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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fetterman in Fetters

Posted By on Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 8:33 PM

Once again, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman is making headlines -- this time for being charged with trespassing yesterday after refusing to leave UPMC's global headquarters Downtown:

Pittsburgh police today charged Braddock Mayor John Fetterman with trespassing because they say he refused to leave private property during a Downtown protest.

Fetterman, 41, was protesting the closing and razing of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Braddock hospital outside the U.S. Steel Tower.

Fetterman, who was holding a sign but not causing any disruption, was charged after refusing to leave the Steel Building's premises and move to the sidewalk. Which seems fitting: a refusal to budge an inch has been symptomatic in the UPMC Braddock debate. And Fetterman's action, which comes even as Braddock Hospital is being torn down, has caused some to speculate about whether he has been pulling his punches as a favor to a political ally, county executive Dan Onorato.

In the wake of Fetterman's action, Save Our Community Hospital (SOCH), which has campaigned for more than a year to keep UPMC Braddock Hospital open, issued a somewhat perplexed-sounding statement:

The Save Our Community Hospitals organization welcomes the action of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman today at UPMC headquarters. Unfortunately, Mr. Fetterman's concern about the lack of emergency care in Braddock comes too late. The UPMC Braddock Hospital building is being demolished and the 26,000 patients that used its ER will have to travel much further for emergency treatment.

We are not clear why Mr. Fetterman waited until now to undertake civil
disobedience to draw attention to the lack of emergency care in Braddock. It may be that he was restrained due to his support of Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato's candidacy for Pennsylvania governor. In any event, we thank Mr. Fetterman and urge him to continue to pressure UPMC to provide emergency care for Braddock
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Suffice it to say that there has been considerable tension between Fetterman and SOCH. As UPMC moved ahead with the shutdown, they have differed over goals and tactics, and political rivalries have factored in as well. So it's no surprise that when I contacted Fetterman last night, he disputed almost every part of SOCH's statement.

For starters, Fetterman says, he is not pressuring UPMC to provide emergency care for Braddock; Fetterman says there's no hope for such a facility, since ERs can't operate independently of hospitals. He is seeking an urgent care facility, much like those UPMC operates in Robinson Township or Shadyside. Urgent care facilities offer extended hours and express treatment for a variety of common medical complaints, ranging from broken bones to the flu. Such a facility, Fetterman says, would address "8 or 9 out of 10 medical problems that come up every day in Braddock. And it will be cost-effective for UPMC."

Fetterman says his appearance at the Steel Building was "not a protest but a plea -- a plea to UPMC that it's not too late to do the right thing."

The hospital giant has offered to ferry Braddock residents to facilities outside Braddock for health care. But Fetterman finds such efforts inadequate -- especially in comparison to the services available in Shadyside, where UPMC's urgent-care facility operates not far from Shadyside Hospital and the Hillman Cancer Center.

"They have an embarrassment of riches over there," he says. "But a kid is just as likely to get an earache in Braddock as he is in Shadyside."

Fetterman says he was "surprised" to have been cited, but says "it wasn't a 'keep your meat hooks off me' kind of thing. I didn't try to chain myself to the wall." Holding a sign urging the creation of an urgent-care facility, he refused to leave the Steel Building's premises because standing on the sidewalk "wasn't effective."

"It's been a bitter, bitter divorce between UPMC and Braddock," he says. 

There's also been an ugly trial separation, at least, between Fetterman and those who have gotten previous headlines for taking on UPMC.

Fetterman has been openly critical, for example, of a civil-rights lawsuit filed by Braddock Council President Jesse Brown, who alleged that closing a hospital in a primarily black community was racially unjust. That suit was settled in September, with Fetterman disparaging the outcome. When Brown first announced his plans at a rally outside the hospital a year ago, I found Fetterman on the periphery of the event, all but rolling his eyes. UPMC chief Jeffrey Romoff, Fetterman said, had told him there was no hope for the hospital's survival. And Fetterman was sure the lawsuit wouldn't change things.

Today, Fetterman still calls the lawsuit "frivolous" and "politically motivated," scoffing that "it's easy to be a bomb-thrower." 

But ... isn't standing outside UPMC's headquarters, and refusing to leave, a bit of Michael Moore-style theatrics as well? And why did he wait until now to take this step? Is it because he didn't want to embarrass Onorato during his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, as SOCH suggests?

There's no question that Fetterman and Onorato are tight. Fetterman backed Onorato's gubernatorial ambitions from the outset, and in fact Fetterman and his father have contributed more than $12,000 to Onorato since 2009. And while SOCH has faulted Onorato for not doing more to keep UPMC Braddock open, Fetterman says, "Their disdain of Dan baffles me. He is a profoundly honorable man" -- and one who has taken key steps to improve life in the Mon Valley. 

Even so, Fetterman says it is "absolutely false" to think he held off on challenging UPMC until after the election. Fetterman's efforts to turn Braddock around have made him a national phenomenon, and he notes "I've held UPMC accountable on [venues like] Huffington Post and CNN," naming just two of the national media outlets where he has appeared. "In every national platform, I'm the first one to name them."

Fetterman says he took this step because "the situation continues to deteriorate," and the civil-rights lawsuit has "dragged this [dispute] out." Settling the suit offered a chance for "the fog of war to lift," opening a "window of opportunity" to discuss Braddock's future.

As for his relationship to SOCH, "I'm not here to get into the middle of polarizing arguments," he says. "What's fueling the SOCH thing is more personal, and I don't want this to digress into 'SOCH says this and you say that.' They love this community as much as I do, and I invite SOCH to move past whathever differences they've had with Dan or anyone else, and join me with constructive dialogue that will bring urgent care" to Braddock. Fetterman says his appearance at UPMC's headquarters could be a chance for everyone to "hit the reset button" on the dialogue.

To that end, he says, "I'm counting on Sean Logan, who I think is a man of integrity." Logan is a former state Senator who left the legislature to take a community relations post at UPMC, a move that also prompted dismay at UPMC's influence. "SOCH has been very hard on Sean Logan," Fetterman adds, "but I couldn't disagree more."

There's nothing new, or strange, about Fetterman playing an inside game here. While others have taken a more directly confrontional stance, it's not a bad thing to have a mayor with warm relations to the region's top elected official. And Fetterman has been publicly critical of UPMC: Just to take one example, he slagged them when we discussed a Levi's ad campaign focused on Braddock.

Still, I can't blame SOCH for being confused by his recent action. Fetterman's refusal to leave the Steel Building has the whiff of old-fashioned grassroots activism ... except for the fact that he did it alone. UPMC Braddock is coming down -- the building "looks like a missile-testing site," Fetterman says -- and it's not clear that UPMC is any more likely to make new concessions now than it was a few months ago. Especially in a community whose leadership is still divided.

But who knows? One thing I've learned is not to underestimate John Fetterman. 

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Becky Slemmons and "Gatherings"

Posted By on Fri, Nov 26, 2010 at 5:17 PM

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It's about 20 visits, 80 more to go for Becky Slemmons.

The local artist has set herself a challenge: to visit 100 places of worship in Pittsburgh, at least one each week. She started Sept. 5.

Her goals include exploring the role belief plays in society; "the similarities in differently labeled spiritual mythologies"; and "the conflict unfortunately perpetuated." She is also, she adds in a press release, "intrigued by people who don't need proof."

Moreover, "Gatherings" has taken Slemmons, who is unaffiliated with any particular faith, on a journey of artistic discovery.

She documents her visits through video, blogs (www.gatheringspittsburgh.blogspot.com) and works in the more tangible medium of a sleeveless, gothic-style white dress. She wears the dress on each visit and alters it in response.

"From the beginning there was something about clothing that needed to happen and I felt like there needed to be one item that went to each service," she says in a phone interview. "Clothing becomes a relic when worn by people. I wanted people to have that as a reason to talk to me."

Every week, Slemmons contacts representatives of faith communities, explaining her project and requesting the opportunity to visit. She describes herself as shy and remembers being scared to make the first call. Still, she says, "I love doing things I'm afraid to do."

She's attended a variety of Christian and Judaic services (denominational and non-denominational), as well as Hindu, Islamic and Unitarian Universalist. These visits have included religious celebrations such as Diwali (Hindu), Taizé (Presbyterian), Sukkot, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

This Sun., Nov. 28, she'll attend both the 8 a.m. Good Samaritan Service involving East End Cooperative Ministry Men's Shelter, at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, and the 10:30 a.m. service at The Religious Society of Friends of Pittsburgh, in Shadyside.

Slemmons is intrigued by the way people use their body to worship. She saw a woman at a Hindu ceremony praying in "child's pose," the same way a Muslim does. "That was wonderful," she says.

So far, faith communities have responded positively to her, as well.

"It's been so supportive. I've met some really incredible people. I've had reverends call me after the visit and ask me how I felt about the visit," she says.

The entire process is reflected in Slemmons' dress. A patch from the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community in South Side peeks out of a front pocket. Five tiny lines, barely visible beside a button, remind her that Muslims pray five times a day.

Still, religious dress codes apply. She added a head scarf for a visit to an Orthodox Judaic service, and sleeves for an Islamic service. At Hindu religious worship, women wear a "dupatta," a long scarf, so Slemmons added that, too.

She worries that someday, the dress will attract too much attention.

"Things will become more complicated when the dress becomes huge, and I don't want to distract people as they're worshipping," she said.

Indeed, Slemmons worries, "No matter how much I try to research [beforehand], it's hard for me to know if I'm surely not going to do something considered sacrilegious."

For much of her career as an artist, Slemmons says, she only painted and drew. Her work began to change during a two-year graduate program at The Maryland Institute College of Art. "I could see the idea of performance even in my still-lifes because my little objects seemed to be performing on a stage," she says.

But "Gatherings" is a leap for the internationally exhibited artist, who currently teaches at Pitt.

"This is the first project where I'm a visible performer," she says.

She hopes, ultimately, to expose the people she meets to "the possibility that making art may not always be that different from the act of attending service: both involving meditation, consideration and then response through life's actions."

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Downtown's "Cell Phone Disco"

Posted By on Wed, Nov 24, 2010 at 9:32 PM

If I say the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's lastest public art installation looks better the further away you get, that's not an asthetic criticism.

"Cell Phone Disco," unveiled yesterday, consists of a large-scale aluminum frame mounted on the rear wall of the Benedum Center -- the brick wall bordering that alley (Tito Way) that runs from Crazy Mocha on Liberty Avenue toward the river.

It's lit by 2,304 individually activated LEDs, which glow red or go dark in response to the signals from nearby cell phones. The 16 antennae are mounted on the metal frame, but the call is coming from inside the building -- where the receiver and microprocessors are located.

The work grew from Dutch artists Ursula Lavrenčič and Auke Touwslager's fascination with mobile phones, and a desire to make visual the electromagnetic fields they create. A version -- credited to the pair as Informationlab -- was exhibited here a couple years ago, at nearby Wood Street Galleries.

At the unveiling, Wood Street curator Murrary Horne presented the installation as part of the Trust's ongoing plan to illuminate pedestrian pathways in the Cultural District using artworks. Others have included Erwin Redl's "Flow" (2004) -- those eight big vertical red bars on the Liberty Avenue face of Wood Street Galleries.

And indeed, the "Cell Phone" debut, held at 5 p.m., was puncuated by people leaving work and shortcutting to the bus stop or parking garage.

Up close, "Cell Phone Disco" doesn't look like much -- kind of like a malfunctioning LED readout, lights blinking in obscure patterns. The thing is 16 feet square, after all, and each point of light is quite distant from the next. From this vantage point, at dusk, the most interesting visual might be the funhouse-mirror reflection of the Federated building.

Meanwhile, you can't really see "Cell Phone" at all from Liberty Avenue, which runs only a half-block away.

To get the full effect, in the evening, retreat down Exchange Way, which dead-ends on Tito Way at the artwork and runs parallel to Liberty, toward 9th Street. I'd even suggest continuing across Ninth, about halfway to 10th Street.

Turn around, and with the nice perspective shifts created by the buildings, it's quite dramatic, sort of like a 2D electronic fountain, rippling up and down the Benedum's wall. At this distance, it should generate plenty of "what the heck is that?" from passersby -- even if to activate it AND watch at the same time from this spot, you'd have to send a buddy with a cell phone running to within range of the antennae.

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Transit cuts usher in "a very, very dark day in Port Authority history"

Posted By on Wed, Nov 24, 2010 at 1:19 PM

After five months of waiting in vain for state lawmakers to come through with a funding plan, the Port Authority board of directors approved today the biggest service reduction in the transit agency's history.

The plan includes a fare increase, 35 percent service reduction, and approximately 500 layoffs. The moves are intended to fill a $47.1 million shortfall to balance its budget.

"Today is a very, very dark day in Port Authority history," Authority executive director Steve Bland told the board before the vote.

The agency expects the cuts to cost 15,000 daily riders. More than 50 neighborhoods will lose service entirely, and about 45 bus and light-rail service routes will be discontinued. "They will disappear," Bland says. "And it's a long walk from a lot of those places to the nearest bus routes."

A fare increase of 25 cents in Zones 1 and 50 cents in Zone 2 will go into effect Jan. 1. The service reductions and layoffs are expected in March.

The plan was first presented in July. A vote was scheduled for September, but the board postponed it in hopes that a funding solution could come through from the state after the mid-term elections. But at this point, transit agency leaders say, little other action can be taken.

"I don't believe it's the right choice. I do, however, believe at this moment, it's the only choice," Bland said.

The prospect for an immediate solution "is very grim," he sad. "I'd be lying if I led anyone to believe that there is a short-term solution."

Board members placed blame for the cuts on state lawmakers. AndbBoard member Joan Ellenbogen argued that more than just local bus routes are at stake.

"While we may be feeling it most right now, more agencies and PennDOT will feel the squeeze," she predicted. "When those … in the middle of the state cry about crumbling roads and bridges, maybe [lawmakers] will listen."

Jack Brooks, chair of the board, agreed, telling CP after the meeting "Our elected officials need to stop pointing the finger at us and look in the mirror. It's not too late to act, but soon it will be."

Though similarly drastic cuts have been threatened in the past, Brooks says, the board "has always got around it because the governor came up with the money. There has to be a source of funding." And this time, "We don't have anything."

Port Authority primarily blames its financial woes on the federal government's rejection of a plan toll Interstate 80. Revenue from the I-80 tolling plan was already included in Act 44 of 2007, the state law establishing funding for transit projects. Tolling I-80, state officials estimated, would have brought $1 billion in transportation funding for roads, bridges and mass transit to Pennsylvania.

The Port Authority's share of the money would have been enough to reduce its budget to about $25 million. Without the hoped-for revenue, though the agency's shortfall is nearly twice that amount.

"Act 44 … has collapsed. It failed," Bland said. "But if anything positive comes out of today, maybe it'll let us redirect our energy to Harrisburg where it belongs."

But in the meantime, Bland says his financially-beleaguered agency is already facing a $20-$30 million shortfall next< year, and could further reduce service in July to balance its budget.

Activists like Jonathan Robison, president of the Allegheny County Transit Council, pleaded for lawmakers to come up with enough money to see the agency through until a more lasting solution can be found. "Bridge funding is a bandage, yes. But a bandage is nice when you're bleeding to death."

Before the meeting, about 50 transit activists staged a rally imploring the state to devise a funding solution. Brittany McBryde, of Point Breeze, held a black poster with a tombstone on it that read "R.I.P: Here lies Pgh Transit."

She, like many of the activists, has already taken Bland's advice by directing her outrage at Harrisburg. After all, she said, "Port Authority stands to lose just like we do."

Patrick McMahon, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, contended that "the answer lies in elected officials. They have failed us."

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Monday, November 22, 2010

MP3 Monday: The Composure

Posted By on Mon, Nov 22, 2010 at 1:18 PM

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Howdy, blog-readers!

Short and sweet this time around: this week's MP3 Monday comes to us courtesy of The Composure. If you read last week's Short List -- you DID read last week's Short List, right? -- you know that this band consists of Punchline members and other folks, and adds a little nuance to the pop-punk playbook. They just released an album, Strings Attached, and were kind enough to supply us with this track: The Spinning of the World. Download! Listen! Enjoy! I'll be back Wednesday with a special rundown of Thanksgiving weekend shows and the like.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

National Book Award Winner Terrance Hayes

Posted By on Fri, Nov 19, 2010 at 5:38 PM

In researching a 2006 profile of the poet and Carnegie Mellon professor,  I learned that what seemed to impress people most was that there's no pigeonholing him, whether personally or artistically. Everybody likes him, but no one seems able to pin him down; and he seems capable of writing in any style, about any subject, while plainly remaining Terrance Hayes. (Here's the article: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A28483.)

Here's an excerpt from his "I Am a Bird Now":

After the vase is asleep with the taste
Of the bit flower its moodiness and lust

You know how I feel / submerged
In a clouded jar altered and alert

The mind light-headed and hawked
Run-down and cloaked in awkwardness

Beautiful lines, but they don't begin to give a sense of everything that's going on in Lighthead, the collection that won him this year's prestigious National Book Award for poetry. (Here's CP review: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A82228.)

There are also wild narratives, sensitively detailed poems about family, and drily comic flights of fancy. And while Hayes isn't a "political poet" in the conventional sense, his social commentary is no less potent for its slyness: "I realize that when you said 'Freedom,'" says one of his narrators in Lighthead, "you were talking about the meat we kill for, the head of the enemy leaking in the bushes, how all of it makes peace possible."

If Lighthead has a signature stroke, it's Hayes' use of the "pecha kucha" form, named for the trendy presentation format in which each of 20 images is accompanied by a brief talk. The stanzas of his "Coffin for Head of State," their titles based on song titles by African music legend Fela Kuti, constitute a sinister political prophecy: "I almost described the leaves shining on their bones / and the snakes roosting in their sheaths to the coffin." 

Hayes turns 39 this month -- quite young for a National Book Award. But Hayes, who's from South Carolina, got a jump out of the gate. In a world where many poets never get formally published at all, his very first collection, Muscular Music -- basically his master's thesis in Pitt's poetry program -- made it to shelves. Considering that he's now one of a handful of living poets on a big imprint like Penguin Books, the surprise isn't the National Book Award, but only how quickly he earned it.

Hayes is protean. In that 2006 profile, he includes Keats among his influences. The kinship is mostly stylistic, but Keats himself once seemed to describe Hayes' omnivorous approach to subject matter. "[T]he poetical Character," Keats wrote, "it is not itself ... it has no self ... it is everything and nothing ... It has no character ... it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated."

Or, as Hayes put it, "I'm schizophrenic, all over the place."

And as Hayes writes in Lighthead, a poet's job is to "root through noise like a termite / with a number on his back."

And now he's a termite with a National Book Award.

Terrance Hayes in 2006. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL.

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ICYMI: "60 Minutes" takes on shale drilling

Posted By on Fri, Nov 19, 2010 at 8:38 AM

If you were pre-gaming it for the Steelers/Patriots match-up last Sunday night, you probably missed it, but 60 Minutes took a look at the controversy surrounding "fracking." Those following the Marcellus Shale debate might want to check it out -- it beats watching game highlights, at least.

The first portion of the report plays up the job-creating potential of the deposits. Reporter Lesley Stahl does her patented mugging, expressing surprise at the size of royalty checks paid to Louisiana residents with drilling operations on their property, and she lauds the "gold mist" paint job on their new Caddies. 

But that upbeat material is followed up with warnings about the "thousands of accidents and safety violations" racked up at drilling sites around the country. Stahl notes, for example, an incident in Louisiana in which 17 cows died a "gruesome death" after drinking frackwater, which is composed of water and various additives that are shot underground to break up stone and release gas.

And when we meet Aubrey McClendon, the somewhat patronizing CEO of Chesapeake Energy, he makes an interesting statement (the key give-and-take with Stahl begins around the 9:20 mark). Asked about the hazardous chemicals in frackwater, he at first offers this bit of industry boilerplate: "You don't drink Drano for a reason, but you have Drano in your house." But then he adds, "You don't want to drink frack fluid. If you take away nothing from this interview --"

So frackwater is dangerous, then? 'Cause our local industry front group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, is fond of saying that it's mostly just "water and playground sand." (The Coalition allows that the fluid does contain "A lot of things that you probably shouldn’t drink" -- probably? -- but to my ear, the shale-drilling CEO sounds more circumspect than the group advancing his cause.)

But then follows this exchange, in which Stahl and McClendon talk past each other.

"Isn't there a possibility that you go down, and something seeps ... into the aquifer?" she queries.

"There is almost two miles of rock between where we are active and where freshwater is drawn from," McClendon parries. 

Well, OK. But by this point, we've gotten the sense that the most immediate danger is not what's going on two miles below us, but what's happening right on the surface. We've seen footage of leaky pipes, vapors coming off storage tanks, and dead cattle. And McClendon has already acknolwedged that, hey, accidents happen.

What's more, like everyone else who's ever done a story about shale drilling, the 60 Minutes crew traveled to Dimock, PA, to be amazed at footage of people lighting their tapwater on fire. In interviews, residents blame new Marcellus drilling for the problem.

I've seen enough of this particular visual to have become a little weary -- and a little wary -- of it. The whole lighting-up-the-tapwater thing makes great TV, but it may not be quite as daming as some make out. As The New York Times recently pointed out, some Dimock residents have objected to seeing their community treated as the poster-child for the perils of shale drilling: 

[A] group of Dimock Township residents gathered on a recent evening to ... issue a defense of gas companies like Cabot [whose wells have been accused of despoiling local well water]. They planned, they said, to formally charter an organization called Enough Already.

Among the residents was Martha Locey, 78, who has lived on her family's farm since 1932. "My father dug our well in 1945, and we knew it had lots of iron in it, and we thought it had something else ... because it had lots of bubbles in it," Ms. Locey said. "So my nephew took it to school in the '60s, and the science teacher lit it, and it burned, so he said, 'It’s methane.'"

"The truth is, our well has been that way since 1945," added Ms. Locey, who has signed an affidavit in support of the gas company’s legal case. "I don't think Cabot was here back then."

The whole tapwater-lighting business has been at the heart of the shale-drilling controversy ever since being featured in Josh Fox's documentary Gasland. Industry supporters note that in the cases Fox cites, the methane is coming not from the shale being drilled, but shallower gas pockets that lie above it.

On the other hand, Fox's respose to industry criticism counters (on page 8) that even if the methane in question didn't come directly from the shale deposits being drilled, the act of drilling can disturb those shallower gas deposits, causing the gas to migrate into previously untainted water supplies. Marcellus Shale drilling, in other words, can result in methane in your water ... even if it doesn't come from the Marcellus Shale itself.

But maybe all this begs the issue. After all, if you're a homeowner who suddenly has methane in your water, you probably aren't terribly concerned about which layer of rock, precisely, it came from.

And it got me to thinking: Maybe the debate about shale drilling has focused too much on the things about the process that are new -- high-tech processes like "fracking" and "horizontal drilling" -- and not enough about the dangers that are old. Like human incompetence, corner-cutting, and laziness. 

There's quite a bit of people talking past each other in the 60 Minutes piece. But then there's quite a bit of that in the broader debate as well. Guys like McClendon seem to focus on what they are doing miles underground, presumably because the dangers there seem so remote, and that's where all the gee-whiz technology is happening. And interestingly, many of those who criticize drilling also focus on what's going on down there, in part because that's where all the gee-whiz technology is happening. 

But when you take away the high-tech bells and whistles, what you have is a business seeking to construct thousands, of tiny industrial sites all over the state. Every one of those represents a potential problem -- a place for a random accident or shoddy contracting job. And so each represents a potential drain on local emergency-responders who have to respond in the event of an explosion or leak. And we just elected a governor who opposes taxing the industry, even if the tax revenue would help local communities prepare for those disasters.

Despite the industry spin -- "probably"??? -- there's really little debate that this is serious stuff. The danger might not be glamorous -- leaky pipes, hungover truck drivers -- but it's real. And once we wrap our heads around what makes Marcellus Shale drilling a new industry, we probably ought to start thinking more about what it has in common with all the old ones. 

In other words, this might be the rare case in which we need more news stories that simply skim the surface.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pillow Project's Paper Memory

Posted By on Wed, Nov 17, 2010 at 9:38 PM

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Interesting things are happening with Pearlann Porter's six-year-old multimedia-oriented dance troupe. If early shows, like The Concept Album Tour, traded in spectacle, this latest production demonstrates how far Porter's come: Paper Memory feels visionary at times. Notwithstanding one complaint I'll get to in a minute, this show is one to catch before it closes this weekend.

The "performance installation" for three dancers is built around a deceptively slender romantic narrative. Dancer Taylor Knight portrays a writer, while Brent Luebbert and Breanna Short seem to be dancing the roles of the troubled couple he is writing about (with Luebbert, of course, a fictionalized version of the writer). The wistful, searching piece explores memory as it's transformed by regret, wishfulness and the very process of remembering.

While the dancers are good, Paper Memory might be most notable for its staging. In the loft-like confines of its Space Upstairs (atop Construction Junction), Porter has created a proscenium-style performance space several times larger than the seating area (which consists of three rows of chairs).

Meanwhile, the floor-level stage is nearly three times as deep as it is wide, permitting (to use a cinematic term) a kind of deep-focus staging in which we can at once clearly see action happening an arm's length away and stuff going on practically in the next neighborhood.

Porter uses this to full effect to open the show. Far away, at the rear of a pitch-black stage, a tiny light flashes -- a small LED light hand-held by Luebbert. This portends a solo, which Luebbert lights himself solely by flashing the light on and off, strobe fashion. The effect is very cool -- again, cinematic, the live equivalent of jump-cuts.

 Another breathtaking gambit finds the dancers interacting with animations projected on movable walls behind them. Knight sits at a desk composed of thick, hand-drawn lines that seem quiveringly alive. (It's actually a real chair and desk, outlines by the animation.) Luebbert stands against a wall, looking like he's part of a piece of scribbled-on paper -- until the paper (complete with sound effects) is crumpled by an unseen giant hand, as Luebbert folds up with it, only to uncrumple and repeat. And so on.

Porter also uses the stage well. Knight is usually in our face -- often at his desk, downstage to our left, while Luebbert and Short, the fictional characters in this meta-fiction, remain well outside our grasp. And a climactic scene emphasizes the stage's depth by "paving" it from mid-stage to upstage with a trail of writing paper, after which Knight vanishes in a compelling reprise of the strobe effect.

The show also features a terrific original score by P.J. Roduta, full of emotion, intriguing texture and beguiling rhythm.

I won't estimate how deep all this is intellectually or emotionally, but it was a wowzer to watch.

Except for one thing: The lights. Not those hand-held LEDs, which worked fine. And with one brief exception, the staging and the lighting design meshed much better than in "The Itch of the Key," a piece Porter choreographed last year for Dance Alloy, and whose lighting design too often kept us from seeing what we want to see: dancers in motion, full frame.

The trouble here was the spotlights that illuminated the rest of the show: They might as well have been summer-porch buglights. Over the past several years I've seen hundreds of stage shows, and this is the first one that gave me eye strain. I know the space needs to be dark for the projection sequences to come off, but a few higher-watt bulbs could make this evening even better.

Paper Memory concludes with two performances this weekend, at 8 p.m. Fri., Nov. 19, and 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 20 (www.pillowproject.org). The shows are at the Space Upstairs, 214 N. Lexington St., in Point Breeze. 

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Screw MP3 Monday; you're downloading the new Girl Talk

Posted By on Mon, Nov 15, 2010 at 3:08 PM

So, I don't have an MP3 lined up for today -- there will be one next week -- but that's probably okay because you're probably spending your attention and bandwidth downloading the new Girl Talk album, All Day. It's called All Day; I'm not implying that it'll take all day to download, though with demand being what it is, it might.

It's free, licensed under Creative Commons -- the best way for an artist like Girl Talk to both skirt controversy about sampling practices and, with any luck, avoid legal issues (this is also why, as a famous example, Negativland's "U2" single is available as a free download but isn't for sale anymore).

So, go for it, enjoy it, and read our feature on Girl Talk from 2008.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Elder Hostages Staged Reading

Posted By on Fri, Nov 12, 2010 at 8:25 PM

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. held a staged reading last night that drew a few times more people than could fit in its usual performance space.

Staged readings, of course, are typically intimate affairs. The actors, scripts in hand, don't really move around that much. The staged reading is a setup generally reserved for testing new works in front of small audiences, not for packing 'em in.

But for this special performance of playwright Ray Werner's Elder Hostages, Mark Southers' company moved from its loft-style Downtown space to the more commodious confines of the New Hazlett Theater. One reason is, Werner has a lot of friends: He spent years as a successful ad man, and has more recently spent his time playing Irish folk music, baking bread, and helping launch foodie-heaven Strip District farmers' market Farmers @ The Firehouse.

The second reason: The suite of three one-act plays was billed as the first time on stage together for two of Pittsburgh's most venerable actors, Tom Atkins and Bingo O'Malley.

The men, both in their 70s, had acted in the same film once. But it's safe to say My Bloody Valentine 3-D didn't call upon the full range of their talents.

Atkins, after all, has a long list of film credits (including The Fog and Escape from New York). He's best known on local stages for playing Art Rooney, Sr., in the Pittsburgh Public Theater's hit one-man show The Chief. (He's also regularly played Scrooge here in the CLO's A Musical Christmas Carol.)

O'Malley, meanwhile, has been a local stage legend since the 1970s, earning raves for everything from edgy new work to Death of a Salesman.

So Atkins-plus-O'Malley turned some people out. And the plays were pretty impressive, too.

In the opening two-hander, "Mum's the Word," the two men played aged shut-in brothers, one of whom (portrayed by O'Malley) is forever seeking to wrest their father's last words from the other. It's a dark comedy filled with explicit literary references, as the brothers play a hotly contested game in which they try to stump each other with "obscure quotes by famous authors." John Shepard directed.

"Night Song," directed by Southers, had Atkins as the husband of a woman (Susie McGregor-Laine) stricken with dementia, and painfully contemplating a way to end their mutual suffering. 

And "Wandering Angus," a comedy, teamed Atkins and O'Malley again, this time with Teri Bridgett, as three infirm elders at a Port Authority-forsaken bus stop. Marci Woodruff directed.

For my money, O'Malley stole "Mum's the Word"; even with script in hand, he not only made you believe every word spoken by his embittered character, but showed you what it cost him to keep his secrets.

"Night Song," meanwhile, was a tour-de-force for Atkins and McGregor-Laine. The subject matter risked tumbling into sentimentality, but ended up earning your broken heart. McGregor-Laine nearly did so all by herself, even with dialogue that consisted mostly of "be," "buh," "you" and "yes."

"Wandering Angus" added a nice note of off-kilter humor. It also further showcased Werner's ear for dialogue as spoken by quite different characters.

The evening was a fundraiser for a planned full production of Elder Hostages next season at Pittsburgh Playwrights. We'll be lucky if it comes off, and luckier still if the show can swing the same all-star cast (or even any part thereof).

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