Lawrenceville dinner inspires movie

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When Sam Turich and Gab Cody sat down to their first course at the Lawrenceville Urban Pioneer Society’s annual progressive dinner in 2007, they didn’t know anyone. After two more courses and a dessert, they felt they knew the whole town.

Having lived in New York (“we learned there was a country outside of New York City and within a year we were out,” Mr. Turich says) and possessing a wide and varied background in theater, comedy and film, the two came home that night with a feeling of “bonhomie,” Ms. Cody remembers. 

“It is three tables in a row of people that you don’t know and you've never met before. It’s fascinating to sit down and break bread with a whole new group of people throughout the course of the evening,” said Mr. Turich, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh.

They’ve been going to the progressive dinner ever since.

A progressive dinner is a lot like a movie. It joins a community of strangers and provides a camaraderie over the course of a few hours. There are three courses, similar to a beginning, middle and end. It’s meant to be shared and enjoyed.

But Mr. Turich and Ms. Cody are breaking the metaphor down further. The progressive dinner is their movie.

The film “Progression,” which they wrote, directed, produced and acted in, is loosely based off the LUPS annual progressive dinner — a neighborhood event where three different courses are served in three different homes and the entire group reconvenes for dessert. In the quirky and stylized film, three different couples go through each course. Their stories are interwoven and more dysfunctional, but endearing and enjoyable. Characters make up, break up and deliver a baby. Hijinks ensue.

After their second progressive dinner, it became evident that there was a parallel between the dinner and the structure and function of a movie.

“And at the third one we said, ‘We’ve really gotta make this movie,’” he said.

They realized the absurdity of putting strangers in unfamiliar settings under the imposition of social manners and dining etiquette. 

“I think all of those impositions lent themselves to writing a comedy because in comedy you love structure, and in comedy you love pattern, and in comedy you really love any opportunity for there to be rule systems,” Ms. Cody says.

The similarities between the dinner and the movie, though, are more than coincidental — They’re profound. When a group of people laughs together, a bond forms. It’s what turns a room of strangers into a community, created by both the dinner and comedy, Mr. Turich says.

“People are really hungry for those types of communal experiences that they can’t have in other ways,” he says. “One of the reasons why our first feature film is a comedy is because we’re interested in engendering that idea of we’re all in a room together and laughing together and recognizing the humanity of these characters and seeing how they’re like us and have feelings that we have and are embarrassed in the same way we’d be embarrassed if we were caught in a similar situation.”

They understand that this sentiment doesn’t fit the “Hollywood” archetype. That‘‍s why they gravitated toward a micro budget, which they wouldn‘t specify, and used a not-for-profit model. They partnered with various organizations such as Pittsburgh Filmmakers, the Heinz Endowment Fund and the Pittsburgh Foundation. They also launched Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns.

“We learned a lot from making [’‍Progression‘‍], but one of the things we learned was the system of filmmaking is a very powerful system, and that system has a set of rules, and we didn't follow those rules. We chose to make a truly independent movie, and we’re very happy to have had that opportunity ... It’s cool to make something outside of the system,” Ms. Cody says.

They even tapped into the community, casting local actors and musicians and hosting a progressive dinner fundraiser in Lawrenceville, offering members of the community a chance to experience a progressive dinner and watch some of Mr. Turich and Ms. Cody’s other short films. Neighbors lent their homes and cooked food for the fundraiser, and when “Progression” was in production, it was many of these community members who opened their homes for filming and acted as extras on the set. “Progression” had a cast of 43, not including extras, and a crew of approximately 29, including volunteer production assistants.

Despite Pittsburgh‘‍s instrumental role in the film, “Progression” never actually mentions Pittsburgh or Lawrenceville to provide the audience with a sense of “universal truths” and comedy that defies geographic setting. 

Recently when they screened the film for a private audience in New York City, some audience members commented that they loved the scene with the Italian family. That scene actually features dinner being served in a Polish family’s home.

“We don’t hit you over the head, but the food they’re serving is Polish food, and Lawrenceville historically, or at least for the last couple of generations, has been a very Polish neighborhood,” Mr. Turich says.

Despite any geographic ambiguity, it’s undeniable that Pittsburgh provided a source of inspiration for the film and the filmmakers.

“Right away ... were able to plug into this community. Especially in Lawrenceville, even though there’s a lot of diversity ...  everyone's living and working in the same place,” Mr. Turich says.

“I used to say when I first moved here, I sometimes thought Pittsburgh was a parenthetical to my life sentence in New York,” Ms. Cody says, “but I’ve learned I don’t have to serve out that life sentence.”

The 88-minute film will screen at the Regent Square Theater, 1035 S. Braddock Ave., on Thursday. It has not yet been rated, but would be considered R in nature. There will be a 7 p.m. reception and 8 p.m. screening, and tickets are $25 for the premiere reception and screening, and $10 tickets for the screening, available online or at the door. 

Kate Mishkin: or 412-263-1352

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