Interview #3: Robert Isenberg

Photograph by Tina Castillo

I was excited about Interview #3 for two reasons. The first being that 3 happens to be one of my favorite numbers. The second being that I had a feeling Robert Isenberg might be extra entertaining—and I was right. When I arrived at Make Your Mark coffee shop in Point Breeze, Robert greeted me with an enthusiastic handshake. He introduced me to the baristas. He was not afraid to talk to anyone.

We decided to sit at a table next to the window. The next thing I know he handed me a book and said, "Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that my book, The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage was just published." (They're hot off the press and available at, folks.) Before I could muster a sufficient response, I found myself with another book in my hands: The Pittsburgh Monologue Project. (A book he co-wrote with Brad Keller in 2006, it was published by Monkey Corner Industries with the support of a Seed Award from The Sprout Fund.) I was shocked and impressed. Publishing two books is no small feat. I knew I had made the right choice to order the same thing off the menu as Robert, I'm convinced the panini/soup combo is the key to his productivity.

The Pittsburgh Monologue Project is especially relevant to It's a collection of nearly 80 yinzer-iffic monologues that have already led me to some serious bouts of laughter. (Sgt. Pepper, my cat, witnessed the whole thing. It had him quite perplexed.)

Enjoy Robert's story. I'm glad Scotty the hotdog vendor convinced him to move to Pittsburgh. Keep up the good work, Scotty.


Name: Robert Isenberg

Blog: t h e : a r k

Twitter: @robertisenberg 

Job title: Freelance Writer

Neighborhood you live in: Point Breeze

Coffee shop drink of choice: Medium, regular, cream, two packets artificial Sweetener

Current shampoo preference: Aussie-brand is what usually ends up in the shower

Why do you choose Pittsburgh as your home?
Honestly, it was Scotty the hotdog vendor. He used to keep a stand outside Hillman Library. When I took the Pitt Pathfinder tour, he simply gushed character -- peculiar visage, always seemed to wear sunglasses, gravelly voice, could talk to anybody. And the franks themselves were delicious. He was everything I looked for in a place's persona -- energetic, charismatic, could make something out of nothing. I applied to Pitt and nowhere else, and I had my student ID by the time senior year of high school started.

I'm always grateful that I grew up in Vermont, in the country, in my parents' house, but Pittsburgh speaks better to my adult sensibilities. There is a conversation here that never quiets, and every word means something. If the narrative of my life takes me elsewhere, it will be with great reluctance.

Who do you spend your time with?
First and foremost, my rockin' girlfriend. She's also best friend, co-habitant, fellow traveler, critic, sparring partner, favorite dinner-date, etc.

Otherwise, I'm lucky enough to have about a zillion friends, all in different circles, all interesting and fun and even bizarre. I have my theatre friends. My comedy friends. My writing friends. My MFA friends. Friends I meet every once in a while for bowling or late-night debate. They keep me young.

What are your favorite aspects of your job?
Everything. Journalism has made me the extrovert I am -- the need to meet people and digest their stories. Theatre has made me obsessed with dialogue, movement, scene, relationships. Meanwhile, writing essays makes every activity a hundred times more worthwhile, even drudgery. When I start a new activity -- say, baking brownies for the first time -- it's weighty with drama and suspense, hubris and ambition. And, in this case, calories.

Do you have a soul food?
Just learned to love Jambalaya. Where has Louisiana been all my life?

What are some of your recent personal goals?
They've stayed fairly constant, actually, since I was pretty young -- travel the world, write articles, write plays, write books, take arresting photographs, perform whenever I can, eat, drink, bike everywhere. Translate the world in interesting ways, especially the stories that would otherwise never be told. Recently, though? Publish a book of poems. My friend Dan Friedson got me back onto a poetry kick a few years back and the habit's hard to shake.

What are your favorite Pittsburgh restaurants?
Lulu's, Pamela's, Primanti's, Piper's Pub (apparently I'm on an apostrophe kick), all for the simple, greasy joys of 'em. For more formal fair, I love Nakama, Kaya and Bossa Nova, among countless others. I could probably live in a booth at India Garden, or People's, or just time-share both. Remedy used to be my neighborhood pub, and nobody would suspect they have a fine, fine portabello burger. I would eat a grande BBQ chicken burrito at Veracruz on Thanksgiving Day, turkey be damned. And Joe Mama's has always served as my Algonquin Hotel. If I ever become famous, they should just build a museum around my stool.

Describe your ideal day.
Wake up, receive a check for $6 million. Eat a breakfast of salmon crepes. Go skydiving. Beam myself to Iceland, soak in a natural hot-spring. Dine at an Ethiopian restaurant with my entire extended family. Follow up with martini party. Stay up incredibly late.

What is the most memorable live show you have seen in Pittsburgh?
A tie: The Dresden Dolls (at Mr. Small's) and The Polyphonic Spree (at The Rex). Those people know the meaning of mind-blowing spectacle. They weren't merely shows -- they were epiphanies.

What do you think Pittsburgh will be like in ten years? What do you love most about the city?
I love that Pittsburgh needs so little and accomplishes so much. I love that what I do here is meaningful. I love how unpretentious it is, and yet so powerfully proud. I love our art, our sports, the way we carry ourselves. I love the city's peculiar modesty. I love that my friend Denise plastered her apartment walls with postcards. I love that the Waffle Shop exists. I love that, late one summer night, I got to see fire-throwers in Frick Park with a political candidate. I love our rooftop birthday parties. I love how Pittsburgh looks like photographs. I love that Pittsburgh lets me gush about it.
That said, it's hard to say what we'll be like 10 years from now. Worse case scenario: The Port Authority closes, fifty percent of the people move away, the rest is subsumed in petty crime and declining standards of living, the arts districts fall apart, drilling poisons all our water, the Penguins move out, and Pittsburgh becomes an apocalyptic ghost-town like Sudbury, Canada.
Best case scenario: We become a hip new granola town, with outdoor recreation and youth hostels and a thriving independent movie scene. Somebody finally opens a damn Zombie Museum. All my friends become famous, and Pittsburgh is renowned as a "writer's city," in the style of Dublin. Squonk Opera has five-spin-offs, and people travel from all over the world to see their shows. Light-rail crisscrosses the region, and Bill Peduto wins the Nobel Peace Prize. The Steelers win six more Super Bowls and health benefits are available to all. Every menu has a vegetarian option. That guy who sings gospel on Forbes Avenue gets his sight back, or at least a record contract. And Zeppelins -- Zeppelins couldn't hurt.
We'll just have to wait and see.


Ashley's picture

This guy is good! Makes Pittsburgh sound almost as livable as Portland! ;)

Kate Stoltzfus's picture

Portland is a wonderful city (full of fabulous people) and I love riding on the MAX! Pittsburgh is making strides for more green transportation. Can't wait! >>

Meredith's picture

Kate, this is a great article.... thanks for bringing attention to quietly ambitious Pittsburghers like Robert. These people are pointing us in all the right directions.

Kate Stoltzfus's picture

Thanks, Meredith! You must read Robert's books. I think you will really enjoy them.

Amy's picture

Awesome. Robert is a friend who was in my MFA program at Chatham and kept us all wildly entertained with stories (both spoken and written, with equal enthusiasm). I still see him from time to time at readings and events (and various "after-parties," as I might put it), and he's a bright gent with a lot of great things to say. Classiest everyman I know. Good stuff!

Kate Stoltzfus's picture

He is a classy man, no?! Thanks for reading, Amy.

vivian 's picture

Best "best case scenario" I've ever read. BJ, a great friend, introduced me to my boyfriend, Bill. Love this interview, Kate.

Kate Stoltzfus's picture

Agreed! I teared up the first time I read it. So very special that BJ introduced you to Bill!

dB's picture

robert is one of the nicest chaps to come through the doors of dreaming ant. i always enjoy my brief chats with him. it was great to learn even more about him in your interview.

kxm's picture

Love this and I love this town because I share it with people like this and blogs like this tell me about them! Kudos!