Robert Isenberg

Robert Isenberg
December 31
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer, playwright, photographer and stage performer. He is a past recipient of the Brickenridge Fellowship, McDowell Scholarship, Trespass Residency, and two Golden Quill Awards. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, where he served as Whitford Fellow, the program’s highest honor. Originally from Vermont, he lives in Pittsburgh. His book, The Archipelago, about backpacking the postwar Balkans, was released by Autumn House Press in January 2011. See more at

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FEBRUARY 10, 2012 12:52PM

The Return of the Pittsburgh Monologue Project

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Tomorrow night, Twelve Peers Theater will present their first adaptation of the Pittsburgh Monologue Project. It’s a big night, and I’m very excited about—it will be the first of six Saturdays of monologue shows, the first “commercial” production in many years.

         But lots of people are wondering what the Project is. They don’t know that I’ve been collaborating on these for (deep breath) eight years. They’re not aware that we published a book, thanks to Monkey Corner Press and the Sprout Fund. And nobody realized, including me, how many monologues Brad Keller and I have actually written: All told, our little canon contains over 260 individual solo pieces.

         Holy cats, I thought when Brad tallied them up. That’s a lot of eavesdropping.


If truth is stranger than fiction, then the Pittsburgh Monologue Project is a lot of strangeness. It began as a cool idea, dreamed up on a normal Port Authority bus ride: Why don’t you write monologues based on actual conversations you overhear around town? I came up with some rules: I couldn’t “solicit” these conversations (as in, “Hey, why don’t you tell me a funny story?”). Since these moments were accidental, or at least unplanned, I knew I wouldn’t have the forethought to record them. So I vowed to stay to true to the (1) language used, (2) the tone of the conversation, and (3) the subject of the story.

         This loosey-goosey version of nonfiction writing has become one of my proudest pastimes. Since the beginning, I have been drawn to people, particularly strangers, who don’t realize how interesting they are. In a friendly, humble town like Pittsburgh, it’s easy to find outspoken folks who say their piece and disappear forever.

         But after the first show, at the now-defunct La Prima Espresso in downtown Pittsburgh, I realized I couldn’t continue to write these monologues alone, so I asked my friend Brad Keller to collaborate. Brad is a fantastic writer, witty and colloquial, and he has an incredible ear for dialogue. What’s more, he can digest longwinded ideas and make them palatable to everyday people. While I always claim credit for the original concept, Brad and I have shared everything ever since—the writing, the performance, everything.


For several years, the Project has become a kind of internal workshop at Duquesne University, where drama students can hone their skills. The collaboration was first envisioned by John E. Lane, Jr., our longtime friend and mentor, and one of the most tirelessly creative people I know. Duquesne produces a variety of shows, from medieval pageants to Shakespeare, Wilde and Albee. But the Project has a singular appeal: It’s raw, it’s extremely contemporary, and it’s inspired by the city itself. In recent years, Brad and I have had the chance to travel more broadly, and we have taken monologues from New Orleans, Boston, California, Puerto Rico, and even Iceland and Sarajevo.

         “Are they funny?” people sometimes ask. The short answer is: Yes, a lot of them are funny. But I hope that they cover the gamut of human interest and emotion. Here is one of my favorite examples of a monologue that is both hilarious and shocking, written by Brad and inspired by an erotic dancer in New York City:

You’re thinking, “She’s just some skanky stripper. She’s just trashed. She doesn’t know anything.” I’M TRYING TO TEACH YOU SOMETHING COLLEGE BOY! You better listen to me. Fuck it if I’m drunk. I’ve got knowledge that you need and you better fucking listen.


(Gets distracted.  Her friend is talking to her.)


Destiny. Destiny… Shut the fuck up, Destiny!  Why don’t you take your new fried for a cab ride and blow him and get the fuck out of my face.  I’m talking to my new buddy here. Mr. College-Kid-Don’t-Know-Shit-and-Should-Read-More-and-Looks-Dumb-In-His-Faggy-Windbreaker.  Yeah!  That’s you, college boy!  Shut the fuck up and listen.

The monologue is entitled “Atlas Shrug,” and it not only says a lot about the Project—I think it says a lot about American life. Here is a proud, smart, well-read young woman working in an ugly, money-grubbing, sexually exploitative environment. She has read Ayn Rand; indeed, she’s read the seminal work by Ayn Rand; but she mispronounces the title of the book. Meanwhile, her language is both complex and filthy, even bigotted. She is tough, honest, shameless, but she’s also defensive about the class difference between herself and Brad. She doesn’t want people to dismiss her as stupid or banal. She is an individualist caught in a very dangerous, judgmental world.

         We are not free of criticism, nor should we be. My friend Jack suggested that two-to-four-minute monologues are much too short to do these people justice. The monologues stop before we really get to know them. My friend Danielle added that the whole thing should be renamed “The Drunken Monologue Project,” since a disproportionate number take place in bars and feature tipsy—or even wildly inebriated—characters. I can’t deny that Pittsburgh is a drinking town, and that Pittsburghers are often very vocal after a few pints of Yeungling. I also don’t deny that this is a stereotype, and there are plenty of other places to find good stories. Indeed, the content says as much about Brad and me as it says about anyone we’ve met, much less the places we’ve met them. Some have even suggested that we “steal” these stories. There’s no easy way to respond to this accusation. In a way, I suppose we do. But my hope is that we honor our shared experience. It’s a gray and murky business, but so is most of human interaction.

         There’s an elephant in the room, of course: The Monologues in our Project are not capital-T Truth. Memory is always faulty and biased, and we’ve cut, shaped, warped and diced the original content into something satisfying and stage-worthy. These words are “inspired by” real life; they are not precise representations. In the realm of nonfiction, we’re a lot like “Law & Order,” or historical dramas, or Lifetime movies, “nonfiction” that takes a lot of liberties. But unlike Natalee Holloway or Braveheart, we want everyman stories. We want to celebrate life at sidewalk-level. The Project is our shared diary, not of what we thought or did, but of the people who affected us, often very deeply.


The Project has been harder to write in recent years, if only because our lives are not as flamboyant as we used to be. Brad is earning his MBA in Business, which eats up a lot of time. I have taken more professional jobs and spend less time, for example, traveling by Greyhound. Generally, close friends and workmates do not make great monologues. Great monologues come from strangers with nothing to lose. But the older we get, the fewer strangers we meet. To reverse that, deliberately, would ruin the spirit of the Project.

         As the Twelve Peers production opens, we hope to reinvigorate the Project, thanks to the enthusiastic support of Vince Ventura, the company’s artistic director. We have considered opening the floodgates to other writers as well—workaday people writing about workaday people. I can’t count the number of friends who have said, “Oh, I heard a monologue the other day!” Listening is an underrated skill, some might say an endangered art. I hope that, in some small way, the Pittsburgh Monologue Project will help bring it back.

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