Who better to give voice to creative talent than creative talent? Meet three ambitious guys who are taking to the Internet to showcase innovative people in Pittsburgh and their creative projects: Burgh Vivant, Act Classy, and Writing on the Floor.
The martini glasses and tuxedo are part of the shtick. Hosted by Brian Edward, ‘Burgh Vivant is a barstool conversation disguised as an interview program and Siskel-and-Ebert type of review show. “It’s all about telling their stories and giving a voice to our cultural artists and outlets—the tall and the small,” says Edward of his guests, who range from jazz vocalist Etta Cox to international stylist Philip Pelusi.
Like many stitched into the arts, Edward didn’t feel at home in one specific pursuit. He wanted to bring it all together through storytelling. ‘Burgh Vivant was inspired by the French notion of a socialite, someone plugged into their city from a variety of angles, but with a decidedly Pittsburgh garnish. “Besides it’s unique geography, it’s always been the people that make this city special. And that’s who we are talking to,” he says.
The show isn’t meant to cater to a specific demographic—in fact, just the opposite. By conducting off-the-cuff style interviews, where conversations can wander to whatever the guest feels like talking about (“I think it’s interesting to hear what the director of the opera likes for dessert”), ‘Burgh Vivant reveals an authenticity and sense of humility that others, he says, can relate to.
“People will start to see themselves. Even if they don’t think they’re smart enough or cultured enough, they’ll now think otherwise,” he says of the show’s intended mass appeal. “You don’t need to be a scholar in music to hear our interview with a violinist. Just being from here makes it appealing to hear another Pittsburgher’s story.”
Edward defines culture as “the local expression of active, creative, and hungry minds.” And like guest Lidia Bastianich, Emmy award-winning cooking show host and world-renowned chef, said, “Culturally, Pittsburgh is vibrant. …There’s a fullness, a reality. People here want food that tastes good and is honest.” And as Burgh Vivant demonstrates, they’re hungry for more than just food.
“Like liquor, we feel good inside you.” Act Classy’s sassy slogan is figurative but since its inception in April of 2012, the “digital stage for humorous social commentary” has been moving toward the literal stage. So says “co-founder, writer, actor, director, chupacabra hunter, and father” Brad Stephenson who created Act Classy with his wife, Gayle Pazerski. He defines Act Classy as a vehicle for the ever-growing comedy scene, underground and above. “We’re a mishmash of activities,” he says. “We’re all a little ADD.”
A digital marketer by day, Stephenson is a stand-up comic who made his way on the New York City comedy circuit before moving to Pittsburgh–out of sheer love of the city–with his wife. Act Classy first gained steam as a blog and then picked up followers as a web show with its “Lunch Break” podcast where Joe Lyons and Stephenson invite local celebs–such as Rick Sebak and former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Baron Batch–to lunch and then record the interviews.
Now the focus is more on a partnership with the volcanic Arcade Comedy Theater, the new downtown stage that’s a magnet for Pittsburgh comedians. “A lot of what we’re doing is live now,” says Stephenson. “We’re all performers at heart. The writing stuff is almost secondary so to be able to have this partnership with Arcade and produce shows there has been fantastic.”
Gayle Pazerski, Joe Lyons and Fred Betzner are involved with Stephenson, performing at least once a month, usually more. “There’s a lot of crossover of performers in the city,” Stephenson says. “And we all know each other and we’re happy Arcade came along.”
The gigs are often experimental and as a result, hilarious. One such experiment-gone-right is the live “PowerPoint Throwdown” shows. There’s something captivating about throwing a bunch of tie-wearing comedians on stage with some slides and a laser pointer for a fake sales meeting. “It’s all about the performers,” says Stephenson. “Gayle and I create these really off-the-wall PowerPoint slideshows and then we have these performers deliver them sight unseen.” And the audience? They’re part of the sales team, totally into it.
Same goes for a Dungeon & Dragons live-action improv skit, complete with costumes and sword, where the audience picks the cards, rolls the dice, and comedians say things like, “I leap into the air, plunge my sword into the giant frog’s head, travel through its body, and exit its cloaca.”
“Dungeon master Fred Betzner conceptualized the show and improvises the quests based on audience suggestions,” says Stephenson who notes that people arrive in costume now. “It’s become a crazy thing because of the geek culture. If you get a geeky audience who latches onto something, that’s the recipe for success.”
That, and the ability to break new ground. This past week Stephenson announced on Facebook that local restaurant Sharp Edge had agreed to sponsor Downton Stabbey, the wooden sword he uses in the show.
On the Air
Ali Spagnola’s a quirky artist with a penchant for what looks like postmodern pop art. She paints penguins and BLT sandwiches and Harry Potter, or whatever you want—and she gives away a painting a day for free upon request. Bill Peduto is the 60th mayor of Pittsburgh. Not a whole lot in common, you’d think. But they have both sat down with Zachary Simons, producer and host of Writing on the Floor.
Simons says anybody interesting to him in Pittsburgh is a good candidate for his weekly podcast.
“Whether it’s a band that’s just starting out or a known politician, people that have already written a good part of their legacies are who I look for,” he says. Simons founded the show in 2011, first known as “The Steel City Podcast,” when he was inspired by all the great things happening around him.
“I care about people who care about what they do,” he says of guests like Charlie Humphrey, executive director at Pittsburgh Arts, and Mike Rubino, one of the five founders of Arcade Comedy Theater. He is especially interested in the narravtive arc of how people got started and got to where they are today.
Simons says Pittsburgh is culturally rich in a less self-indulgent way than your Portlands and Austins because “the people here just do what they do because they love it, not because they’re trying to be cool.” And those young passion projects, from the arts to entrepreneurial pursuits, get “cross-generational support from the over 40 crowd.”
Collaboration in a city brimming with talent is why Simons invests all his free time on WOTF’s website—a sleek, stylish testament to what a self-taught web designer can do. “When you have a passion for something,” he says humbly, “you just figure it out.”