In the brutally competitive world of playwriting, Pittsburgh-based UB alumna Tammy Ryan (BA ’85) is blazing a trail.
Her 2000 play “The Music Lesson,” inspired by musicians who fled the war in Sarajevo to make a new life in Pittsburgh, is performed throughout the country. In 2012 she was awarded the Francesca Primus Prize by the American Theatre Critics Association for “Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods,” about a chance meeting of a Sudanese refugee boy and a middle-aged woman in a grocery store. The Kilroys, an advocacy group that seeks to bring women playwrights to the attention of producers, gave her 2015 play, “Tar Beach,” a coveted spot on its annual list of “most recommended female-authored plays.”
At UB, Ryan studied theater and English literature with hopes of becoming an actor. A turning point came when she wrote her first play, a one-act called “Flying Pigeons.” She showed the script to her acting professor, Jack Hunter, who urged her to quickly write a second act, because he wanted to produce it. He did, in the back of Nietzsche’s pub on Allen Street, in 1984 (he also starred in it).
When Ryan realized the play had brought in enough money to cover her month’s rent, she reassessed her goals and switched to writing. She went on to earn her MFA in dramatic writing at Carnegie Mellon in 1990, and has been writing and teaching in Pittsburgh ever since.
Persistence seems to be key to the career of a playwright based outside of New York City. “There are so many opportunities for writers in New York, but what I’ve gained in Pittsburgh is the ability to focus almost exclusively on my writing rather than paying the rent,” Ryan says. “I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a lot of support here, including an artistic home at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.”
In 2013, Ryan received a Pittsburgh Region Artists grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation and Heinz Endowments to support “Molly’s Hammer,” an adaption of a book by Liane Ellison Norman about Pittsburgh peace activist Molly Rush. Ryan has also written her first libretto, for “A New Kind of Fallout,” which will premier at Opera Theater of Pittsburgh at SummerFest in July 2015.