From her home on the South Side Slopes, Tami Dixon was overcome by curiosity about the neighborhood that had been defined by steel for a century, until the industry disappeared and a new way of life was mandated.
"I'm really interested in stories about survival, and I think the South Side is an incredible example of that," said the actress, an Ohioan who attended Carnegie Mellon University before seeking her fortunes in New York. She returned to Pittsburgh in 2005 with husband Jeffrey Carpenter, and together they run Bricolage Theater Company and reside on the Slopes.
"I fell in love with the area," Ms. Dixon said. "The view is incredible, and then I wanted to explore the history, knowing that J&L sat beneath the hill and dictated life for that community. When I look out my window, I see a mall. I wondered what that transformation was like, how that happened ... I wondered where the history went."
Busy as she was with Bricolage, she couldn't shake the thought of how the places and people had evolved from a time when steel employed 15,000, many of them immigrants who were scooped up for what seemed like endless mill jobs. Today, commercial South Side emanates from Carson Street, with trendy to old-time flavor from Station Square to the SouthSide Works, where the college and post-work crowds mingle with neighborhood newbies and longtime residents.
Almost three years in the making, "South Side Stories" re-creates memories of times gone by and the culture clashes of today in a one-woman show, in which Ms. Dixon portrays more than two-dozen characters and weaves her own connection to her neighbors, from the Slopes to the Flats.
After securing a fellowship from the TCG/Fox Foundation and collaborators at the South Side's City Theatre, Ms. Dixon set off to find South Siders to tell her stories about their lives, and found an endless supply. Her only criteria was that the storyteller wasn't famous. She would ask for recommendations and participate in local traditions such as making pierogies with a grandmotherly group of women at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church.
After standing for hours at a time while stopping passers-by, she made the strategic decision to start a "story-cart project." She would camp out in a chair -- not to hold a parking place, but on a busy South Side street corner -- with another chair beside and a sign inviting people to: Tell Me Your Story.
The first-time playwright said getting people to stop and talk was never a problem; the hardest parts of the project were transcribing many hours of interviews and weaving them into a 75-minute performance piece.
"It's really incredible to be a part of the process in that way," she said. "As an actor, you are the last person invited to the table of an artistic process, and many of the important decisions have already been made. I really wanted to know what it was like to steer that ship, to have a greater hand in my destiny in terms of my artistic life."
It was City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden who advised her that it was time to retire her tape recorder and start writing. The collaboration with City includes Matt Morrow as director and collage artist David Pohl, a proud native of the North Side who has contributed projected animations to the project.
Ms. Dixon figures her playwright side has given her actress side about 12,000 words to memorize. "A lot of times at Bricolage when we do talk-backs, the public will ask, 'How do you remember all of those lines?' And the actors will be like, that's the least of my worries. But now I'm like, yikes!"
Mr. Pohl, whose fanciful illustrations have been seen from The New York Times to Oprah's O! Magazine to City Theatre posters, has created colorful animations to support Ms. Dixon's performance. He has experimented with animation before, but "South Side Stories" is his first stage venture.
"I bring experience as an editorial illustrator and a conceptual artist," said Mr. Pohl. "I approached it as, how can I add another layer of meaning to Tami's words? The play is a very emotional, very powerful piece of art. I'm responding and bringing my own longtime relationship to this city as well."
The artist was the last piece of the puzzle in creating the "South Side Stories" that has its official opening Friday.
"I've really become totally immersed in it," Mr. Pohl said. "There's something new even if you've seen it a few times; it speaks to people. The play is very heavy and sad but it has a lot of humor in it, too. That's where I relate to Tami. We are both interested in honesty and acceptance of the past, and the transformation of the past into something new."
Ms. Dixon transformed an idea into reality by connecting with the people of her community. The question she had raised about where had the history gone was right in front of her all the time. "I would see it in the faces of my neighbors and I could feel it in that community," she said.
"I've encountered all kinds of people, deep thinking, lovely, feeling human beings that have survived. Pittsburgh has been called a renaissance town, and a lot of other cities, including the city I'm from, Cleveland, are looking to Pittsburgh to see how we did it. And there are parts of Pittsburgh that aren't as lucky as the South Side. There's really something magical about it."theater
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. First Published November 14, 2012 5:00 AM