‘South Side Stories’ writer-actress Tami Dixon creating show on women at nonprofits

By Joyce Gannon / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
May 7, 2014
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Local theater audiences know Tami Dixon best as the playwright and actress who gained wide acclaim for “South Side Stories,” her one-woman show that chronicled the hilarious and poignant experiences of dozens of residents of one Pittsburgh neighborhood.

When she’s not writing or performing, Ms. Dixon helps manage and raise money for a Downtown theater company, Bricolage Production Co. In that role, she has navigated first-hand the nonprofit sector where women face gender pay disparity and other career challenges.

So when the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University approached her about creating a “South Side Stories”-style piece based on the real and frequently frustrating experiences of women who work in nonprofits, she immediately agreed.

“I’m a woman in the nonprofit world. It’s deeply interesting to me. I want to unpack it more and understand what it’s like for other women,” she said.

From 15 or so interviews the Bayer Center conducted with women who work at nonprofits, Ms. Dixon created a dramatic reading that will be presented May 19 during a meeting of the Kitchen Cabinet — a group of women and men who work in nonprofit, for-profit, government and volunteer positions, and who are assisting the Bayer Center to craft solutions to help advance women in the nonprofit sector.

The event will be 5 to 7 p.m. at Bricolage, 937 Liberty Ave., in Downtown’s Cultural District. It is free of charge, but reservations are required.

The Bayer Center interviews are a major component of its foundation-funded initiative, “74 Percent: Exploring the Lives of Women Leaders in Nonprofit Organizations.” The project is named for research data that show about 74 percent of those employed by nonprofits in the Pittsburgh region are women and that female executive directors at nonprofits are paid only 74 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Peggy Outon, the Bayer Center executive director who has conducted more than 60 interviews over the last five years for the “74 Percent” project, described the transcripts as “a treasure trove of information that we felt we weren’t getting enough out of.”

After seeing “South Side Stories” at City Theatre and being familiar with Ms. Dixon’s work because Bricolage is a Bayer Center client, “I knew Tami had a real gift for storytelling … and asked if she would be willing to make a theater piece,” said Ms. Outon.

Among the common themes running through the women’s interviews, Ms. Outon said, are pay, age and gender discrimination; lack of career advancement; and limited resources for a comfortable retirement.

“It’s troubling. These women are happy to be in the nonprofit sector because it supports their values and they believe in having an ability to directly affect people’s lives by working with homeless children or elderly people. … But I heard over and over that these women didn’t feel respected.”

For Ms. Dixon, the process of reading the interviews and translating them into stories “was like being given a manual of how to survive as a woman in nonprofits and in life.”

“They’ve had experiences that resonate with me and, I feel, would resonate for anyone,” she said.

As a female manager in the arts, she’s aware that some regard her as “too bossy” because, “I was born talking; I was born demanding space and presence. People still probably think I am too aggressive.”

Working alongside her husband, Jeffrey Carpenter, who founded Bricolage and is the nonprofit’s artistic director, “I’m very involved in asking for money, begging, borrowing and stealing where I have to,” said Ms. Dixon, who is the theater’s producing artist director.

In its 2012 federal tax filing, the theater reported it had four employees and said it generated approximately $291,000 in revenues from contributions, grants and programs.

But in her grant-writing and fundraising, Ms. Dixon doesn’t position Bricolage as a small player. “I look at us as very powerful. If I looked at us as a small arts organization, I would think small and wouldn’t get us to where we need to be.”

The piece that will debut May 19 is still “a work in progress,” she said, that could include “a mix of vignettes, stories and maybe some song.”

Two Pittsburgh-based actresses will join her for the presentation: Laurie Klatscher and Bria Walker. “I couldn’t represent these women [from nonprofits] just by myself,” said Ms. Dixon. “I really felt my voice was not enough and I didn’t want to be held under the one-woman show style.”

After the performance, there will be a discussion, and a wine and cheese reception.

For the Bayer Center, the aim of the presentation, said Ms. Outon, is to “spark conversation with the community … in our classes, on our website and to appeal to people for whom numbers may not resonate as much but who really understand stories.”