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Saints Tour digs deep into Braddock

A new immersive theater work summons the extraordinary in a struggling town

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The three little girls exit the house and march across the street.

"Here they come," says Tami Dixon. On a chilly May evening, she's standing in a garden in North Braddock with TaeAjah Cannon as they rehearse for Saints Tour. The three girls, who've watched Dixon and Cannon rehearse here before, approach familiarly. They sit on lawn chairs as Cannon, 16, runs lines from the immersive, site-specfic play; when Dixon, pretending to be an audience member, responds to Cannon in a funny voice, they giggle.

The scene reflects the community interaction you get when staging theater outdoors. But it's also the kind of interaction that Saints Tour is both largely about and meant to nurture.

Produced by Ashley Murray and Aaron Warnick

Saints Tour is playwright Molly Rice's work about finding the extraordinary in the everyday: saints in the front yard. The episodic, non-narrative show is produced by Bricolage Productions with Rice and partner Rusty Thelins' Real/Time Interventions. It is structured as a 90-minute bus-and-walking tour in and near Braddock — where, audiences are told by the Tour Guide, "Saints emerge in disproportionate numbers at this very latitude and longitude." The Guide, herself a semi-mystical character, tells the stories of invented, nonsectarian figures like "migratory saint" St. James of the Open Hand; performers stationed along the way encourage audiences to participate in small rituals that emphasize the specialness of the place. Driven by Rice's lyrical writing style, Saints Tour suggests a magical-realist Our Town. With audiences limited to 40 per performance, the show even concludes with a family-style community meal.

Rice, a nationally produced playwright, has staged other Saints Tours. The first was in Louisville, Ky., in 2009, followed by sold-out versions in New York City's West Village and Lower Manhattan. Each was tailored to its community, with a different cast and nods to local history and culture. But the Braddock iteration is the deepest plunge yet.

Rice and Thelin, her husband, moved here from New York in 2013, to care for a sick friend, then stayed. They met with Bricolage about doing a Saints Tour here, and Bricolage's Jeffrey Carpenter suggested Braddock, with its hard times and signs of regrowth. Over some 18 months, the production partners (whose backers include the Sprout Fund) have logged hundreds of hours connecting with people and organizations in the struggling mill community, including neighboring North Braddock and Braddock Hills.

For the first time, Rice has almost completely rewritten her original Saints script. This Saints Tour both incorporates more local culture than earlier tours — a story about Braddock's famed Hungarian Gypsies, for instance — and involves more local residents.

The production has even sown some long-term relationships. For instance, last year, Rice, Thelin and Bricolage's Dixon and Carpenter befriended Braddock resident Sanford-Mark Barnes, a crossing-guard, and three of his sons. Now Barnes, a former professional musician, and sons Nathan, 16, and Seth, 10, have notable non-speaking roles in the show. (Isaiah, 14, appears via audio recording.) While the Tour Guide is played by professional actress Bria Walker, other community members also perform or have behind-the-scenes roles.

Bria Walker (center), who plays the Tour Guide, and Jeffrey Carpenter, at right; TaeAjah Cannon prepares for her role in Saints Tour - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Bria Walker (center), who plays the Tour Guide, and Jeffrey Carpenter, at right; TaeAjah Cannon prepares for her role in Saints Tour

"I'm very blessed, very happy to be in this project," says Barnes. The level of community involvement "makes it more of a hometown play. It makes it more of a community, a village play that people can be proud of."

The production incorporates original artwork by several local artists, including sculptors James Simon and Vanessa German, and the painters at Braddock's own New Guild Studios.

Saints Tour continues Pittsburgh's new wave of immersive, often site-specific and sometimes audience-interactive theater that began with Bricolage's own 2012 production, STRATA, which occupied a whole Downtown building. But none of those shows involved such engagement with a community. Braddock, once a bustling town, was devastated by Big Steel's collapse; lately, it's known for Mayor John Fetterman's efforts to seed revitalization through initiatives like drawing artists to the community, and starting an urban farm.

Bricolage and Real/Time worked with, among others, Braddock Farms, the Braddock Carnegie Library, Unsmoke Systems gallery, work-readiness program the Braddock Youth Project and Gardweeno, which combines gardening and computer instruction. Saints Tour producers reserved 40 percent of the run's 800-some tickets for residents of the 15104 zip code, and mailed 4,000 copies of a letter inviting neighbors. Partly to subsidize the free tickets, full-price tickets are $60. Some dates are already sold out.

Sanford-Mark Barnes (left) and his son Seth; Nathan Barnes prepares for his role - PHOTOS BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photos by Heather Mull
  • Sanford-Mark Barnes (left) and his son Seth; Nathan Barnes prepares for his role

A gardening theme runs through the script, and the play's tagline is "There's something in the dirt." Rice hopes that audiences, especially visitors to Braddock, will develop new connections that will aid in the town's rebirth.

TaeAjah Cannon thinks that just might happen. The sophomore at Homestead's Propel Andrew Street High School is a life-long Braddock resident. Saints Tour is her first big acting role. "I think that people feel Braddock is a run-down place — but in reality, there's a lot that happens here," says Cannon. "I think it will give a new perspective on Braddock."

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