By Celine Roberts
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writing
While cold weather and a globally devastating virus may be keeping us inside and apart, the creatives of the world are still bringing us together through the collective experience of the arts. Many theater companies have elected to make their seasons available virtually, including Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company which is hosting its 17th season online. On January 31, PPTCO premiered the second production of its season, “Grist From the Mill: 1902.” The show is available for viewing through the end of February.
“Grist From the Mill: 1902” is the first of a three-part series set in the steel mills of Southwestern Pennsylvania. It is written, directed and performed by Lissa Brennan. Brennan originally premiered the piece live on the Carnegie Stage in January 2020 with her theatre company, Dog & Pony Show Theatricals. She planned to continue the series in summer and fall installments, while another of her works, “Hoard”, commissioned by Off the Wall Theatre, completed it’s scheduled run in Pittsburgh and then New York City. Those plans were dashed by the pandemic, but Mark Clayton Southers, the executive director of PPTCO, saw an opportunity to adapt “Grist” into a filmed show. The new format was born of necessity, but it did allow Brennan to explore possibilities not available from the stage.
Brennan describes “Grist” as a “murder ballad,” a tradition of storytelling that comes from folklore originating in Germany, Scandinavia, Iceland and the British Isles. These tales are exemplified not only by the subject but by repeating phrases and foreboding language that help the listener mark the progress of the story and become emotionally invested in the rising action.
Brennan’s performance of the play’s sole stage character, “the conjurer,” is captivating. The camera work is direct, placing Brennan in the center of every shot as she weaves the tale of “the boy,” an immigrant steelworker, and “the girl,” the daughter and sister of steelworkers, falling in love and almost as quickly, into tragedy. Brennan’s focus on delivery and connection with the audience makes the show feel intimate, as though it’s a campfire tale and we’re all waiting in the dark for her next word.
“The show was designed to be performed in small spaces and to foster a lot of connection with the audience,” says Brennan. “I wanted that to transfer to the filmed show.”
The death of love isn’t the only murder present in “Grist,” which doesn’t shy away from commentary on the incredible death toll created by the rise of industrial U.S. Monoliths like the Central Pacific Railroad, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge and the steel mills of Pennsylvania don’t only serve as markers of ‘progress,’ but also as the unmarked headstones of many unprotected workers who died making them real.
With the freedom to take the viewer off the stage and into the streets through filmed production, Brennan and director of photography PJ Gaynard shot “Grist” in neighborhoods and industrial sites around Pittsburgh. With the help of Rivers of Steel, the group that maintains the Carrie Furnace and other industrial sites, Brennan and Gaynard were able to gain access to film in places where the events from “Grist” could have happened. The crumbling beauty of the Carrie Furnace makes for some stunning scenes and the surprising entrance of a train highlights a poignant transition even more steeped in the story and native landscape.
“The places themselves are alive. They are entities in and of themselves,” says Brennan.
There are no currently set dates for the release of the next two plays in the series, 1943 and 1977. Brennan hopes to release 1943, which will focus on women in the mills during WWII, as a recorded performance as well. COVID-19 hasn’t only affected the theater industry’s ability to produce a live show, it’s had a very personal impact on Brennan’s ability to write one.
Brennan contracted COVID-19 in the winter of 2020 and has been dealing with the complications of becoming a “longhauler;” someone who experiences lasting symptoms long after the initial illness. Though her symptoms don’t affect her ability to perform, her writing process has had to change.
“I have entire pages written in my head, but getting them on the page is difficult,” says Brennan. “But it’s encouraging to have a project and I can’t wait to be able to do it in front of a live audience.”