Storytelling is used to amuse and enlighten. It can also be used to preserve history. Associate Professor of Theatre Arts, Dr. Jay Breckenridge, and his Theatre Arts Honors class worked in collaboration with Instructor Coni Koepfinger's production practicum students, using the stories of area residents to document and celebrate the history of the region's once powerful steel industry. As part of this history, the work ethic and values the steel workers brought to the Mon Valley and Western Pennsylvania were also discussed and documented for future generations.
The cultural heritage of an area can and has been used to steer the course of other communities. One of these communities, Colquitt, GA was visited by Penn State McKeesport faculty and staff, led by Dr. Susan Lewis, as well as members of the Regional Heritage preservation Foundation, Rivers of Steel. Colquitt, like McKeesport, was a one-industry town, decimated when that industry closed its doors, destroying the region's economy. Colquitt, through its Swamp Gravy project, turned a dying cotton mill town into a theatre Mecca, supported by an arts council that looked to develop stories which highlighted the town's cultural heritage.
After the visit, Penn State McKeesport started the process of collecting stories from local residents who were part of the steel industry and developing a theatrical production from those stories. Penn State McKeesport students, many of whom had parents and grandparents who had worked in the steel mills, began interviewing area residents who remembered the era of steel production in the Mon Valley. The students tried to bring to light events that could be dramatized in a production. For this production, students looked for stories that illustrated ethnic conflict, the collaboration of many individuals of diverse backgrounds and the celebration of the region's heritage.
Collaborating with this older generation of workers, the students began to get a sense of the reality of the situations that the story tellers experienced. Forming Story Circles, students interviewed an older generation that told stories of their lives and experiences . Taping the accounts of many incidents which made up the daily lives of their collaborators, the students transcribed the stories, not only to help their own memory of the events being recounted, but also to add to the archives of the Rivers of Steel organization. Pulling together the incidents which spanned six decades, from the 1930's through the 1980' s allowed the students to add their own creative license to create a collage of scenes. Costumes, sets, props, lights and sound were added as the array of stories was developed into a final production with eight students performing 30 roles. The play, Blood, Sweat & Steel: Ethnic Blend, was performed to full houses in the campus's Community Center on three different nights.
Penn State McKeesport takes its role as a community partner seriously and hopes its start in collecting stories to pass on to future generations can develop into a community project. The campus is partnering with the McKeesport Heritage Center, the Rivers of Steel Foundation and community Senior Centers to continue to collect stories which will develop into scripts for Readers Theatre presentations to be held at Senior Centers throughout the area. The Spring 2006 American Studies class, "Pop Culture and Folklore," under the direction of Assistant Professor of Integrative Arts, Dr. Joseph Marchesani, is currently working on the project. To support this endeavor the Office of Continuing Education, under the direction of Dr. Susan Lewis received funding for a $10,000 grant proposal. from the Pennsylvania Heritage Parks Programs.
A class is also being developed as a summer offering. It is hoped this class will attract local high school students as part of the state's Dual Enrollment program. Students can learn of the region's history through their collaboration with older residents of the region and can earn college credits at the same time.
Dr. Breckenridge hopes to help other communities with similar projects. Recently he and Ms. Kopefinger developed a presentation, "Blood, Sweat and Steel: Ethnic Blood - Process and Product," which was accepted as part of the Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities in Honolulu (January, 2006). The presentation has also been accepted for the program of the National Symposium on Theatre in Academe, at Washington and Lee University in Washington, DC this spring where Dr. Breckenridge and Ms. Koepfinger will be co-presenters.