When she moved to the South Side Slopes, in 2005, Tami Dixon was awed by the view. From her window, she saw an urban panorama stretching from the Squirrel Hill Tunnels west to past the Point.
But the more she learned about the South Side — including the South Side Flats below — the more Dixon was struck by what you could no longer see: the sprawling J&L Steel complex that had dominated the view for a century. The plant had similarly overshadowed life in the neighborhood, but now, she says, "you wouldn't even know it was there." The industrial leviathan had been leveled, and then replaced by office buildings and the retail-heavy 130-acre development known as SouthSide Works.
Many of the people who had lived in the mill's domain had disappeared, too. But not all of them. And those are the people whom playwright and performer Dixon honors in South Side Stories, her one-woman show, premiering this week at City Theatre.
The show consists of a series of vignettes and monologues, with Dixon changing accents, affects and body language to portray some 20 characters. The lonely widow of an alcoholic husband; a retired mill-worker; and others alternately recall the neighborhood's working-class past and assess today's gentrification and East Carson Street bar culture.
"I'm really interested in stories of survival," says Dixon. "This part of the city is a real testament to survival and transition and change. Some people have weathered it better than others."
Most scenes are drawn from transcripts of interviews with actual South Siders that Dixon conducted over the past four years. (One exception is a verbal donnybrook over a parking chair between an ornery South Side woman and some bar-hopping party girls — a riotous amalgam of observed incidents.) And they're woven together by Dixon's personal Slopes saga — a true story that begins when a distraught neighbor accosts her on the street to tell her another neighbor has just died.
Dixon, a Cleveland native, studied theater at Carnegie Mellon University and then spent a decade in New York City. She moved here to marry actor Jeffrey Carpenter. Together they run Bricolage Production Co., the troupe known for its Midnight Radio series and adventuresome shows like this past summer's immersive-theater experience STRATA.
Dixon launched her South Side project in 2008, the year City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden (then a South Sider herself) helped her successfully apply for a TCG/Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship. The funding allowed Dixon to study with theatrical mentors like director Ping Chong and improv-comedy guru Keith Johnstone. Meantime, she became one of Pittsburgh's top stage actresses, with credits at City Theatre, Bricolage, Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre and more.
And she began gathering South Side stories. One initiative was 2010's Story Cart: a two-wheeled basket holding two chairs, an audio recorder and a sign reading "Tell Me a Story" that she set up on street corners and outside bars and coffeehouses.
Through Story Cart and more informal talks with neighbors, Dixon recorded some 100 interviews. She was still gathering material in October, when she made pierogies with women at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Church.
"People want their lives to be witnessed," says Dixon. "That's how we know that what we're doing matters."
Dixon says she was surprised that City Theatre included South Side Stories in its current season. But Brigden says Dixon's reading of the script at City's 2011 Momentum festival of new plays convinced her. "It was a no-brainer," says Brigden. The play "had all the elements. ... It's moving and funny, and topical and universal."
The show is directed by Matt M. Morrow, a friend of Dixon's since their undergraduate days together at CMU. The production, staged in the intimate Lester Hamburg Studio Theatre, features scenic design by Tony Ferrieri and scene-setting projections by artist David Pohl.
Some characters in South Side Stories are comical, like the "cat lady" who delivers an hilarious stream-of-consciousness monologue about her love for critters. ("If I see a sign with an animal lost on it, I write the number dahn!") Some are almost mournful, like a recent Florida transplant who feels isolated on the Slopes. But none is a caricature, and all are intensely human.
Dixon says at least one interview subject will see the show: Mikey, whom she portrays sharing his story of youthful Catholic-school shenanigans and whuppings by his mother.
She thinks South Side Stories has appeal outside of Pittsburgh: "I would love to go on a Rust Belt America tour, paying homage to this hard-core blue-collar family whose stories don't often get told."
"I'm inspired by everyday people that are making it," she adds. "I think by hearing other people's stories you get a sense of, ‘We're all in this together.'"