In 2007, Gab Cody and her artistic and life partner Sam Turich made the move from Brooklyn, New York to Pittsburgh. They had moved to East Industrial Williamsburg/ Bushwick in Brooklyn before it was the trendy place it is today and when rents were still low enough for young artists, she points out.
Back then, she says, “It was an unpopulated wasteland of mostly un-used warehouses and old factories. There were packs of wild dogs. When we first moved to our loft in a converted dress warehouse we were urban pioneers. A friend visiting for the first time said 'You didn't tell me you live at the corner of weird and scary.'"
But when Gab became pregnant with their daughter, they decided to move closer to Sam’s family. They wanted a place where they could afford to have a family and continue to be artists. “We could really develop work here and be bolder, take bigger risks,” Gab says. “We were riding a wave of creativity that brought us to Pittsburgh.”
After looking at 20 apartments in various neighborhoods they landed in post industrial Lawrenceville and soon attended the neighborhood’s 27-year-old progressive dinner, organized annually by the Lawrenceville Urban Pioneer Society. In the space of an evening, residents flit (or sometimes roll) between the various open homes for a soup, salad, or entrée course; then everyone meets up for dessert.
“The dinner sold us,” Gab says. “Moving to Lawrenceville was one of the smartest things we’ve done. It’s a visually, historically, and socially stimulating neighborhood with a stronger sense of community than I’ve experienced anywhere else. Lawrenceville has the same aesthetic values that we do. It provides space in every sense of the word and views the world as a place where you can make art.”
They now participate in the progressive dinner as hosts--“a perfect set-up for craziness,” Gab says. Wildly inspired by the neighborhood’s dinner conversations, they wrote and are currently producing and directing their first full-length feature film: “a gentrification farce” entitled Progression
, which completed shooting on September 2nd.
The ensemble comedy highlights the neighborhood’s wide range of residents and “features three soups, two salads, and culminates in a raucous single entrée where secrets are revealed, true love is conceived or destroyed, and a baby is delivered on the dining room table.”
Always active, Gab was the lead writer on STRATA, a recent and very innovative project with Bricolage. “STRATA is a great example of artists in Pittsburgh thinking huge,” says Gab. “It was a large, epic collaboration that tackles large questions and leaves the answers to the participants.”
Like many, Gab’s path to a creative life was circuitous and unexpected. She spent her childhood in Alaska, upstate New York, and North Carolina. “We always lived on farms, where I cared for all kinds of animals—horses, pigs, goats, rabbits, chickens, you name it. Gab says This was excellent preparation for a career in show business,” Gab notes. A shy child, Gab’s mother signed her up for a drama class, which led to a career as a child actor and then to the University of North Carolina School for the Arts. After graduating with a BFA, Gab moved to NYC and met Sam, who was teaching improv.
“I worked for a Broadway general manager and producer and as a company manager/location scout on a project for Al Pacino and, earlier, as David Hare's personal assistant,” says Gab. With Tina Benko, another Pittsburgh native, Gab and Sam improvised a screwball comedy that became Crush the Infamous Thing: The Adventures of the Hollywood Four, which workshopped at Williamstown Theater Festival and premiered at Miami’s Coconut Grove Playhouse in 2004. In New York, Gab was also writing and acting in a sketch comedy group and performing stand-up.
“The best standup I ever performed I performed pregnant,” Gab says. “Eventually I had to give birth and therefore give up the standup. The audience is smaller, but the laughs are more reliable."
A legacy for Lawrenceville
Her successful film Mombies was born out of a love for George Romero’s films, the Allegheny Cemetery, Butler street’s architecture, and various pockets of Lawrenceville. In 2008 Gab and Sam won the competition to create the Lawrenceville section in the feature film Greetings from Pittsburgh: Neighborhood Narratives.
“When I moved back to Pittsburgh in 2008, I saw Mombies during a screening of Pittsburgh Neighborhood Narratives,” says Maya Henry, Business District Manager at Lawrenceville Corporation. “I was totally blown away and excited to see such a well-made, witty, and creative piece. Never did I dream that just a few short years later I would be working in Lawrenceville and getting to know Gab through her documentary on the Accordion Pool Party in Leslie Park Pool.”
Gab’s short documentary Accordion Pool Party focused on the 2009 community revitalization (aka volunteers dancing to an accordion orchestra in the empty pool) of the Leslie Park Pool on Butler Street. In 2011, Gab and Sam teamed up with Quantum Theatre to produce Gab’s stage comedy, written in collaboration with Rita Reis, Fat Beckett (inspired by Beckett’s forbidding of women to perform in Waiting for Godot) at the Old Schoolhouse in Lawrenceville.
The August Wilson Center for African American Culture will produce a workshop production of Gab’s new play with Lori Roper entitled The Sisters Grey, “an example of a perspective-altering collaboration wherein the collaboration itself is an experiment,” says Gab. The play presents two sisters in law – one Black and one Jewish – who both believe that their family histories of racial oppression require retribution and sacrifice from others.
“Theatre and film are collaborative mediums, and I’ve been blessed to work with incredible collaborators for years now—they are my inspiration and my favorite part of working in the arts,” says Gab. “Pittsburgh is a breath: expansive in its thinking and encouraging to innovation. The ongoing goal of my work is to provoke audiences and challenge the status quo with entertainingly brain agitating works of theater and film."
Erin Lewenauer is a student in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Pittsburgh.
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen