Rich Keitel is funny, but he isn’t trying.
“If people try to be funny, it’s not always going to be funny,” said the Point Park University professor of theater. “What I tell my students is, ‘Don’t try to be funny, try to be truthful.’”
Keitel spoke with the Chronicle shortly before leading a three-hour class on improvisation, whose lessons have wider relevance, he said. “People are improvising every day in life. Everyone you have to deal with you have to listen to and play it back. Life doesn’t have a script. It’s good to know improv in that sense.”
Born in New York, Keitel, a graduate of SUNY-Oneonta, moved to Pittsburgh in 1984 to pursue an MFA in theater from the University of Pittsburgh. After getting his degree in 1987, he traveled around the country teaching, acting and directing. Keitel returned to Pitt in 1991, and in 1997 left Oakland for downtown to become the chair of Point Park’s theater department.
During his more than 20 years at Point Park, Keitel has observed a university evolution and neighborhood transformation that has brought Point Park a cinema department, a $2.5 million 4,000-square-foot Center for Media Innovation and a $60 million relocated Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Keitel credited Paul Hennigan, Point Park University’s president, with supporting the growth, and noted how changes are improving the city.
“There are hundreds more 20-year-olds living downtown,” said Keitel. “First come the artists and youth, then comes restaurants or movie theaters. Businesses are saying, ‘There’s all this youth. Let’s make more taco places or pizza places.’”
Whether it’s students in previously desolate spaces or a parking lot that’s been turned into a park, Keitel appreciates Point Park’s place in transforming Pittsburgh.
Keitel could tell you much more about what he appreciates, such as the ability to bike to work from his Squirrel Hill home, or that the Steel City is a wonderful place to raise a family, or about the area’s number of theaters, but what he really relishes is the chance to educate.
“I love teaching because I love nurturing talent,” he said. “I wouldn’t tell the administration this, but I love what I do — I would do it for nothing.”
Apart from teaching, Keitel is an Equity actor (a member of the union for stage professionals) and a director. Over the years, he’s played Edgar in “King Lear” at Pittsburgh Playhouse, directed “Of Mice and Men” at Prime Stage Theatre and accrued scores of credits and recognition.
Keeping one foot in academia and the other onstage may make him a “hybrid” in some cities, but such straddling isn’t uncommon in Pittsburgh.
“At Point Park it’s cool that a lot of the professors are working faculty,” he said. “Around the country you don’t see that as much.”
What Keitel does observe, however, is society’s need for more artistic engagement.
“The world would be a better place if there was more art in the world. If everyone tried to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, there would be a lot less violence in the world,” he said.
Keitel is Jewish, and spent 17 years at Camp Sussex, a New Jersey summer camp founded nearly a century ago with the intent to aid underprivileged Jews. Famous camp alumni include Mel Brooks, Gabe Kaplan (“Welcome Back, Kotter”), Alex Winters (“Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”) and Louise Lasser (“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”), according to summercampculture.com.
Keitel learned much from summer camp and by acting throughout the years.
“Actors have to be in touch with themselves, and with the human condition and with the world,” he said.
A particularly chilling convergence of stage and life occured last year, he explained, when he saw actors performing “Cabaret” on Saturday evening, Oct. 27.
Although there were doubts as to how the show could be performed, “it was one of the magical, strange nights of the theater,” explained Keitel. “My colleague, Zeva Barzell, had some of the actors playing Nazis in the audience, and when they stood up and did the Heil Hitler and started singing, I could feel the hair on the back of my neck. The next day people are singing ‘Mi Shebeirach’ in the streets of Squirrel Hill and it was very chilling.”
The value of art, or of attending theater, is that not only does a particular tension become more palpable, but society grows from the experience, explained Keitel.
“The community I felt marching and singing in Squirrel Hill, like the audience watching ‘Cabaret,’ we were all together. When you go to a theater, there’s between 100 and 500 people all watching and breathing together. When you watch something on TV, you’re by yourself,” said Keitel.
Isolation is never good for people, he said.
“I think there would be a lot more peace if people took acting, put themselves in each other’s shoes and saw theater that could change them,” said Keitel. “I don’t understand how seeing ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ can’t change you.” pjc
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@