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Industrial Past, Murder Ballads Inspire New Stage Work

Photo by Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA News
Lissa Brennan wrote and performs in the solo show "Grist From the Mill: 1902."

Writer and performer Lissa Brennan’s new work, “Grist from the Mill: 1902,” was informed by sources including two key influences from her childhood: Pittsburgh’s steel mills and Irish murder ballads.

Lissa Brennan performs "Grist from the Mill: 1902" at 8 p.m. Fri., Jan. 17., and 8 p.m. Sat., Jan. 18. Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie

Neither is typically thought of as kids’ fare. But while Brennan didn’t grow up near a mill, she was from a blue-collar family. And her formative experiences in the 1970s and ’80s – for part of which time mills like the South Side’s J&L Steel were still firing away – included illicit visits to the shuttered Carrie Furnaces, in Rankin and Swissvale (now domesticated into a National History Landmark).

And those murder ballads, often sung by Irish folk groups? Well, they were just on the turntable in her house.

“Grist from the Mill: 1902” – part one of a planned “Grist” trilogy – is solo storytelling with a folkloric cast.

“It begins with a love story between a mill worker who is an Irish immigrant and a young woman who has brothers who work in the mill with him,” said Brennan. “Two people fall in love and at least one of them dies.”

Brennan is a veteran performer whose credits include barebones productions (including the recent “Dance Nation”). Last year, she co-starred in Quantum Theatre’s “King Lear,” staged at those same Carrie Furnaces. All that time beneath the silent hulk of the blast furnaces reawakened the “Grist” project, which she’d started working on a while back.

Tying steel mills to themes of violence and mortality is no big stretch, especially with a story set in 1902. That year, said Brennan, a single area mill saw the deaths of 196 workers. “It seemed like a pretty easy place to set a murder and possibly get away with it,” she said.

"Grist from the Mill: 1902" is minimally staged, with sparse lighting and sound design, because Brennan envisions taking it on the road to fringe festivals and such. The Pittsburgh premiere this week includes feature paintings by Leah Blackwood, a scenic painter best known for her work at City Theatre.

The show runs about 45 minutes. There are two performances, Friday and Saturday, at Carnegie Stage. The work is produced by Brennan’s Dog & Pony Show Theatricals with assistance from Off The Wall Productions, which runs Carnegie Stage.

More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: