Article: Profile of Robert Isenberg

Emily O’Donnell

Written for Issue 9 of The Original Magazine

Photo by Emily O'Donnell

Photo by Emily O’Donnell

The first time I met Robert Isenberg, I only spoke to him for a few minutes before he bought me a beer and asked me what my story was. I discovered that this is a common situation for Isenberg. A genial fellow with an uncommon depth of sincerity, Isenberg is an excellent listener and this has enabled him to become a great writer. He listens closely, to the stories of those around him, conversations he overhears, history that is unfolding, and he utilizes this in his work.

Isenberg is a storyteller in many forms; travel writer, playwright, poet, actor and journalist.  He came to Pittsburgh fourteen years ago to attend college at the University of Pittsburgh. The fascinating characters he encountered in the city were what drew him in. In one amusing anecdote, Robert told me of a wacky vendor whom he met when first visiting the University as a high school student. He said that Scotty the hotdog vendor had more personality than anyone he had ever met in his small town in Vermont. Having never truly experienced the city atmosphere, Pittsburgh was his first taste of the larger world.

He describes his adopted city as the greatest city in the world, a bold claim considering he has traveled to over 30 countries in his extensive journeys. “Give me a place where I don’t know the language or what is going on, and I’m happy.” Yet Pittsburgh has become his home, and his love for the city is evident when he speaks of it.

Isenberg has experimented with many forms of writing, but he says that non-fiction remains his first love. “I’d like to become a kind of globe-trotting correspondent, one of those personalities who’s always popping up in odd places. ‘Oh, did you hear Isenberg is in Australia? Seems he’s trying to walk across the continent barefoot…’ That kind of thing.”

He has spent many years working as a freelance journalist, and has written for for City Paper, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The New Yinzer, Mental Floss, Pittsburgh Magazine and Popcity.  He describes his love of journalism and how it allows him to lead the kind of life he loves: “I can meet people, pick their brains, see what they do. The pursuit of true stories catapults me all over the globe.”

Isenberg has spent his life listening to people’s stories and transforming them into art. One of his best-known projects, The Pittsburgh Monologue Project, is performed at Duquesne University, where he currently teaches playwriting. Inspired by overheard conversations, the monologues are a dramatization of the strange characters and stories that Isenberg has listened into over the years.

This past fall, Isenberg enrolled at Chatham University to pursue his MFA in creative writing. He told me that he knew for a long time that Chatham was the place he wanted to go for graduate school, due to their ‘progressive, environmentally oriented campus.’ He was the first recipient of the Whitford Fellowship, a full ride scholarship and is aiming to complete his MFA in May.

Perhaps the hardest working writer in Pittsburgh, Isenberg has a long list of upcoming or current projects. In the upcoming months, he will stage another performance of the Pittsburgh Monologue Project at Duquesne University on January 15th. In the spring, a new play he wrote will be performed, called Speak Now.

His most recent book of short stories called The Archipelago has recently been published and is available for purchase on Amazon.com.  Isenberg continues to write freelance for a variety of magazines and newspapers and has recently expanded to include photography in his journalism. He currently shoots photo essays for Pittsburgh Magazine and has a photography show coming up in March at Modern Formations.

All of this work, and Isenberg will also continue his dual role of both student and teacher at two different universities. As a professor of playwriting at Duquesne, and a student of non-fiction writing at Chatham, Robert says that working with motivated students is a very ‘slipstream experience. You are not teaching them, such much as you are guiding them.’ It is evident that Isenberg is adept at navigating the waters of this slipstream of writing, as the author of a half a dozen books and plays, and always more in the works.

Chances are good that if you do not already know Robert Isenberg, you know someone who does, and sooner or later you are going to encounter him. You may not be aware that you are in the presence of an up and coming Pittsburgh legend, and Isenberg will certainly not brag of his many accomplishments. Instead he will listen intently to every story you have, with a genuine interest that never wavers. You may never know that you are speaking to one of the most prolific writers living in Pittsburgh today.

For more information, check out Robert’s blog at http://arkipelagos.wordpress.com.

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