I met Brennan last year at a table reading for Hoard, the new two-woman play she was commissioned to write for off the WALL productions’ Executive Artistic Director Virginia Wall Gruenert and Assistant Artistic Producer Erika Cuenca. It was a steamy Saturday afternoon in August and she had just taken three buses to get from the Southside to Carnegie. Dressed in her bartender blacks (she had to go to work right after), with a large iced coffee in hand and a tired ‘don’t fuck with me’ look on her face, I took note of who I might be dealing with. Introductions were made and the reading began. Slowly, as the story unfolded and the characters revealed themselves, I realized that the person that I was actually dealing with was a gifted playwright who crafted with heart, depth and lyricism in a way that is rare and delightful.
Last week I got to meet with Brennan again, this time to talk about her new solo piece, Grist from the Mill presented at Carnegie Stage January 17 and 18.
The hour-long piece entitled 1902 is part of a trilogy of stories, each involving a South Western Pennsylvania steel factory. In 1902, a murder has taken place...
LB: It was pretty typical for around 200 people to die a year in a single steel mill at the turn of the last century. That was the immediate deaths - that was the ‘he fell off this, he fell in this’ - he fell, that wasn’t the injury that was fatal four months later. That wasn’t the emphysema and this thing and that thing… In the Hoover Dam, they said ok, there were this many people who died, but they didn’t count the people that got pneumonia - which was actually carbon monoxide poisoning. So, when they say 200 people, that’s onsite deaths. So if you’re in Pittsburgh and you’re fascinated with steel mills and you’re fascinated with labor history and you’re fascinated with things that are kind of fairy taley and dark, if you want to set a murder somewhere - if there are 200 people dying in this thing by accident- you know the tag line for this show is, “in one southwestern steel mill at the turn of the century, almost 200 people died as the result of work place accidents. This is the story of the one that wasn’t,” it all falls together really easily.
Brennan says the form and style of the piece is inspired by the traditional genre, the murder ballad....
LB: I don’t know if the very first occurrence of this was in Ireland, but Ireland is definitely a place where it had some of its origin. And then you’ll find it a lot in the United States and contemporary 20th century folk music and country music- where it is a song that tells the story of a murder. Usually there’s a romance involved as well. Usually there's some type of crime of passion…
I’m from an Irish family, Brennan, you know – and we grew up listening to a lot of recordings of traditional Irish music in the house. And that was one of the things that - there wouldn’t be entire records of murder ballads, but there was almost always something that was a murder ballad in each album. It was also in a lot of American country music. Johnny Cash has songs that would technically, definitely qualify as being a contemporary murder ballad…
I kind of feel like these (plays) are extended versions of those, in that it’s not only the same type of dark story, but the language is a little bit more poetic then just straight talking. It’s not rhymes and versed the way a song is, but there is definitely a cadence and a rhythm that is a little more theatricalized.
It’s this thoughtful crafting of words and phrases, the poetry of her writing that really struck me at the Hoard reading. I’m sure there will be plenty of that in this play as well.
But why the steel mills? What’s the fascination with them? Brennan explains:
LB: My family didn’t work in them when I was a child and we did not live close to one, but it was the identity of the city at that time. It was a steel town - still, it was until I think- the early 80s. Even though it wasn’t a part of my household, it was a part of the larger landscape in which I grew up.
And they’re mythical. Not just because they were the backbone of the town financially, but they’re these giant, looming, kind of terrifying monsters - one of them, Carrie Furnace, which is now open to the public and tours, and coincidentally I worked on King Lear with Quantum Theater at Carrie Furnace – and the last time I had been at Carrie Furnace previous to that, was when we used to break in there in high school to party.
**** HOLD ON!!!*****
And it was right at that moment when Brennan was talking about King Lear, that I realized I had seen her before. She was the powerful and grounded actress that I had seen that summer! The one that I flipped through the program to specifically find out about! I laughed out loud as I was putting the pieces together, “You crushed that!” I told her. I was in awe… an incredible playwright AND actress.
As I wrapped up the interview, I asked Brennan if there was anything else she wanted to include for my blog and this is what she said:
LB: I’ve been reading about labor in America since I was really young. I was 12 years old and trying to talk to people about the triangle shirtwaist factory fire… so it’s been something that, while I wasn’t’ in a steel mill family I was in a blue collar family, a working class family, and so that was something that was always present - your place in the fabric of the United States.
Grist from the Mill is a smart, passionate and thoughtful piece, woven of history and fantasy.
Without a doubt, Brennan is fierce. She has a solid work ethic like the family she grew up in, with the heart, passion and imagination of an artist. She is like the bard of her family’s history: crafting stories with meter and rhyme commemorating the lives, not of patrons or their families as with traditional bards, but of her family and community. A story to soothe, mesmerize, entertain and delight us all.
Buy a ticket and go see her show.
January 17 and 18, 2020 @ 8pm
Pittsburgh's alternative theater company
equal, diverse, inclusive