Journey through Oakland

Two students walking down a sidewalk form behind, one wearing a blue Pitt bagOnce a sparsely populated area with large tracts of farmland, today the Oakland neighborhood and Pitt’s home is a hub of medical, cultural and educational activity. A new performance piece, Appalachian Paris, explores this transformation and invites listeners to leave their mark on the city, too.

“We cover many different periods of Oakland’s history to provide a full picture of the numerous events that took place in Oakland, and let people hear all the unique voices of the neighborhood,” said Cynthia Croot, associate professor and head of performance in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Department of Theatre Arts. “Through these performances, the cast is trying to evoke conversations and events that you might overhear in different periods of time as you walk through the neighborhoods. My hope is that the audience will have a sense of the flavor of the very first people who lived on this land, all the way up to contemporary students.”  

A theatre arts ensemble collaborated to build the audio tour from scratch, including conducting the research, choosing the material, writing the script and casting the actors. 

Experience the neighborhood

Appalachian Paris begins at the corner of Bouquet and Forbes Avenues, near Sennott Square. At each designated stop on the tour, you’ll find a QR code. Hold your smartphone camera up to it, and a link will open, giving you expanded information on the history and sites around you. You can also skip those codes and find them later on the website.

If you listen and move straight through the tour with no interruptions or side trips, it should take about an hour to complete. Throughout the tour, you’ll find moments for interaction, touch and sensory appreciation.

The creators encourage you to bring a penny and a small piece of ribbon or string with you on your tour—you’ll hear moments in the story when you can use those items to leave your mark on Oakland.

Appalachian Paris takes listeners to more than 15 sites throughout the Oakland community where they will find moments for interaction, touch and sensory appreciation as well as a few surprises along the way. 

“As the audience visits the various spots on the tour, we are asking listeners to think about what connects us to Oakland, what connects us to each other and what connects us to this community,” said Croot. “My hope is that by going on the tour, the audience will become more aware of the past, becoming connected to it in a different way. Our goal is to wake up the spaces around us.”

Croot said that in researching the piece, the team found several surprises about Oakland and are excited to share those with the audience.

“There have been so many interesting aspects of creating this immersive audio tour experience, but I have been most struck by how much I did not know about Oakland prior to this project, particularly its reconstruction,” said Rebecca Hobart, undergraduate assistant director and rising senior theatre arts major. 

Because of the pandemic, one of the challenges the cast faced in creating the show was how best to accomplish it technically since the performers are all in different places, some hours away. 

“We have taken on this project in a very difficult time, and from a practical standpoint, there is the obvious obstacle of our team not being able to collaborate or work together in person,” said Gabriella Castrodad, a sophomore theatre arts and political science major. “Despite that, what we have achieved is a beautifully immersive experience, that is not only educational but articulated in a way that is personal. We have relied on each other's individual skills and talents that we have brought to the table to build this project.”

Hobart also said she hopes listeners find connections to the spaces they visit on the tour. 

“Every crack in the sidewalk, every brick in a building and every person populating the neighborhood has a story. Most of all, the bridges—both physical and metaphorical—that connect us are meaningful, and those connections shape us, as well as Oakland.”

The Appalachian Paris website contains a robust interactive map as well as a version that people can download, print out and take with them as they walk to the various outdoor locations on the tour. 

In addition to the map, there are audio prompts to guide listeners to each spot on the tour. Because every location has a separate audio track, listeners can move at their own pace. 

To ensure that Appalachian Paris met accessibility standards, Croot and a small contingent of the team walked the tour in a socially distanced, responsible way, making sure that each location had sidewalk cutouts and safe places for people to cross the street. However, people who are not physically able to visit Oakland can still experience the unique flavor of the neighborhood by visiting the website and clicking on the photos while listening to the audio tracks.  

Castrodad said she’s thrilled for listeners to experience this walking tour and discover the hidden treasures that make up the Oakland community. 

“If nothing else, I hope that the audience can see Pittsburgh through a new lens. This is a city that has many iterations. So, whether you have lived in the city your whole life or if you are a newcomer, I hope there is something different and valuable to be taken away from the tour.”

Croot has been approached about doing tours like Appalachian Paris in other neighborhoods as well as the possibility of remounting Appalachian Paris in a space where the cast can be interactive physically with the audience during a live performance. Additionally, now that the framework is in place, Croot is excited for students to take this project and create their own versions of the walking tour in their home communities.