Honors College’s Pizza and Plays Program Satisfies Students’ Appetites

Issue Date: 
January 12, 2009

A group of hungry students gathered in the Pitt Honors College’s kitchen area as they awaited the delivery of a few pizzas. The students ate eagerly when the food arrived, and they then moved quickly to a seminar room to discuss the latest play they had read. After filling their stomachs, it was time to satisfy their appetite for knowledge.

The students were participants in the Honors College’s Pizza and Plays reading group, which meets weekly in the Honors College on the Cathedral of Learning’s 36th floor to discuss plays that the group has chosen. Pizza and Plays is the brainchild of Mike Giazzoni, the Honors College academic advisor who also serves as the group’s director. Giazzoni confesses that he stole the idea—and the alliteration for the group’s name—from his colleague Nate Hilberg, the Honors College’s director of academic affairs and founder of its Pizza and Prose writing group.

“I’m interested in the short story and novel,” said Giazzoni. “I studied Renaissance drama when I was working on my master’s. Plays work well in this format.”

While it might not be surprising that someone who majored in Renaissance drama likes plays, it is interesting to note that Giazzoni holds a bachelor’s degree in physics. He is the perfect leader of a group that brings together students from the sciences and the humanities.

One recent December day, the Pizza and Plays group held its last meeting before finals and the holiday break. The students had read two of Harold Pinter’s plays, The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter. The discussion was lively. A sampling:

• “The universe in these plays is our own. No one is obeying the rules—language, politeness, any of the laws of physics.”

• “In The Birthday Party, there are more hints or points being made; in The Dumb Waiter, the action overtakes the characters.”

• “Interaction and language are not used in the way they should be used, objects are.”

• “In The Dumb Waiter, there’s the whole discussion on ‘light the kettle’ or ‘put the kettle on.’ It’s all a part of inclusion and exclusion.”

• “It’s inclusion in the larger society, but as it goes on through the language, Gus is alienated from society. He’s an outsider using different terms.”

• “In seemingly innocuous exchanges, the action of the play happens.”

• “The rule is when somebody says something, you feel you should answer. Silence is messing with the rule.”

One by one, students begin to leave the group to go to their next classes. About a half dozen people remain to finish the discussion. When it’s over, a few students linger, talking with each other and Giazzoni as they exit the room.

The group comprises students whose majors range from chemistry, engineering, and economics to philosophy, film, and theater, and whose school years range from freshmen to fifth-year seniors. The Pizza and Plays program began six years ago and many students have participated since their freshman year at Pitt.

The motivation to join such a group varies.

Elizabeth Cook, a freshman from Bethel Park who was home schooled, said “I do Pizza and Plays because I used to be able to discuss literary works at my leisure with other home schoolers.”  Cook, who is majoring in economics and music, added that “it’s a privilege to discuss the plays with the group. We get to pick out what we want to read and vote on it, which is really cool. Everyone brings out different ideas. You know that someone is going to contradict you and do it well.”

Rich Fiorella, a senior from Clarence Center, N.Y., and a  chemistry major, said he hadn’t read many plays since high school. He is also working on a Bachelor of Philosophy degree through the Honors College and had heard about the group. “It’s not so tough to get into the plays; we read so many different authors, and there is no coherent theme,” he noted. “It’s a divergent group, and sometimes there can be heated discussions. It’s helping me to become a better communicator and allows me to escape from other things and to explore different areas.”

While most of the Pizza and Play students are majoring in subjects unrelated to theater, Brendan Gallagher is an exception. A fifth-year senior from York, Pa., Gallagher is majoring in film, fiction, and theater. He is also working on an Honors College bachelor of philosophy degree, comparing film and theater direction. The group has read and discussed a play that Gallagher wrote.

“It’s helpful for me to see what people outside of the theatrical realm are thinking about the plays,” said Gallagher. “I like learning what they are interested in reading. This group helps me to re-evaluate the creative art.”

As the Pizza and Plays group director, Giazzoni facilitates the program. At the beginning of the term, he sends e-mails inviting students to participate. He said as many as 30 people have attended the first meeting.

“The first year of the program, we began with six students, all from different disciplines; this past term, there were 28 people participating,” said Giazzoni, who had to cap attendance last term.

The plays are chosen based on the students’ suggestions and  are often assignments they have to read for a class. Students vote to choose the first three or four plays and more are selected as the semester continues.

According to Giazzoni, students not only choose to read 20th-century American and British authors, but also selections from Greek and Roman literature as well as Renaissance to post-modern plays.

The parameters set for the discussions are as creative as the plays being read. The activity the group calls Willie’s Mystery Box, for example, is a forum for discussion created by Willie Costello, a fifth-year senior majoring in linguistics and philosophy. Each term, Costello chooses a play to read and imposes certain random and entertaining restrictions on how the play can be discussed the following week. This past semester, Costello chose a play for the students to read, but they weren’t told the title or author. Giazzoni said it allowed them to explore such questions as “What do you bring to the play when you know the title or author’s name?” In fact, some students received copies of Edward Albee’s The American Dream and others received Albee’s The Sandbox. Because both plays are absurd and because they contain many characters with the same names, the parameters of the discussion meant that the students never figured out that they had read and discussed two different plays.

Giazzoni said he enjoys seeing students from different academic backgrounds come together.

“The multidisciplinary approach makes it interesting,” said Giazzoni, who is working on a PhD degree in Pitt’s School of Education with a focus on cross-disciplinary interactions in interdisciplinary communities. “Most of the students aren’t studying literature and theater, and they don’t know what to ask—or what they are expected to ask—and so they ask anything. This forces us to look at things in a different way and to answer those questions.”

Educated in the “two cultures,” Giazzoni said he has found his niche at Pitt. “This job exposes me to people who want to do multiple things,” he said. “ I’m working in a job where I can use my academic background. That’s not often how life works.”