Land of Reinvention
Unlike the other fabulous artists writing this week, I’m a total newbie to Pittsburgh. Thing is, with Pittsburgh being voted such a livable city, there seems to be more and more of us newbies in the neighborhood.
It was only less than two years ago on a hot, sunny day that my wife and I drove our beat-up Bonneville through the Fort Pitt Tunnel and onto the Fort Pitt Bridge, a route that Pittsburghers know well—it reveals a jaw-dropping skyline of downtown Pittsburgh in all its glory.
This dramatic “entrance” is symbolic for how the city welcomes you. People here wear their heart on their sleeve—they say what they mean and mean what they say. Sometimes it feels very small town. Sometimes it feels urban and sometimes it feels rural. Sometimes it’s confusing—especially its streets. I mean, seriously, why is the route to get somewhere never the same route back?
Once known as a steel town, its major businesses are now medicine, tech, and higher education. And yet, it feels like this city is ripe for more reinvention, especially in the theater.
And just when you think you’ve got the city all figured out, that’s when it surprises you.
I expected a dirty steel town but I’ve been surprised by the beauty of the landscape. I’ve been surprised by the amount of museums, galleries, theaters, arts festivals, and music in this city. I’ve been surprised by the generosity and collaborative spirit of the writers, actors and directors I’ve met and worked with.
Pittsburghers are brilliant at inventing and re-inventing—anything from a sandwich (Primanti’s!) to new words (“It’s slippy out there!”) to Ferris wheels and robots. They “reinvent” the old steel mills and turn them into malls or take a Nabisco factory and make it a Google office. My personal favorite is the way they reinvent lawn chairs (look it up). Creative energy also abounds in our actors and directors, many of whom are hungry to work on new plays, even if they don’t have the funding to do it.
Quantum Theatre reinvents the theatrical experience by transforming non-theatre spaces. The first show I saw in Pittsburgh was When The Rain Stops Falling. I was amazed by this company’s audacity to look at an empty brewery warehouse and say, “Yes, that’s going to be our stage and we’ll put the audience here, a kitchen here, and a mountain over here…” And they reinvent their space for every single show.
Bricolage has reinvented radio plays in their Midnight Radio Series, a variety show that mixes up classic radio plays, commercials and new plays all with a regional flair (I learned almost everything I need to know about “yinz” from “Aunt Meg”). They’re also reinventing the 24-hour play festival with B.U.S.
Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre has reinvented the idea of a short play festival with their “Festival in Black & White”, where black playwrights work with white directors and white playwrights work with black directors. That’s a collaborative way of reinventing a conversation about race in the theater.
There are other innovative companies that I’m only still getting to know: Squonk Opera, Terra Nova Theatre, No Name Players, 12 Peers Theatre, Attack Theatre, Kelly Strayhorn Theater, The Hiawatha Project, Organic Theatre and Off The Wall Theater. (I’m sure I’ve left many out in this short list but I’m still pretty new here).
There is a history of reinvention in this city. Once known as a steel town, its major businesses are now medicine, tech, and higher education.
And yet, it feels like this city is ripe for more reinvention, especially in the theater. As many others have written on HowlRound about Seattle or Minneapolis, there could definitely be more support for new work in this city. We have no Playwrights' Center or Chicago Dramatists—heck, we don’t even have a measly fringe festival. And that small town feel can make it seem like audiences aren’t as welcoming and supportive to more experimental and racially diverse work.
Truth is, for a guy who grew up in a small desert town that had one theater doing Annie every year, Pittsburgh is a pretty great place to be. There’s a wide variety of productions and readings, sure, but it’s really the people I’ve met here that makes me so immediately fond of this city. Theater people welcome you with an open heart and they do reward you if work hard. They especially like it when you come up with something new and different. And I’m curious about what new blood might be out there right now, looking at an empty mill or factory and thinking, “I could make some theater here.”
It makes me feel honored to know I’m surrounded by people who think that way—who make the best of what they have around them. I surprise myself by how inspired I get by these acts of reinvention.
Whenever I drive from the Fort Pitt Tunnel and onto that bridge and see that now familiar skyline, I think about how the city is embracing me. I think about how I am honored to be part of that reinvention.
And then I get lost in the city streets.