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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

MP3 Wednesday: The Story Changes

Posted By on Wed, Aug 31, 2011 at 1:57 PM

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Sorry, things were really mixed up earlier this week and I didn't get you your MP3 Monday. That means you get a special Wendesday treat, though!

The track this week comes from The Story Changes, a band that's not exactly from Pittsburgh, but close enough (Akron). They play here now and then, and work with I Am Shark, who I profiled a couple months back.

The track that the two-piece provided: Tidal Wave, from their new This Is Your Moment EP. Check it!

 

To download MP3, right-click link and choose "save link as" or "download linked file as."

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Friday, August 26, 2011

Dance Alloy Theater To Merge With Kelly-Strayhorn

Posted By on Fri, Aug 26, 2011 at 9:20 PM

City Paper has learned that the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater is merging with Dance Alloy, which for years has been Pittsburgh's premiere modern-dance troupe. While the move leaves intact the Alloy's long-running dance school and community-engagement programs, its future as a performance group is uncertain.

The Alloy, whose board had earlier approved the merger, is set to become part of the Kelly-Strayhorn under the leadership of Kelly-Strayhorn executive director Janera Solomon. The Kelly Strayhorn's board voted last week to approve the merger; a formal announcement is expected next week.

The merger is "an opportunity to expand our programming and do some really exciting things for dance in this community," says Solomon.

The impact on the city's dance scene remains unclear, however. Dance Alloy acting board president Cabot Earle said today that the group does not anticipate retaining any of its staff, and has already decided to forgo its traditional fall mainstage performance. The seasonal contracts of its five dancers, which expired last spring, have not been renewed. As to whether a spring show will be staged, "Our plan is that there will be," said Earle.

The Alloy, which celebrated its 35th anniversary this year, is the city's oldest and most storied modern- and contemporary-dance troupe.

Solomon says the Alloy's board approached the Kelly-Strayhorn about a merger. Asked why, Earle said, "We thought that there was good synergy between the two organizations." He noted the Alloy's history of performance and education, and the Kelly-Strayhorn's growing role as a presenter of dance.

Meanwhile, times have been hard for arts groups. In April, the Alloy held its spring mainstage performance in its home building, in Friendship, rather than its usual venue, the New Hazlett Theater, which is larger and would have had to be rented.

Earle acknowledged that the Alloy faces "financial challenges." But he says that the Alloy's funding struggles have been comparable to those of other nonprofit arts groups in a tough economy. He said Alloy board members looked to Solomon, who has overseen a successful rebirth of the Kelly-Strayhorn.

"We saw an opportunity with Janera and her leadership to provide a level of management and leadership expertise that would help carry Dance Alloy forward," he said.

The Alloy was founded in 1976 as a dancers' collective; by the 1980s it had grown into an artistic force. In the '90s, the group flourished under artistic director Mark Taylor. Its impact on the local dance scene has been considerable. Among its roster of dancers, for example, were Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza, who both danced for Taylor in the 1990s -- and who went on to found locally based, internationally touring Attack Theatre.

"I moved here because of the Dance Alloy. Michele moved here because of the Dance Alloy. Without Dance Alloy there would be no Attack Theatre," says Kope.

Other Alloy spin-offs included former Alloy dancer Gwen Ritchie's long-running but now defunct LABCO.

In 2003, the Alloy weathered a crisis that followed Taylor's resignation. The group was near financial collapse, but its fortunes appeared to revive under the leadership of newly hired artistic and managing director Beth Corning, a Minnesota-based choreographer with an international resume. In 2008, the group was one of five U.S. companies featured in a Dance Magazine article titled "Great Troupes Come in Small Packages."

Corning resigned in 2009 and was replaced as artistic director by Greer Reed-Jones. Reed-Jones retained the post after being named head of dance initiatives at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, where she has launched a new dance troupe, the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble. This past December, Reed-Jones oversaw a 35th-anniversary show featuring works by Taylor, dancer-turned-choreographer (and Pennsylvania Dance Theater director) Andre Koslowski and other Alloy alums.

Meanwhile, under Solomon, the Kelly-Strayhorn was building a reputation as a presenter of new dance, with initiatives like artist residencies and its annual newMoves dance festival.

Merger talks between the Alloy and the Kelly-Strayhorn began in May and weekly meetings continued all summer, Solomon says. She adds that the Kelly-Strayhorn had been approved for a $34,000 grant from the Allegheny Regional Asset District to pay for merger costs, including attorney fees and office-system upgrades.

Solomon said the merger might not be official until September.

The Kelly-Strayhorn will run the Alloy's education and community-outreach programs, including programs in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. It will also take over the Alloy's Friendship building. Located on Penn Avenue, the two-story structure has a large sprung floor and is suitable for classes, rehearsals and performances for small audiences.

What the merger means more broadly for dance in Pittsburgh is uncertain. Much depends on whether Dance Alloy re-emerges as a performance troupe.

Attack Theatre's Kope praises Solomon's commitment to dance at the Kelly-Strayhorn. But he notes that the Alloy was the only group that brought in big-name, cutting-edge choreographers to set new or older works on local companies -- rather than simply hosting visiting troupes. When such choreographers set work on a local company, the experience benefits the dancers, and hence audiences, for years.

Kope says he and de la Reza still talk about the work they did through the Alloy with artists like Elizabeth Streb and David Dorfman. If no one else fills the Alloy's role, he says, "That's gonna be a big loss."

On the other hand, Kope notes the marketing difficulties facing such repertory companies, which -- because they stage works by multiple choreographers -- forgo the ready identity of performing under a single artistic vision.

Still, if the merger does somehow lead to more dance in Pittsburgh, he says, "I think it's gonna be a good thing for everybody."

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Delay in hearing for police officer accused of insurance fraud

Posted By on Fri, Aug 26, 2011 at 5:29 PM

A preliminary hearing was delayed today in the case of a Pittsburgh police officer whose conduct was the subject of a City Paper report in March. 

City officer Garrett Brown did not appear for a preliminary hearing on charges of insurance fraud and theft by deception -- both third-degree felonies -- and making false reports. The hearing has been rescheduled for Oct. 21.

The allegations stem from a Nov. 19 incident recounted in the City Paper story. During that incident, deliverymen Blaine Johnston and Matthew Mazzie claimed they ran afoul of Brown at around 4 a.m.

After they passed Brown's truck heading the opposite way, the two men contend, Brown did a U-turn and began chasing them down. They allege that Brown subsequently punched the side of their van at a stoplight, and later rammed their delivery truck. Johnston, who says he was afraid of a physical confrontation, drove to Children's Hospital and called police. Only then, the drivers say, did they realize that Brown was a police officer.

Brown's side of the story, as recounted in a report filed by Officer William Kunz, was that he was sitting at a red light when Johnston rear-ended his truck. Brown, who was off-duty at the time of the incident, told Kunz he pulled up to the next stop light "so as to exchange information," according to the report, but Johnston kept driving.

"Damage to both vehicles was consistent with statements by Mr. Brown that a collision ... occurred between them," Kunz wrote in the criminal complaint.

But Brown's insurance company, at least, believes the collision didn't take place the way Brown had described.

According to the police complaint against Brown, Brown filed an accident claim with Erie Insurance on Dec. 1, in which he said "his vehicle was struck [by Johnston's van]." The company initially paid Brown $2,137.24 for damage to his vehicle; Erie also paid $445.80 for a rental car to use while the damage was repaired.

But in January, the complaint continues, an Erie insurance agent "receieved information indicating that Mr. Brown may be committing insurance fraud," which prompted further investigation.

During that investigation, "forensic examination of the two vehicles" suggested "that the truck driven by Garrett Brown struck the van in the front driver's side and that his vehicle was not struck from the rear as he had stated."

Brown, who has been on the city police force for a decade, has been accused of providing false information before. In a federal lawsuit stemming from another roadside confrontation, lawyers for truck-driver Leonard Hamler claimed that Brown had previously been brought up on a departmental charge of "lack of truthfulness."

The charges against Johnston have already been dismissed, after Brown did not show up for four preliminary hearings. And as the Post-Gazette noted earlier this month, the bureau's internal-affairs division determined that the incident took place as Johnston and Mazzie has described. The Office of Municipal Investigations also ruled that Brown had acted unethically, the paper reported.

Johnston was on hand to testify at Brown's hearing before district judge James Hanley this morning, but says the officer did not show up.

"I feel great someone is finally recognizing what happened," says Johnston. "But it's not over yet."

Police bureau spokesperson Diane Richard says Brown is on paid administrative leave while the incident is investigated, and that he "will face disciplinary action per Chief [Nate] Harper."

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The Moth Launches New Pittsburgh Initiative

Posted By on Fri, Aug 26, 2011 at 5:07 PM

While last night's local installment of the popular New York City-based storytelling series was a hit, it was nearly upstaged by an announcement made right in the middle of the show.

Host Rudy Rush told the sellout crowd of 550 at the New Hazlett Theater that in October, The Moth will launch one its story slams right here in Pittsburgh.

The new slam is a sign of The Moth's love for Pittsburgh, where all three of its live shows since 2009, presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, have drawn hundreds and sold out. In fact, The Moth has authorized only four other cities for slams: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit.

The Pittsburgh slam is so new it's not even on The Moth's website yet (www.themoth.org). Nor is there a specified launch date. But WYEP 91.3 FM -- a series co-sponsor, along with Essential Public Media -- confirms that the venue is Club Café, on the South Side. 

Each slam will have a theme, with examples from other cities including "Drive," "Food," "Firsts" and "Chutzpah." WYEP General Manager Lee Ferraro says aspiring storytellers at each open-mic style event will put their names into a hat, and 10 names will be drawn. Contestants will perform for a panel of local judges. 

"It's really kind of a workshop for writers and story-tellers," says Ferraro. The events are ticketed ($8 seems like the default price elsewhere.)

Why couldn't Pittsburgh just start its own story slam? Story-telling, after all, is the original art form; we hardly need the Moth brand, swell as it is, to give us license.

On the other hand, brand names boost visibility, and a little institutional oversight couldn't hurt with quality control.

Case in point is the very nice show The Moth put on last night. Obviously, Pittsburgh is literate and loquacious enough to tell its own stories; just as obviously, The Moth brought out angles and talents we might have forgotten about, overlooked or underdeveloped. (Series producers work with tellers over a period of weeks to hone their stories.)

So we got Said Sayrafiezadeh, who grew up in Pittsburgh but had long since left town when his 2009 memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, was released to critical acclaim. (Here's CP's short feature on book and author: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A64118.)

Sayrafiezadeh -- who said that his third-grade teacher from East Hills Elementary was in the audience -- told a painful if sometimes wry story about being singled out as Iranian, and a outsider, at Reizenstein Middle School during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.

Veteran Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter and columnist Sally Kalson wittily told of the professional crisis occasioned some 20 years ago when a couple who were close friends with Kalson and her husband told them, "We are not who you think we are." (They were fugitives from the law, living under assumed names.)

And former City Councilor Sala Udin (whose resume also includes numerous stage credits) displayed actorly pacing in a story that centered on his experience as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi in the mid-1960s, and the redemption he found in a life of political activism.

Only two of the five tellers had no big local connections. One, Kimberly Reed, recalled events surrounding her father's death, until which her sex-reassignment was still unknown to her brother or the other residents of the small Montana town where she'd grown up male. The alternately comedic and poignant tale also involved former members of Reed's high school football team, which she had quarterbacked, reuniting some 15 years later. 

While Moth tellers work without notes, arguably the evening's most craftily wrought story came from writer Elna Baker. The author of memoir The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is in fact a devout Mormon, and she began by saying that she is 25 and has never had sex.

Yet while Baker's story involved considerable discussion of God, it was also frequently hilarious. "It's kind of hard to live in New York City as a Mormon," she admitted. That's because of all the things Mormons must say "no" to, including but not limited to alcohol, caffeine and sex outside marriage.

Baker's premise was that she was thus free to say "yes" to everything else, encompassing both white lies that got her swag at job fairs to and the bigger fib that got her a seat on a 7-11 corporate-convention dinner cruise around Manhattan.

Her story also included a romance. The fact that its rom-com set up had anything but a Hollywood ending was as moving and aesthetically gratifying as we'd hope from a true story.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Pittsburgh school district poised to sell off shuttered buildings

Posted By on Thu, Aug 25, 2011 at 1:13 PM

In the market for an old school building? The Pittsburgh Public Schools may have just the deal you're looking for.

Last night, the city school board unanimously adopted a new policy for the sale of 17 former school buildings, including Oakland's beloved Schenley High School. The policy, which requires that requests for proposals and bid submissions be finalized by the end of this calendar year, is designed to help the school district dig itself out of a projected $68 million deficit.

According to the three-page resolution, "[T]he cost of maintaining [mothballed] buildings has become prohibitive and places undue strain on the finances and maintenance capacity of the District, which is in the midst of a severe budgeting crisis."

"Hopefully we will get a significant number of these off our books," district solicitor Ira Weiss told the board during last night's monthly legislative meeting.

While the district will not accept bids based solely on purchase price, preference will be given to bids that at least cover "the existing debt service attributable to the building," according to the policy. The district will also evaluate proposals based on how they may help the "long-term financial stability of the School District"; their "effect on student enrollment"; their "expansion of the tax base"; and their "impact on the surrounding community."

Schenley High School is arguably the most notable school building included on the list of buildings for sale. Despite parent and community outrage, the school board voted 5-4 in 2008 to close the historic high school after it was determined by administration officials that repairing the asbestos-plagued building would cost roughly $80 million. The move helped spearhead former Superintendent Mark Roosevelt's high school reform efforts.

Another school on the list: Hazelwood's former Burgwin Elementary. Burgwin, you may recall, became the subject of intense controversy after the district ignored an offer to buy the building for $350,000 from someone affiliated with a charter school company.

In a November 2009 e-mail, URA real-estate director Kyra Straussman told the bidder that district policy prohibits considering "charter-school proposals for the reuse of closed Pittsburgh public schools." The board eventually scrapped that policy in early 2010, after it was criticized by charter-school advocates.

Weiss and school-board members acknowledged that some of the 17 buildings may be more marketable than others. And according to the resolution, "In the event an acceptable proposal is not received by the School District, the Board may consider demolition of the structure."

"We need to get rid of them," school-board member Jean Fink tells City Paper. "The buildings are a financial drain on us."

Other structures that may go on the block include:

  • Belmar
  • Beltzhoover
  • Burgwin
  • Columbus
  • Gladstone
  • Homewood
  • Knoxville
  • Madison
  • Mann
  • Miller
  • Morningside
  • Overbrook
  • Prospect
  • Reizenstein (available 9/1/12)
  • Ridge
  • Rogers
  • Schenley

Fink notes that buildings like Reizenstein (which won't be available until next fall), in East Liberty, and Schenley would attract lots of interest, even though the latter may require significant remediation. Reizenstein, she says, is perfectly located in a burgeoning neighborhood.

And Schenley?

"Wouldn't that make a beautiful hotel?"

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Squonk Opera, Post-America's Got Talent

Posted By on Wed, Aug 24, 2011 at 4:08 PM

Never mind Sharon Osbourne, let alone Piers Morgan. In the wake of July's appearance on its biggest stage yet -- the nationally televised NBC talent contest -- the art-rockin' stage troupe is back to work, touring old shows and developing a new one.

But first, a few words about AGT, and those judges' comments.

"We knew we could never win," admits Squonk co-founder Jackie Dempsey. In fact, to this day the group known for its complex musical compositions and surreal stagecraft is in the dark about who decided to ask it (a year ago) to audition for a show typified by ballad singers, acrobatic dancers and novelty acts. America's got talent, sure -- but the Americans who cast phone-in ballots for reality shows seem to prefer the familiar to the outré.

But what the hell, thought the Squonkers -- they'd already incongruously played Broadway, right across the street from The Phantom of the Opera. And the group, after all, has toured internationally for years, to critical acclaim.

Squonk survived early AGT auditions, including one in Minnesota for judges Morgan, Osbourne and Howie Mandel. And when the six musicians and their gear were shipped to Las Vegas for a second audition, they were mysteriously promoted to the Hollywood round -- the one on TV, featuring this season's top 48 acts -- without even having to perform.

To this day, Dempsey told CP this week, the group doesn't know who at AGT was advocating so hard for Squonk, despite the group's idiosyncracies.

In AGT land, said idiosyncracies included refusing to cover someone else's music, despite being repeatedly asked to do so by AGT personnel. "You'll get a lot more votes from America if you do a cover," Dempsey says they were told.

"The show doesn't really seem to celebrate creativity," Dempsey adds. Once, she says, she saw Osbourne tell another contestant, a female singer-songwriter: "We really love your voice, we think you're really talented, but we can't judge you unless you play a song we already know."

"Songwriting is actually a talent," Dempsey says. "But they just don't see it that way."

"If we would have played ‘Billie Jean' or something, we could have won a million bucks," she jokes. (The show's grand prize is $1 million.)

Instead, on its July 12 TV appearance, Squonk performed a truncated, 90-second version of "Majesty," the finale to its newest show, 2011's Mayhem and Majesty. The production came complete with video projections on screens rising from the stage, singer Autumn Ayers riding on the moon, and co-founder and horn-player Steve O'Hearn doing his best impersonation of a cherub, complete with wings.

Then the judges spoke.

"It really was not good, the song," said Osbourne. "It messed with my head."

"This is what I imagine hell is like," said Morgan.

 While Osbourne did praise Squonk's musicianship, the only judge who didn't "buzz" the group was Howie Mandel, who puckishly told the performers, "When you watch you, it's kind of like a drug, and I didn't know where I was."

Dempsey says she was really surprised only by designated "mean guy" Morgan's jabs at Squonk's technical proficiency, including his comment that Dempsey had missed every third note on her keyboard. "I was really taken aback, because that wasn't happening," she says.

While AGT doesn't reveal audience-vote totals, Squonk didn't make it to the next round. Six weeks later, this season's remaining AGT contestants included motorcycle daredevils, the splashy Miami All-Stars dance troupe and a jump-rope team.

Meanwhile, as of Aug. 23, the YouTube page featuring the group's appearance had garnered 36,042 views and similarly divided responses. There were 170 "dislikes" ("dreadful," "HORRIBLE") and 118 "likes" ("exciting," "not as good as jackie evancho but alright I guess").

Interviewed this week, Dempsey wouldn't bite on the question "What would you do differently?" But she did acknowledge that Squonk's production design wasn't ideal for television. The group always performs live, in person, and O'Hearn designs the set in a sort of widescreen format. "We're used to people seeing the whole picture all the time," she says. But with TV cameras isolating performers and stage elements, "That's not what America saw."

Still, no regrets. "We got what we wanted in terms of exposure," says Dempsey, adding, "We're glad to move on from it."

And moving on they are … with new promotional materials that include the quote: "‘Completely bonkers' -- Piers Morgan."

In fact, you can see Squonk (www.squonkopera.org) live as soon as next week. The troupe has two bookings for its extraterrestrial-themed show Astro-Rama, both just a couple hours' drive from home.

The first is Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, at Frostburg State University, in Maryland. (The "UFO" that crashes to promote the show is set to land on campus this weekend.) And on Sept. 16 and 17, Squonk performs Astro-Rama in Cleveland, as part of the new-media-themed Ingenuity Festival. "We're calling it our peace mission to Cleveland, to encourage Pittsburghers to come," says Dempsey.

Those shows will be your first chances to see Astro-Rama nearby since its Pittsbugh-premiere run, in October 2008 in Schenley Plaza. (The show was the subject of the inaugural Program Notes blog post: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A54008.)

And that's not all the post-AGT Squonk is up to. It's still touring its celebrate-your-town show Hometown Opera Series (with the 22nd venue, in Elizabethtown, Ky., forthcoming). It's still touring Mayhem and Majesty. And it's starting work on a new project it hopes to premiere next summer, for the troupe's 20th anniversary, right here in Pittsburgh.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

So many announcements! Chatham Baroque, Warhol Sound Series, VIA, more

Posted By on Tue, Aug 23, 2011 at 3:43 PM

Greetings!

Lots of things to get to today. First, let's talk about not-pop-music stuff. Yesterday, Chatham Baroque announced the winners of their first-ever new works competition -- three composers who will work with the group throughout the next year, preparing new works to premiere in fall, 2012.

The panel -- the group's three principals, plus two outside experts -- examined 35 applications and chose three very different composers: Moon Yung Ha, of New York City; Matt McBane, who splits time between New York and California; and Lansing McLoskey, of Miami.

Working with contemporary composers is new for the trio because they work with Baroque music, obviously, and play period instruments -- viola da gamba, Baroque violin, Baroque guitar, theorbo – that generally aren't written for today. They chose the three composers believing that they will write interesting works within the contemporary music idiom that still take advantage of the instruments' inherent musical qualities. (They specified that they don't want contemporary composers simply trying to re-create Baroque music.)

The ensemble, which recently released its latest album, Alla Luce: Music of Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger, begins its 2011-2012 season the weekend of Oct. 8 with Friendly Rivals, a Baroque program that will feature guests Anna Marsh (dulcian, a kind of proto-basson) and Stephen Etcher (cornetto, an instrument that Chatham Baroque's Scott Pauley described as a "cross between a trumpet and a recorder").

****

Speaking of big announcements, we now know the Warhol Sound Series schedule for the fall, so let's get down to that:

Sept. 15: Olivia Tremor Control at New Hazlett Theater. $12-15. 8 p.m.
Sept. 27: NewVillager at Warhol Museum. $12-15. 8 p.m.
Oct. 8: Starlicker at Warhol Museum. $12-15. 8 p.m.
Oct. 26: Bassekou Kouyate at Carnegie Lecture Hall, Oakland. $12-15. 8 p.m.
Nov. 2: Winged Victory for the Sullen at Carnegie Museum Sculpture Hall, Oakland. $12-15. 8 p.m
Nov. 12: Dan Zanes & Friends at Carnegie Lecture Hall, Oakland. $20-22; $5/10 for kids. 4 p.m.
Nov. 21: Ra Ra Riot at Carnegie Lecture Hall, Oakland. $12-15. 8 p.m.

(Nellie McKay was originally scheduled to appear as well, but had to cancel due to another engagement.)

****

And, last but certainly not least, more announcements from the VIA camp, which I think I thought had already been announced but I guess they weren't. The current schedule looks like:

Oct. 5: Trans Am, Kingdom, Pure Hype. Brillobox. (Kickoff party.
Oct. 6: Battles, Four Tet, Falty DL, Wolf Eyes, Walls. Rex Theater.
Oct. 7: Toy Selectah, Light Asylum, Tim Sweeney, Extreme Animals, Pink Skull, Blondes, Protect-U. 6022 Broad Street Mall.
Oct. 8: Underground Resistance, Zombi, Austra, Laurel Halo, Ford Lopatin, Raw Blow, Centipede Eest, Sutekh, Donato Dozzy, Nuel.

Is that enough information for you?!?!?

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Friday, August 19, 2011

Quantum Theatre’s Twelfth Night

Posted By on Fri, Aug 19, 2011 at 4:02 PM

Probably the most intriguing anachronism in the delightful production of this Shakespeare comedy is the prop lists' inclusion of American Express cards.

Whenever the script calls for "gold" or a "purse" to be handed over, out comes the plastic.

It's not the anachronism itself that's interesting. Shakespeare himself put a mechanical clock in Julius Caeser, for crying out loud. And adaptations of his plays are famously reworked, often set in historical (or ahistorical) settings pretty remote from anything dreamt of in the Bard's Elizabethan dramturgy.

This production, however, isn't really like that. True, the costumes, by Robert C.T. Steele and Tyler Holland, are an entirely whimsical mix of everything from ruffed collars to corsets, hoodies and jeggings. Yet though the show's set in no explicit time period, it still takes place in an Illyria where no one has phones; characters are tricked by forged hand-written letters; and the copious music is played mostly on an acoustic stringed instrument (in this case, a ukulele, but still). 

The credit cards might reference the fact that several of the characters, including shipwrecked, each-presumed-dead-by-the-other twins Viola and Sebastian, are both travelers -- strangers in a strange land, of the sort who use plastic in lieu of cash. But native Illyrians Orsino and Olivia wield AmEx too.

Or maybe the cards are just a little joke by director Karla Boos, something to go along with the explicitly modern, almost featureless stucco-and-glass exterior of the vacant West Penn Research Facility building (in Bloomfield) in whose outdoor entry courtyard the play is staged.

But I'll bet it's that plus a commentary on the fact that the characters in this comedy are always spending money. Every other scene, it seems. I can't remember another Shakespeare play where the act of spending (as opposed to the more philosophical consideration of greed, as in Lear) is so commonplace. And certainly not one of the comedies.

If that's the reason for the plastic, it's a good call. There's no missing some of Twelfth Night's subtext -- the homoeroticism, for instance, in a play where the central character, Viola, is a young woman who, dressed as a young man, falls in love with the older man she's serving, who in turn has some erotic interest in the young man he believes his servant to be; even as Viola is likewise beloved by a woman who thinks she's a young man. But I might have missed the prevalence of financial interactions entirely if not for the underlining effect of those out-of-place credit cards.

Twelfth Night continues with three more performances through Sun., Aug. 28. www.quantumtheatre.com

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Foreign students visit Pittsburgh, tell of bitter experience at Hershey chocolate (UPDATED)

Posted By on Fri, Aug 19, 2011 at 3:20 PM

Zhao Huijiao, a student from Dalian, China, thought she knew what her job in America would be like. 

"They told me were just packing chocolate. I think, chocolate is sweet."

Bittersweet, perhaps. 

Zhao was among some 400 students who have spent this summer packing Hershey's chocolate at a distribution facility in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. She and her foreign-born coworkers -- who hailed from countries as far-flung as Ukraine and Turkey -- came to the States on a J-1 visa. The J-1 is a student visa that allows foreigners to "participate in work-and study-based exchange visitor programs" intended to "foster global understanding through educational and cultural exchanges." 

For Zhao and her coworkers, though, the opportunities proved somewhat limited. In the Hershey distribution center, Zhao, a slightly built 20-year-old, found herself toting 40-pound boxes onto a conveyer built, putting in an eight-hour shift. "All my friends would have blue-and-green [burises] on their arms," she says.

"The first day is horrible: It's 'faster faster faster,' and production never stops" says Roman Surzhko, a Ukrainian student who, like Zhao, was on hand for a demonstration in Downtown's Market Square this afternoon.

The demonstration, which drew support from One Pittsburgh and a some labor activists, attracted only scattered attention from the luncthime crowd. Students and supporters conducted a brief skit in which they got an English lesson in words like "justice" and "courage," and then defied orders to work from an actor wearing a Hershey Kiss costume.

That bit of street theater may be one of the few cultural activities they've had a chance to engage in. Coming to America, the students say, required them to pay as much as $6,000 to the J-1 program sponsor, a California-based non-profit called Council for Educational Travel-USA. Once here, their wages were docked for expenses including the price of their housing -- which they say frequently had four students bedding down in a two-bedroom apartment, paying $400 each per month.

After "a week of hard work," Surzhko says, he'd earned just $70, working eight-hour night shifts. After a summer working in the plant, he says, "no one has even $1,000" in earnings. He found himself too poor, and too tired, to engage in much travel and cultural exchange -- and anyway, the students were living "in the middle of nowhere."

And what about the educational opportunities he came to find? Surzhko, an aspiring computer engineer, smiles sardonically: "I've maybe learned a little Spanish." 

"The last three months have been one big sarcasm,"  he adds.

According to the National Guestworker Alliance, which represents foreign workers in the U.S. and has filed a complaint with the State Department about conditions in Palmyra, those experiences were typical. The organization charges that while students were paid between $7.85 and $8.35 per hour, once rent and other costs were deducted, they typically had less than $150 in a 40-hour week. 

"When ... guestworkers have complained," NGA charges, "they were threatened with deportation and other long-term immigration consequences to coerce them to remain quiet." 

So Zhao, Surzhko, and other workers made national headlines by staging a walkout at the plant. State Department officials have pledged to investigate. 

The facility they worked at, Eastern Distribution Center-III,  is a linchpin of Hershey's distribution network. The plant has won a coveted -- I assume -- Golden Pallet award from Food Logistics magazine, which cited its high productivity and efficiency. But Hershey doesn't operate the plant; day-to-day operations are handled by a contractor, Exel North American Logistics. Exel apparently contracted with another firm, SHS Onsite Solutions, to hire the workers. SHS, in turn, contracted with CETUSA. 

CETUSA has issued a statement asserting that the agency was communicating with students prior to the sit-down. "We are continuing to reach out to students to explore ways to meet their concerns, including seeking new cultural experiences," CEO Rick Anaya said in the statement.

In a follow-up release,  CETUSA asserts that students have bus passes that allow them to "travel throughout the Harrisburg metro area," from which they can visit New York City and other locations by train or bus. "It is likely that some students do not yet realize the true extent at which they are being exposed to American culture."

The release also says that students are given job descriptions in advance, and that the distribution center work "continues to be a job often requested by our exchange students." As for the rents, while CETUS acknolwedges that rents are higher than average, the agency attirbutes this to the fact that landlords "request a higher rent for short-term leases" -- and that the rent includes utilities.

For its part, Hershey has directed reporters to Exel, noting that Exel handles management of the facilty. 

Not everyone finds that a satisfactory response. Neil Bisno, president of the SEIU Healthcare PA union, says he and other labor leaders tried to visit the Palmyra plant when they heard what happened. When they arrived, he says, "We were met by Hershey security. This is a Hershey operation."

"This is exactly what's wrong with this country," Bisno adds. "Corporations are taking advantage of every loophole they can."

UPDATE: Other union officials are more forgiving of Hershey, most of whose operations are unionized by Chocolate Workers Local 464. Diane Carroll, the local's financial manager, tells me that she was "stunned" by the news. 

"We've only know about this for two or three weeks," she says. "And I'm still asking myself, 'Has this really been going on in my own backyard?'"

Although the distribution center is "a stone's throw away" from other Hershey operations, Carroll says, it is not reprresented by the union: Carroll says that when Hershey built the facilities, "They said, 'This isn't Hershey; it's Exel'" -- much as the company is saying now. "We haven't been able to organize it, and so we don't know exactly what is going on over there." 

Carroll says her own union, while "supportive" of the students, is not "spearheading" the charge. Part of the reason, she candidly acknowledges, is that the union doesn't want to jeopardize its relationship with the company. "For the most part, they work with us. We think the students are being treated unfairly, but we're not trying to bash Hershey. I don't even know whether Hershey knew or not."

Carroll, a 26-year company veteran, says she started working at the plant when she was about the same age as the students -- and she did much the same sort of work."When I first started, I thought, 'Oh my God, I hate this work I hate this work I hate this work.' It's hard on your body, and you learn to adjust -- you learn how to use your legs and other parts of your body. What they were telling me about doesn't sound like jobs that are that horrible, but these are college students who probably aren't used to that sort of work."

I have a call in to Hershey's public-relations department, and will post a response as soon as I get one. In any case, Hershey boasts of having a strong Corporate Social Responsibility  policy -- which includes having a "Supplier Code of Conduct" for its subcontractors:

Suppliers should provide wages at least equal to the applicable legal minimum wage and any associated statutory benefits. If there is no legal minimum wage, suppliers must ensure that wages are at least comparable to those at similar companies in the local area or to prevailing industry norms.

The code asserts that "The Hershey Company reserves the right to monitor, review and verify compliance with the Code."

It's all part of what Hershey says is it's commitment to "provide high-quality Hershey products while conducting our business in a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable manner."

In fact, Hershey's largest shareholder is The Milton Hershey school, which the company's founder created to help orphans. The home provides free lodging, education, healthcare, and support to at-risk children.

It all seems just a bit ironic.

Surzhko, for his part, says that the distribution plant's participation in the J-1 program needs to be stopped -- not just for the sake of international students, but because "it's better for all workers." Hiring foreign students "is cheap," he says, "but American citizens need work." 

And while the foriegn students say they want justice -- as well as their four-digit-entrance fees back -- they say the experience hasn't soured them on the American people..

"United States is good; Americans are really kind to us," says Zhao. "But the jobs there [at the plant] are another America."

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Extended interview: Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top

Posted By on Fri, Aug 19, 2011 at 12:47 PM

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Here's a less abridged version of our interview with Billy Gibbons, a prompt and polite e-mail correspondent!

 

A reporter asked you in 1986, "does touring get old?" and you said, "You should see it from our side. Ain't nothin' old."  Is that still true?

We'll stand by that statement, especially in light of recent experience where we're seeing three generations of fans out there.  It's cool with us and the audience is telling us most emphatically that it's cool with them.  Win/Win!

 

ZZ Top's new, Rick Rubin- produced record comes out this fall. You said of Rubin, "he pushes the artists to spend more time reaching down deeper than they normally would."


It's more like he provides another perspective to the process and provides an outside view of the sound ... does it motivate one to move and groove.  He kind of looks like he belongs with us so he's a natural within the circle.  The results are worthwhile.

 

You've had some on-screen spots throughout the years, most recently on Bones, in which you play a very Billy Gibbons-like character.  Do you ever wish for a role where you play someone who isn't a rocker?  


Not sure about taking on a role of someone who doesn't play guitar.  Then again, I do a fairly decent "lost soul" and "religious nut" along with your half-crazed, street corner "eye-on-the-inside".  There's a wide range of "weird" available for the taking.

 

You're an aficionado of both cars and guitars.  Any other hobbies you'd like to explore if you had the time? 


African art is a special passion as, of course, is Mexican cuisine, both "haute" and "bajo." 


 

What bands/records do you have in heavy rotation right now?


"Brothers" by The Black Keys, "Confederate Buddha" by Jimbo Mathus, "Hideaway" by Freddy King, "Mustang Ranch" by Black Joe Louis & The Honeybears,

 

Four decades is a long time to be in a band with the same two guys. Have disagreements ever turned to fisticuffs? The angst gets the aim toward 6 strings and 6 skins.  After all, ZZ's a rock band on the move around the world constantly.  Ain't no time for sidetrackin'.

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