Sixteen years ago this month, I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and it changed the course of my life.
I had been trying to make it as an actor in Los Angeles for nearly two years, and I hated it out there. I was profoundly unhappy, and felt superficial and empty. I wanted to give back. So, I joined AmeriCorps National Service, and I was assigned to an inner-city high school in Pittsburgh.
I served at Northside Urban Pathways High School as a tutor and mentor in a program called Knowledge to Empower Youths to Success (KEYS). One of the requirements in my year of service was that I do a community service project. Many of my colleagues in the program were doing things like bottle drives and organizing park clean-ups. As important as those thing are, I felt like I would best serve the community by sharing my art and using my skills in the theatre to try and help the community in some way. Late that spring, I directed my very first play. It was an original work, written by me and the students, covering topics like racism, homophobia, sexism, and other social issues. For many parents, this was the first play they had ever seen. For most of my students, it was the first play they had ever been in! It was an amazing and transformative experience, and the parents and school community were really moved and impressed. I had never directed a play before, and the experience was so rewarding and inspirational, it made me seriously reconsider what I wanted to do with my life.
As it turns out, the school liked me so much, they decided to hire me as their English and Theatre teacher the very next year. The only stipulation was that I earn my teaching certification. While teaching during the day, I went to school nights at a very good small Liberal Arts college in Pittsburgh called Point Park University. I studied Education, and within two years, I earned a Postbaccalaureate BA in Theatre Education, Grades 7-12, with certifications in Theatre and Communications. I graduated Suma Cum Laude – at the top of my class. It was wonderful to be back in school. It also made me realize that I eventually wanted to go on to earn my Master’s degree.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was teaching my first week of high school. I had just taught English to my freshmen, and was about to start teaching my seniors. The school was a small charter school on the tenth floor of a building owned by Point Park University — directly in downtown Pittsburgh. I was told by one of my seniors that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in NYC. Given that he was kind of a class clown, I did not believe him at first. He told me to turn on the television. I did, and we all watched in horror as the second plane hit, and I realized that we were under attack. During a hasty and impromptu meeting in the hall with the Principal and other teachers, we were told that there was a fourth plane, and it was headed directly at Pittsburgh. Authorities believed that it was heading towards Washington D.C., but had no idea if it would get there. All we knew was that it was heading towards us. Given that we were on the tenth floor of a downtown building, we were told to evacuate. Since all the kids were on the city bus system, we sent them all home, and called their parents.
After making sure all the kids were gone, I left the building, and was horrified by what I saw. The entire city was in a panic, and everyone was trying to evacuate. It looked like the scene out of some dystopian disaster flick. Everyone thinks about the nightmare scene in NYC and DC, but not many people know that Pittsburgh thought it was going to be next. If you know Pittsburgh, you know that the city lies at the intersection of three rivers, and that there are more bridges in the city than any other in the world, except for Florence, Italy. As you can imagine, all the bridges were packed, and there was huge congestion. Luckily, I lived in a nice neighborhood called Mt. Washington, which was over the bridge, up a small mountain, and overlooked the city and three rivers. I simply walked over the bridge and took one of the inclines home. The Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines are historic inclined plane cable cars that go up the side of this hill in Pittsburgh. At the top of the hill, are breathtaking views of the city, including the stadiums where the Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates play. Yeah, we lived up there! When I got to the top, I went to one of my favorite restaurants and sat and ate, as I watched all of the news coverage on television. It was — hands down — the most surreal experience of my life. I still have nightmares about that day.
Pittsburgh is one of those cities which gets a bad rap. Almost no one has actually been there, but everybody talks about it like they have. Everyone thinks they know Pittsburgh. They most often think of it as a dirty, grimy, blue-collar steel town, right in the heart of the rust belt. Many people have described a rusty, white version of Detroit, filled with falling down buildings, and soot-covered everything. While that may have been the Pittsburgh of 30 years ago, it doesn’t resemble the place I came to love. While it’s true that there are lots of abandoned industrial buildings, what’s amazing about the city, is what they have done with them. They have turned buildings into artist studios and living spaces, art galleries, museums, performance spaces, and all kinds of mixed-media venues. They have also created amazing restaurants in these spaces.
What people don’t often realize is that all that steel money had to go somewhere, and in many cases, it went to the arts and sciences. Carnegie Melon University is one of the premiere arts and technology universities in the world, and Pittsburgh has many other great colleges and universities as well. That Carnegie money also went into creating some amazing libraries, as well as the extensive network of museums the city has to offer. There are science museums, art museums, history museums, and just about every type of museum you can imagine. There is beautiful architecture all over town, as well as wonderful parks and green spaces spread throughout the city. And of course, who can forget the storied sports history Pittsburgh has to offer? The Pittsburgh Steelers have more trophies than any other team in the NFL, and the Pirates and Penguins have their own share of impressive hardware.
One of the best things about Pittsburgh is that it is thoroughly unpretentious. It has some of the best museums, universities, and sports teams in the country, but it’s still a small town feel. The city is still a very working-class place, with a wonderful arts community and money to support the arts. It has a world class ballet and symphony, and many great places to eat. It is a first class city, at a very reasonable price. The cost of living is very low, and your money goes a long way there.
While I was in Pittsburgh, I also got the chance to act A LOT! I got an incredible amount of work, and developed close relationships with their local theatres — The Pittsburgh Public Theatre, The City Theatre, and the Point Park Playhouse. It was in Pittsburgh where I saw Adam Rapp’s play, ‘Blackbird,’ starring future Oscar nominee, Michael Shannon. The play would have such a profound affect on me, I later went on to direct it as my first full length directing project in grad school. During the month that it played, I must have seen it seven or eight times, and became close to the Artistic Director, and often got to hang out with the cast and the playwright, Adam Rapp. Because I established this relationship with Rapp, I was later able to fly him out to my graduate school and host him for a series of workshops and lectures, and had him screen his film adaptation of ‘Blackbird.’
Even though I was just a young actor of 24, I was planting seeds in Pittsburgh that would later blossom. It was in this city that I directed my first play, and realized my love for directing. I would later go on to get my MFA in Directing from Illinois State University. It was also in this city where I taught my first class, and realized that I had a love and affinity for teaching. Directing and teaching are what I do for a living today, and it all started in Pittsburgh. It was also where I got my second degree in Theatre Education, and realized I loved school, and wanted to pursue my Master’s degree. It was also where I first considered going into Academia.
Finally, Pittsburgh was a place where I found myself. I found love in Pittsburgh, and although those romantic relationships didn’t last, they taught me a lot about myself and the kind of partner I wanted to be. I made lasting friendships there, and it was the place where my best friend, Brendan, and I grew closest. For three years, we shared an apartment together, and shared a lot of memories. His family was there, and I grew especially close to them. It felt like a second home. I will always love Boston, and consider it my one true home, but Pittsburgh might be my second favorite city I’ve lived in. Obviously, other cities have much more to see and do, but Pittsburgh is where I became a man. It gave me my spirit. I’m glad to be back in Pittsburgh, and to catch up with old friends!