coal to medical, educational, tech and green technologies. A blue city in a swing state, Obama chose us to host the G-20 because of our ability to redefine ourselves and thrive in this economy, even Google has moved into Bakery Square. We have top tier universities with excellent theater training programs such as those of Carnegie Mellon University and Point Park University. With a world class symphony, ballet, three operas, two LORT theaters and many smaller semi professional theaters, dance companies, music ensembles, plus the Carnegie Museums, The Andy Warhol Museum, and The Mattress Factory, we have more art per capita, again, than anywhere else in the world. The most distinctive thing about “da burgh” for me is that “Pittsburgh is” as Sean Jones said “a place that still believes in Art. Not Art Dollar Sign. Art.”

And yet, with all this art and culture, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a thriving local new play scene. Perhaps it’s our proximity to New York that allows the bigger theaters to participate in the national new play arena. Or the smaller theaters companies that have been forged out of the hard earned vision of their artistic directors and naturally have their own agendas. Or is it the funders? While they provide support for projects, theater companies, as well as individual artists, through the Sprout Fund, the Greater Pittsburgh Art’s Council’s Artist Opportunity Grant, Advancing the Black Arts, Investing in Professional Artists and other grants from the Pittsburgh Foundation, and the Heinz Endowments, they fail to create incentive to connect local playwrights with local theaters resulting in more frequent productions by Pittsburgh playwrights. The Creative Collaborative Residency Grant, originally meant to address the issue of connecting the city’s artists with its institutions rarely led to lasting relationships. Whether it’s the money or the will Pittsburgh lacks a vehicle for institutional development that might establish a connection between the theater community and its playwrights—working steadily, but invisibly underneath all of this constant artistic activity. What about funding for a local slot in City Theater’s MOMENTUM Festival? Or support for a local playwright festival at the Pittsburgh Public Theater? I’m afraid that the unspoken opinion is that the talent is not here. So how does that talent get developed? Pittsburgh playwrights must self produce or take their chances that luck will lead to a relationship with one of the local theaters that don’t typically look their way, or they have to leave to get their plays produced elsewhere.

There are exceptions. City Theater Company began to focus on new plays under the artistic leadership of Marc Masterson and now under Tracy Bridgen’s direction, their mission is to produce plays written in the last five years, many of them commissions and world premieres. Although these plays come mostly from playwrights already on the national scene, or coming out of MFA programs, City has commissioned work locally (full disclosure: City Theater has commissioned but did not produce two plays from me, one through the Creative Collaborative Residency grant mentioned above) and is currently developing first time playwright Tami Dixon’s, Southside Stories slotted for next season with the support of a Fox Resident Actor Fellowship. The Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of Rob Zellers The Chief about Pittsburgh Steeler owner Art Rooney, is a nearly annual event. And while Quantum Theater always focused on the new, instigating collaborations with artists from around the world, including Artistic Director Karla Boos’ own adaptations, Q recently premiered Fat Beckett by Gab Cody that originated here in Pittsburgh.

Fifteen years ago, The Rep at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, a professional repertory company in residence at Point Park University adopted me as a playwright. They have provided me with an artistic home and undoubtedly shaped the writer I’ve become. This is a model we need to replicate in more Pittsburgh theaters. After the production of my first play in 1998, Artistic Director Ronald Allan Lindblom commissioned another play sparking a relationship he hoped would be like Sam Shepherd’s at the Magic Theater. “I want people to think of the Playhouse when they hear of Tammy Ryan, and think Tammy Ryan when they hear of the Playhouse.” Since then, The Playhouse has produced my world premieres, my second productions, adaptations, commissions as well as my own initiated work. They’ve committed to me, creating a safe place that says: we believe in you. Like a family, I often work with the same creative team, led by my long time collaborator, director Sheila McKenna. With these artists I share a common theatrical language through which audiences have come to know me, and I have come to know myself, finding my own voice. Now I often write with the Playhouse in mind, not just the artists, but its capacity for theatricality. There is no better training ground for playwrights than a theater that wants to and can provide beautiful production values, setting future theatrical metaphors loose in my plays. The Playhouse is where my life’s work is happening, where I continue to evolve into the playwright that I am.

Until more theaters step up in this way, playwrights must find other kinds of support. The biggest gift to the Pittsburgh playwright is the incredibly talented pool of truly generous actors. I don’t believe there’s another theater town that has such a wealth of talented designers including Steffi Mayer Staley, Tony Ferrari, Andrew Ostrowski, Scott Nelson and many others. We are short on freelance directors, but the ones we have are smart, talented, and committed to collaboration. Theaters are generous with their spaces too. Bricolage Production Company has opened its doors to local and national theater artists they want to support in their In The Raw series a laboratory that provides space and technical support to develop projects at different stages.

Playwrights, too, are coming together in grassroots ways to support themselves and each other. William Cameron produced his award winning play, Violet Sharp, (winner of the 2007 Julie Harris Beverly Hills Playwriting Prize) last year at the Grey Box in Lawrenceville. As the artistic director of a small theater company, Terra Nova Theater Group, he was able with support of grant from the Laurel Foundation and old fashioned fundraising to get a third production for his play leading to its forthcoming publication by Samuel French. But Cameron didn’t think only of himself, he bought extra time at the theater and with the help of other local playwrights created the Underground Reading series. The series continues this year with plays by Jeanne Drennan, Dennis Schebetta, Maureen McGranagen, Jeremy Richter and Cameron being read again at the Grey Box, supporting the notion that just because you don’t see their work produced on major stages in town, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Finally, with help from the Dramatists Guild and Organic Theater Pittsburgh, playwrights connected for the first time with artistic directors of the many small theaters in From The Ground Up which opened the conversation with the question, “What’s More Organic Than A Locally Grown Playwright?”  Phil Real’s Cactus, about vampires working as border guards in this new take on the immigration debate, is currently being developed for production next season by 12 Peers Theater as a result of that event. Like a tiny mountain spring that won’t be stopped but grows stronger over time, the work of Pittsburgh’s “Underground” playwrights continues.

When I first moved to Pittsburgh, someone told me there was a fourth underground river running under the Point fueling the Fountain, a focal point of the entranceway that opens up as you drive out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel. I thought it was an urban legend, but Google it, it exists. A pure glacial stream, traveling underground from the Great Lakes, it is a continuous source for the fountain. Always fifty-five degrees, it is bacteria free, providing drinking water to some downtown buildings that have tapped wells into it. Like the rivers, Pittsburgh’s artists are a source of energy, renewal, and forward momentum. Like the fourth river, their local playwrights exist. We work steadily underground, flowing towards a place we hope will connect us with theaters, funders, other theater artists and each other. Until we reach that point of confluence, we remain an untapped natural, vital source.

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