Obituary: Roni Ostfield / Brought theater form here that honors life stories
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Roni Ostfield began studying acting and directing after her sons were off to school and she found a home in the Pittsburgh theater community.
The former medical technician earned a master's degree in theater and became a member of the American Drama Therapists Association, combining her passion and empathy to introduce the concept of playback theater to Pittsburgh in 1985. Created by volunteers working abroad, playback calls for people to tell stories from their lives and watch them enacted and discussed on the spot.
Ms. Ostfield and Pittsburgh Playback Theatre went on to document the experiences of female prisoners, homeless people, Holocaust survivors, at-risk teens, refugees and more.
"It's a theatrical form that honors people's stories," Ms. Ostfield told the Post-Gazette in 2008, when a dozen young Israeli Jews and Arabs traveled to Pittsburgh to work on coexistence through theater. "It allows them to be heard and to stand for a moment in each others' shoes, and that builds a sense of community. The idea is that they will take playback home and use it as a peace-making tool."
Ms. Ostfield, who died Tuesday at age 71, had suffered a long list of health issues in recent years, including breast cancer, hip and knee replacements and pneumonia. Even with that, she had participated in recent Playback rehearsals and was planning a trip to India.
In addition to her work as founder and artistic director of Playback Theatre for more than 25 years, she directed City Theatre's Outreach Program for more than a decade. The Squirrel Hill resident also taught acting at Pittsburgh Playhouse Conservatory Theatre and the University of Pittsburgh.
Rich Keitel, a Point Park University acting professor and Playback's associate artistic director, was among the people who eulogized Ms. Ostfield at services Thursday.
On Tuesday, he was shaken as he spoke about the loss of his friend and colleague. "She touched so many people's lives. I taught an improv class last semester and she came in and worked with the students. When I went on Facebook [Tuesday] morning, all the students she met just that one time talked about the impact she had on their lives."
Demetria Marsh has been acting with Playback since the mid-'90s. "It's hard to understand with your brain, but with your heart, it works. People feel they've been heard and understood. When we did work with the Lost Boys of the Sudan and Somali refugees or Holocaust survivors or right after 9/11, it was pretty special.
"Part of that is Roni's gift that she gave -- heart and soul, when they go out the door, people feel connected."
Award-winning Pittsburgh playwright Tammy Ryan met Ms. Ostfield in 1992, when the writer was brought in by City Theatre's then-leader Marc Masterson to work with Ms. Ostfield on outreach. With City and later with Playback, Ms. Ryan worked on projects connected to homelessness, women on welfare and Sudanese refugees, the latter with Peter Harvey, executive director of the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh, who was with Catholic Charities.
"Peter Harvey often came to Roni, who wanted to do theater to affect social change," said Ms. Ryan, who as a result of observing Ms. Ostfield's work wrote the play "Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods."
"Everyone has the same story about Roni," Ms. Ryan said. "After five minutes, she's your best friend. At the end of the first day we met, she told me she loved me. I'm from Queens and I'm like, 'Who is this woman?' She was one of those special people. ... There's going to be a big hole in Pittsburgh."
She is survived by her husband, Frank Cymerman; sons Marc Ostfield of Washington, D.C., and Alan Ostfield of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.; a sister, Dena Fox of Arizona; a brother, Gary Gulak of Philadelphia; and two grandchildren.
Services were held Thursday. Contributions may be made to Pittsburgh Playback Theatre, c/o 2770 Fernwald Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15217 or a charity of your choice.
First Published March 1, 2013 7:08 am