To Morgan Overton, the primary goal of the newly-formed career training program CREATE PA: Film & Theater Works! is both fully attainable and urgently needed.
“We want to expand what training means for folks who want to contribute their skills and talents to film, theater and entertainment,” Overton says. “CREATE PA is an investment in the people who make these stories come to life. These are all the folks who are the unsung heroes behind the scenes. We want to find them and let them know this is a profession where you can stay home in Pittsburgh.”
Overton, 29, was hired in May by Pittsburgh Public Theater to serve as the workforce director of CREATE PA, an innovative job training initiative undertaken by the theater and the Pittsburgh Film Office, with the intent to provide a steady supply of on-site technical workers for Pittsburgh-based film and stage productions.
Those would be the workers listed in the credits at the end of a movie and on the back pages of playbills — carpenters and electricians, set builders and decorators, makeup and hair stylists, grips and costumers, even animation and accounting staff — the “unsung heroes behind the scenes,” without whom the bulk of commercial live and filmed entertainment could not be produced.
While their names may be listed in small print, creative sector workers make a sizable contribution to the Pennsylvania economy. According to a 2021 U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, arts and culture production brings in $28.6 billion to Commonwealth coffers and employs more than 165,000 full-time workers who benefit from $14 billion in compensation.
In Allegheny County, the latest available report from Americans for the Arts in 2017 cites more than 32,000 full-time local arts and culture jobs accounting for $641 million in household income.
CREATE PA is a potentially transformative investment boosting the state’s growing creative economy and has received $675,000 in first-year funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, and the Allegheny County Gaming Economic Development Tourism Fund.
Taught by experienced IATSE union members, CREATE PA classes are tuition-free, and each trainee is paid a stipend to participate. Upon graduation, trainees automatically qualify for placement on the permit list for local union film and stage productions.
Registration for CREATE PA classes is available online.
A Penn Hills native, Overton most recently served as manager with the City of Pittsburgh’s Office of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access following a two-year stint as a community engagement and policy associate with the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.
Overton’s Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh and master’s degree in social work in community organization and social action led her to a decade of volunteer and intern work with Obama for America, Young Democrats of Allegheny County, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Pittsburgh City Council. She is currently serving her first term as vice chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.
She’s also a skilled visual artist, whose design and drawing talents would unquestionably land her in CREATE PA classes, if she was not already administering them.
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NEXTpittsburgh: How has the response been following the initial announcement of CREATE PA?
Morgan Overton: Very exciting. In the first two weeks, almost 200 people signed up and said, “Hey, count me in; keep me posted on what’s going on.”
NEXTpittsburgh: What’s been the general age range of respondents?
Overton: From teenagers to people in their 60s. I created a follow-up survey to kind of unpeel the layer of who these people are and why do they want to do this. And people have so much eagerness of, “How do I contribute to make this come to life?”
NEXTpittsburgh: It sounds like there are a lot of people who have wanted this training but didn’t know where to find it in our area.
Overton: That’s one thing that sets CREATE PA apart. When people think of workforce development, they tend to think of the traditional mindset of an institution that has all the skills teaching the people on the ground. Rather, it’s the other way around — the people have the talent and the skills we’re nourishing, so that with CREATE PA training, they can do gig work and be sustained, and they don’t have to go to New York. They don’t have to go to L.A. We want Pittsburgh to be the landmark place where talent stays to thrive.
NEXTpittsburgh: You yourself are a very prolific painter in multiple media — watercolor, oil, acrylic. How long have you been involved in that?
Overton: Ever since I could blink. I’m very lucky to have parents who poured into me and said, “Let’s just see what sticks with Morgan” — and everything stuck! I always had creative things at my disposal, and art classes were the first thing I took. I was in band. I danced ballet. When I went to the University of Pittsburgh for undergrad, I majored in psychology because I thought I wanted to be a scientist, which did lead me to work at Boston Children’s Hospital for two years in the cognitive neuroscience lab. But I also wanted to keep the art element a part of my life, so I minored in art at Pitt. That’s where I was formally trained in the fundamentals of painting, drawing, design.
NEXTpittsburgh: Your artwork was recently exhibited in the U.S. Capitol Building.
Overton: Yes, the last week of April. I was invited by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker to honor the contributions of Black women across history, present and future, and uplift the movement to name April as International Black Women’s History Month. I Stand on Their Shoulders featured several of my paintings placed around the first floor of the rotunda in the Russell Senate Office Building.
NEXTpittsburgh: You’ve created a lot of memorable portraits of political changemakers like James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Shirley Chisholm, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Kamala Harris.
Overton: Art has been a means for me to amplify my people and our history, our present, our future.
NEXTpittsburgh: Your portrait of Antwon Rose II is especially compelling.
Overton: I did that in 2019 with his mother’s permission, to honor him and his humanity. For me, that was the moment I realized art really is a platform for activism. It is a way to give language to people who might not have the words, but they see something and they start to understand, “OK, this is the story. This is the humanity of what this person is trying to convey through oil paint, through watercolor.”
NEXTpittsburgh: Beyond the always welcome investment in local arts and the people creating them, are there other important results that might come from CREATE PA?
Overton: We have to think about the arts as a critical piece to economic development to sustain communities. The goal is to grow and diversify the creative workforce and make sure we’re centering the communities who feel shut out, like the doors are just cemented, right? Women, Black people, brown people, people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, people with disabilities, low-income communities. They are critical assets to what sustains a community and what allows it to thrive.
It takes a person to be a door. That’s something my dad always says, and I am so grateful to have Shaunda McDill, the managing director at Pittsburgh Public Theater, and Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office. I want to make sure I speak their names because they are two dynamos who believe in this work and are making it come to life.
If we don’t make those opportunities accessible for folks, then they’re going to look elsewhere. I know that was me when I left Pittsburgh after completing my undergrad studies. I felt like there was nothing here for me. While in reality, everything that could have been for me was over here, but I had no idea to look in that direction.