Marie Southall stands on stage with her head held high. The first-year theatre arts and music double major brings the microphone to her mouth and launches into Bernadette Peters’ haunting classic tune, “Time Heals Everything,” from the Broadway show “Mack and Mabel.” As her smooth voice hits the first notes with ease, she noticeably gains confidence.
By the second verse, she’s lost in the music.
It’s another open mic night at The Understory, one of the newest creative spaces on the Pittsburgh campus. It’s located in a basement lounge in the Cathedral of Learning. Bright lights hang from the ceiling, shining down on the 60 or so audience members gathered at small tables.
The Understory was launched in 2022 by the University’s Center for Creativity, which supports makers and creators at Pitt, regardless of major or school affiliation, through a variety of spaces and programming. Room B50, formerly a print shop and the most recent of three spaces the center manages, is now a home to all forms of expression, says Erik Schuckers, the center’s manager for programming and communications. In addition to a 31-by-40-foot stage with a sprung floor (which makes it perfect for dancing), The Understory has music practice rooms, a podcast studio and art resources like sewing machines, craft bins and whiteboards.
“All of the Pitt community is welcome,” Schuckers says. That includes students, faculty and staff.
Ever since Southall, a native of Atlanta, first learned about The Understory, it has become a kind of getaway to her. She says it serves not just as a performance space, but also as a hangout for many students. She drops by twice a week, either to practice singing or just do homework.
This Thursday night, however, the light is shining on Southall, who is making her second appearance at the open mic. She says she’s been interested in theater and performance since age 8 and knew by seventh grade she wanted to grow up to become a composer for Disney productions or Broadway shows. With every note she sings tonight, she gains more of the self-assurance she hopes will help propel her toward those goals.
Southall soars through the last lyric, and when the music ends, she lowers her mic and stands silently on the stage. In seconds, shouting and clapping fill the air. She basks in the audience’s love for a moment.
Then, smiling, she bounds off the stage, already thinking with joy about the next time she’ll be in the spotlight.
This story was published on May 3, 2023. It is part of Pitt Magazine's Spring 2023 issue.