Knocking on the Door of… Barbara Russell
This marks the first installment of a new series for Sampsonia Way. In Knocking on the Door of… we present interviews with fellow residents of Pittsburgh’s Northside. Our first interview is with performer and teacher Barbara Russell. Make sure you check back in the coming weeks for more Knocking on the Door of… someone you know might get a knock soon!
In the early afternoon of a frigid Pittsburgh winter day, it’s refreshing to be greeted warmly from behind the bright orange door of Barbara Russell’s home in the Northside. Just a block from City of Asylum/Pittsburgh and Sampsonia Way magazine, Russell’s antique three-story home is a colorful example of the lively nature of the Northside.
Born in Black Lick, Pennsylvania, Russell became a prominent figure in Pittsburgh’s performing arts community as part of the well-known comedy duo Brockett and Barbara with local legend Don Brockett. She spent several years traveling the world with Brockett before returning to Pittsburgh to continue the teaching career she started in 1954. She now dedicates much of her time to teaching preschool-age children and their teachers about the performing arts and their role in a successful education.
In this interview, Barbara Russell gives us a glimpse into the life of a Pittsburgh Northsider as a member of a unique community with a big personality and bigger heart.
What made you decide the Northside was where you wanted to make your home?
My husband at the time and I moved here in 1971 after a friend told us about the neighborhood. We had always enjoyed antiques and this house was original in that way. I’m the fourth owner in 180 years. The house was so inexpensive and there were a lot of original things here: the fireplaces, the pocket doors, old wiring that needed to be redone, ceilings that were collapsing. But we just fell in love with the house. Then we learned about the neighborhood, which we felt very comfortable in. The thing we liked most about being here was the diversity; it’s a complete mixed bag in terms of gender, sexual preference, age. I have a lady’s party here once a year, and it’s mostly women from the neighborhood who have become long-time friends of mine. If you’re lucky, you maybe have five good friends in your life to take you to the hospital, to lend you a cup of sugar or a bottle of wine. For me, the women in this neighborhood make it ten or fifteen.
In 2000, Russell was honored with the Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Distinguished Alumni Award, and the Pittsburgh New Works Festival paid tribute to Russell’s career in the arts by awarding her their Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
You’ve traveled all over the world to perform. Why did you chose Pittsburgh as the city in which to continue your performing career?
My work with Don Brockett originally kept me grounded here. We could continue to make a living doing showbiz here in Pittsburgh, where it would have been more difficult doing so in New York or Los Angeles. Also, people applaud the same way in Pittsburgh as they do in New York. I was able to lead a very comfortable life doing what I enjoyed while also being able to combine my love for theater with my teaching work.
It’s an interesting observation that the sound of applause is the same in New York and Pittsburgh. Are there enough shows in Pittsburgh to experience that applause?
Pittsburgh is not well-known in terms of developing plays, but we have a few equity houses, nonprofessional theaters, and professional houses. There is enough theater for me to go to; there’s enough dance, enough symphony, enough music. The arts are well represented in this city. You can be busy going to all kinds of concerts, even if it’s not considered one of the big “center for the arts” cities.
Do you think there is enough being done to promote the arts in the city?
No, I don’t think so. The arts have been removed from the schools, which is an economic thing, but it’s a big loss. As much as the Pittsburgh International Children’s Theater and Gateway to the Arts are promoting the arts, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done. But it’s all economic. The schools are very open to bringing performing arts programs into the classrooms; you can use the arts to reach children who may not be as skilled academically but are able to think outside of the box. The children solve problems in very unique ways and that is exactly what life is. The arts are humanizing – they let us know one another – and I think it’s important to tap into that for all of us. There are wonderful volunteers, but people need to eat. Without funding, very little can happen to promote the arts, unfortunately.
You play a significant role in Gateway to the Arts, one of the outreach programs that is still successfully running in Pittsburgh schools. Can you describe how you got involved with Gateway to the Arts and your role in their outreach now?
I had heard about it from a teacher at Penn Hills, where I had been teaching. After some investigation, I became one of their outreach people. Now, I am a teaching artist for Wolf Trap, an organization that calls Pittsburgh one of its fifteen homes in the United States. We go into preschools and work with the teachers and students to maximize learning potential of the teacher’s lesson plans using performing arts techniques, like dramatizing books or having the teacher and students play roles within the story. It’s an extension of my theater and teaching work and is something I can do until I’m 107, as long as I can get my walker up the walkway. Teachers usually learn about this outreach through Gateway to the Arts’ professional development workshops, and word of the program spreads from teacher to teacher.
What has drawn you back to doing children’s theater and performing arts development instead of maintaining your career with adult audiences?
I love doing theater because of the camaraderie. You’re a family; you have to respect one another, and I enjoy that very much. As a comedian, the applause is fine, but the laughter is what I’m really after for adult audiences. For the children, it’s not so much applause as it is enthusiasm. Is it more rewarding to work with the children? No, I’d say it’s equal. Whenever children give me a surprise answer, or any time they are creative in any form, though, I love it. They surprise me all the time; it’s one of the delights of working with children. Never underestimate a kid.
Do you think there will come a day soon where you will hang up your shoes and say, “See you later, Pittsburgh; I’ve done my work for you”?
The only thing that’ll do that is physical limitations. Performing has always been a thing that I do, as well as teaching. As long as I can get into the schools and Gateway to the Arts is still around, I can still do that. As long as I’m still upright, I’ll be doing it. I have no desire to stop. And for Pittsburgh, I’m not planning on leaving anytime soon. I’ve got two grandchildren I adore, and too many friends to leave. Do I love to travel? Yes. But I’m very happy about Pittsburgh. It’s a big old town.
Barbara Russell took part in City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s 2008 Jazz Poetry Festival, leading the show as the emcee. In this video, she reads “I Like Pittsburgh” by poet Florence Fisher Parry.