Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Friday, April 30, 2010

Von Singletary of Venture Outdoors

Posted By on Fri, Apr 30, 2010 at 1:51 PM

Singletary, a local environmentalist, ecologist and social activist, is on a mission to bring Pittsburgh outside this summer.

Singletary recently joined the staff at Venture Outdoors. The nonprofit group, dedicated to promoting the region's outdoor resources and opportunities, organizes a myriad of activities: sporty adventures (kayaking, hiking, and biking), agricultural programs and other family-friendly outdoor events.

As family and community programs specialist, Singletary will initiate programs like these, to connect Pittsburghers to their environment. Weekly activities "are geared towards collaboration and participation, and [making] connections between each other," Singletary says.

Singletary, a 25-year-old native of Pittsburgh's East End, says her environmental training began with her great-grandmother, who grew up on a farm in South Carolina. "I've taken Rachel Carson's work to heart since the time I read my first excerpt of Silent Spring in third grade," she adds.

Singletary later learned a lot about collaboration -- and more about plants -- through her work at local urban farms and gardens including Landslide Community Farm, a grassroots urban-farming initiative in the Hill District. The farm, started by five community-minded activists in 2007, maintains several gardens with all-volunteer labor. What the farm harvests is used for community meals, available to the public for nothing more than a voluntary donation.

Landslide was in the news last fall, during the G-20 summit of world leaders: Days before the summit, at least 40 police officers spent hours searching the site, eventually ordering the removal of about 100 tires on a nearby city-owned lot. The tires had apparently been there for more than a year; police called the search "a precautionary measure" related to G-20 protests, with which Landslide volunteers said they were not involved.

Singletary, who was a full-time volunteer at the farm, says that the Landslide experience goes beyond community aid. Aside from learning the science behind earth-friendly farming, her experiences increased her awareness of urban ecosystems and Pittsburghers' impact upon them -- a motivation for her work with Venture Outdoors.

"We all share the outdoors and the environment," says Singletary. "Some aren't as responsible as they should be."

But to love the outdoors, you've got to get to know the outdoors. So Venture Outdoors takes care their activities (agricultural or otherwise) are "inclusive and welcoming to everyone," regardless of experience level or mobility, says Singletary. 

According to this environmentalist, getting Pittsburgh outside is as simple, "if you see something that's easy, and it's fun, and it's healthy." Singletary aims to make sure Venture Outdoors is just that.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Beautiful Dreamers

Posted By on Tue, Apr 27, 2010 at 4:18 PM

Among the two dozen characters in Martin Giles' world-premiere play inspired by the music of Stephen Foster, perhaps the most intriguing is the lone Native American, a droll and somewhat cryptic fellow with the tongue-in-cheek name of Black Cloud.

Black Cloud is the first character encountered in Act II by the play's three protagonists, then halfway into their picaresque journey from East to West in mid-19th-century America. Somewhere on the edge of the Great Plains, the three stop to eat, and don't even notice Black Cloud until he speaks.

That functional invisibility is probably significant in itself. Then come Black Cloud's darkly humorous warnings about the dangers inherent in this vast land; his intimations that the travelers -- Americans all, two whites and an escaped black slave -- are really more like trespassers; and his self-admittedly "melancholy" reflections on the dead ancestors whose tomb he is sitting cross-legged upon.

Black Cloud is one of five characters played by Michael Fuller, who joins Daniel Krell, Daina Michelle Griffith and Allison Moody in the fine ensemble cast in this entertaining show. (The production also includes some 20 Foster songs, in new arrangements by Douglas Levine and performed to live accompaniment by Levine, Jonathan Moser, John Marcinizyn and Paul Thompson).

But while Black Cloud -- like most of the characters Giles has written -- is largely comedic, he might be the hardest to laugh off.

In an epic and episodic play filled with betraying pals, lynching-minded Southern bumpkins, simple frontier folk, historical cameos and more, Black Cloud is the one who most clearly comes from someplace else -- someplace that's not the burgeoning Western Civ of money-making, pleasure-seeking and personal fulfillment.

Giles' protagonists certainly don't know what to make of him: Despite the perils they've already faced, for once they're nonplussed, and simply leave the red man to himself. They don't want to hear what he has to say, and thus it's a moment in the play where the audience feels least close to the three heroes (played by Kevin Brown, Joel Ripka and Stephanie Riso), as they deflect what amount to Black Cloud's charges of racism and imperialism. We the audience may be clued in to the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee and genocide, but Giles' protagonists aren't, and indeed can't be.

The scene is thus also the moment where, for me at least, Giles' ambition to write in the Brechtian tradition is clearest: The audience is shown the distance between itself and characters it's surely begun to identify with.

Black Cloud is clearly a character Giles loves. (OK, he told me so himself, in the interviews for my preview feature on the show: And so while there's plenty of reasons to see this PICT/Opera Theater co-production before it closes on on Sat., May 1, maybe there's more life not just in the show, but in this character too. "An Evening With Black Cloud," perhaps?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Award-winning Local Teen Author

Posted By on Mon, Apr 26, 2010 at 2:52 PM

These have been a good few months for Rachel Rothenberg.

At the end of last year, this CAPA senior appeared on -- nay, dominated -- the Jeopardy Teen Tournament, walking away with $75,000 in prize money.

Not a bad way to end the recession.

Of course, 2010 is off to a pretty decent start, too. Ms. Rothenberg, of Squirrel Hill, recently won the Scholastic Writing "Portfolio Gold" Award, a prestigious accolade (and cash prize) given to only seven promising young writers in the country.

To give some perspective, recall that previous Scholastic award winners include Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath and Joyce Carol Oates. To quote Joe Biden, "This is a big f#^&in' deal."

Reading Rothenberg's portfolio (available at, it's clear these Scholastic folks know what they're doing. Rachel's prose, poetry and a short play explore difficult questions about success, failure, innocence and culpability through the quiet tragedies of very tangible, plain-folks characters.

Each story feels organic, relevant (many are based on sociopolitical issues), and accessible. For an author to be able to narrate these heavy emotional moments so sincerely is impressive enough. Then you remember Rothenberg is in high school.

Yes, high school. She's at the point where the question "How did you begin writing?" leads to a story about kindergarten journals and "trippy" fairy tales.

Apart from her writing hobby, Rothenberg is a Jane-of-all-trades intern at City Councilman Bruce Kraus' office. ("They got me a cake. I can't say anything bad about them.") She's also an amateur banjo player in something very close to being a band: "There's no name. We just have a jam session every three months." And though she enjoys Flannery O'Connor and Jonathon Safran Foer, she's also a fan of Harlequin romances and Harry Potter fan-fiction.

"I'm endlessly entertained by the world," Rothenberg says. As an award-winning author and a television genius, it would seem her intellectual curiosity is (very literally) paying off. And she wouldn't mind too much if that continued. Where might her writing take her? "[S]omewhere that'll pay me," she laughs. But seriously, "I love it, it makes me happy. I'll do it regardless."

So: the million dollar question. What was Rothenberg's favorite big break so far?

"I might have to plead the fifth on that one," she laughs. "Either Alex Trebek or the Scholastic people will be out to get me!"

Art All Night 2010

Posted By on Mon, Apr 26, 2010 at 1:08 AM

I'd missed the past couple of these grassroots extravaganzas, which volunteers stage in big old underused spaces in Lawrenceville. It's only gotten bigger: Last year, something like 10,000 people came to see more than 1,000 artworks, and the turnout must have been similar this year.

Of course, this year the big night, Saturday night, it rained cats and dogs. But it was still pretty packed when I swung by just before midnight. Great party -- I especially loved the hula-hoop pit right next to the indoor stage, where the gyrating people (kids, mostly, but not entirely) were a perfect complement to the garage-rock quartet pounding it out.

The art was the usual, um, democratic mix of fine work -- including stuff by local name artists who've had gallery shows and everything -- and, quite literally, some of the worst art you've probably ever seen. But that's the point, eh?

Still, the most striking visual of my visit was simply the approach to the venue: the old Pittsburgh Brewing Company, a.k.a. Iron City, brewery.

On foot, turning off the Liberty Ave. sidewalk, you plunged down a dimly lit asphalt access road where at least one rusted-out downspout was loudly gushing water while visitors headed downhill, huddled under umbrellas or hunched in the rain. Nicely postindustrial. At the hill's bottom, it opened up into a bigger area, where they'd lined up the porta-potties and a couple bands were playing outside. On the way out, it was even better, with everyone a silhouette in the back-lighting as you approached Liberty. It felt like you were in on a secret with a few thousand temporary friends. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Local filmmaker in national contest

Posted By on Wed, Apr 21, 2010 at 1:15 PM

Andrew Kelemen, who was featured in the April 7 CP as an artist in the Film Kitchen series, is among five finalists in a national contest to make a promotional short for the series finale ABC's Lost.

Kelemen, 24, of Squirrel Hill, has worked as an editor at WQED-TV and KDKA TV. (Here's my Film Kitchen preview spotlighting him and another local artist:

His entry was among about 10,000 submitted by Lost fans. Winners will be determined by online voting. You can check out the entries, including Kelemen's, and vote at Voting continues through Friday.

Kelemen, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., is a graduate of Pitt's film-studies program and holds a film-production certificate from Pittsburgh Filmmakers. He's relatively rare among young filmmakers in that his ambition is to make not feature films, but good commercials -- commercials that don't scream, "I'm a commercial!"

His demo reel, which showed at Film Kitchen, showcases an intriguing, soft-sell style that stands out against the frenetic pace of much contemporary commercial filmmaking, not just advertising. One piece, which the Carnegie Library used as an online promo, depicted people experiencing the books they were reading as sort of waking dreams (without feeling even slightly surreal).

Prior contest successes for Keleman included a commercial for Dove that placed second. It aired on national TV during the 2008 Academy Awards broadcast.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

State Arts Funding

Posted By on Wed, Apr 14, 2010 at 4:42 PM

The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council has called off a planned April 26 bus trip to Harrisburg to rally for more state funding for the arts. But there's both good news and bad news about why.

The good news is that Gov. Rendell's proposed 2010-11 budget includes $10 million for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. That's better than the $9.5 million the PCA is current working with.

The bad news is that the proposed funding is even lower than the $11 million originally allocated for the PCA in the 2009 budget, before a mid-fiscal-year spending freeze. And it's down from $15 million the PCA was getting just two years ago, says GPAC executive director Mitch Swain. 

Still, the April 26 rally was canceled last Friday after Swain and other board members of statewide advocacy group Citizens for the Arts met in York, Pa. Board members noted that the state House has passed a budget that kept Rendell's $10 million nut for the PCA intact.

"We'd all be very happy if we could get $10 million in light of economic conditions and the budget challenge the state faces," says Swain.

PCA funding accounts for just a sliver of most nonprofit arts groups' operating funds. But advocates like the GPAC went into high gear last year when the Republican-controlled Senate's original proposed 2009 budget zeroed out PCA funding altogether: The money is spread across a broad swath of such groups, and has a good deal of symbolic significance as well.

Now the Senate becomes the battleground for Rendell's new budget. In lieu of a single rally, Swain says, arts advocates are planning individual lobbying visits to senators' offices in their home districts.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Young Jean Lee's The Shipment

Posted By on Sun, Apr 11, 2010 at 12:31 PM

I'd read several reviews and other accounts of this 2008 theater piece by this cult-favorite young playwright. Most were laudatory, but none quite did justice to either its multi-layered, highly detailed approach or just how confrontational -- and brilliant -- its take on race and racism is.

The 90-minute play's lone Pittsburgh staging was last night, at the New Hazlett Theater, part of the Warhol's Off the Wall series. The play is structured like a variety show -- actually, a "minstrel show," Lee has said. It's a hall of mirrors of racial representation -- performances of performances.

Its first major component is a "stand-up comedy" act: A prerecorded voice urges "put your motherfuckin' hands together for Douglas Streater Scott." Scott emerges to embody what might be our idea of "black comic," making jocular comparisons between black people and white people. Except that it's really a farrago of that pose, plus real invective about white privilege -- and then just crazy shit calculated to make an audience wince. For instance, Scott starts his routine talking about a 7-year-old girl pleasuring herself with a pencil. But eventually he's noting that white people feel "persecuted" when you call them out on their racism.

It's always a good night at the theater when you can feel half the audience (at least) twisting in their seats like they're watching a movie depicting brain surgery on themselves.

The second major component of part one was perhaps even more clever: kind of a kabuki version of a stereotypical narrative (like a TV movie) about a kid who wants to be a rap star but ends up in jail for selling drugs. Except that everybody in it (all five cast members) wears evening clothes, and performs in this almost affectless style, sometimes mixing in stylized hand gestures. (Characters include "Crackhead John" and "Video Ho.") By the time Aundre Chin, as aspiring rapper "Omar," intones, "I have grown to hate the very rap I once loved," you've hopefully figured out that the cast is parodying a caricature -- not only cliched narrative, but also the kinds of roles black actors are largely limited to.

Part one ends with three of the actors staring at the audience for what seems forever, then bursting into a three-part harmony, a capella version of a Modest Mouse song: "I might disintegrate into thin air if you like," they sing. "I'm not the dark center of the universe like you thought … If you can't see the thin air, what the hell is in your way?"

After a pause for set change, part two is a one-act comedy. That's it -- five well-dressed characters in a room, variously neurotic, the party they're attending alternately animated and desperately awkward. (I'm sure you've been there.)

Part two's little secret shouldn't be one at all -- turns out none of the characters the actors are playing is black. Lee gets to this revelation in a really interesting way that comments on the whole evening, starting with a cruel trick one character plays on the rest. ("I was fucking with you all," he says, something we can perhaps hear Lee herself admitting.) Then they play a word game that requires them to write fake sentences for a book, then guess what's the "real" sentence -- a little pantomime of counterfeits, like the one we've just spent 90 minutes watching.

About 75 people (half the crowd) stayed for the Q&A with the actors (who also included Prentice Onayemi, Ikechukwu Ofomadu and Amelia Workman). The talkback demonstrated that even theoretically tuned-in theater crowds don't always "get" satire. (And I don't just mean the white-haired couple in my row who fled the show at the first opportunity.)

One question, for instance, was about the acting style in the "rap" story -- some people didn't understand that we in the audience were supposed to feel alienated. (One actor said they'd first tried to play the story "straight," but found that the audience -- most of Lee's audiences are white -- fell happily into following the narrative in the usual way, instead of interrogating its cavalcade of cliché.)

Another man thought that the "stand-up comic" line, "I'm a Shadyside nigger born and bred" was a mistake in local-reference-making; he didn't understand that, like everything else in The Shipment, it was a detail calculated to upend our expectations.

Still, plenty of people got something out of the show. One woman told the actors she'd asked herself why she was repulsed by part one -- the "black" part -- but liked part two. "It taught me something about my unconscious racism," she said.

One other note: The Shipment was developed by Brooklyn-based Lee (who's Korean-American) in collaboration with her original, all-black cast of five. The characters in part two were originated when she asked them, "What character would you love to play but you don't get the chance to?" One of the original performers (who wasn't in this show) said he'd simply like the opportunity, as a black performer, to portray a full range of emotions on stage.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Posted By on Wed, Apr 7, 2010 at 11:35 PM

The troupe's show this past Saturday, at the Byham, was extraordinary, with one exception.

The "extraordinary" part shouldn't be a surprise; the Pittsburgh Dance Council has a good track record, and this New York-based company -- though it's never played Pittsburgh before -- is renowned.

The troupe's founding artistic directors are both Alvin Ailey alumni, and the three-act show generally met the high expectations that lineage creates. The marvelously athletic dancers seamlessly combined ballet, jazz, African and modern dance -- even some Irish folk dance, and probably lots of stuff I didn't catch.

Act I was the first movement of a longer 2009 work titled Mercy. Aurally, it began with a long note from a church organ, prelude to an epic flood of spiritually infused imagery embodied by as many as 16 dancers at a time. With the stage blanketed by a patterned lighting grid, and a heavily collaged soundtrack (including bits of Handel's Messiah), it was actually a bit overwhelming, in a good way. Standout sequences included a solo by Desmond Richardson, set to audio of a preacher in full cry.

Richardson, by the way, is one of the troupe's co-founders; the other is Dwight Rhoden, who choreographed all but one of the evening's seven short works. Rhoden's also known here for his frequent work with Pittsburgh Ballet.

Act II highlights included "Momentary Forevers," an airy and abstract but still athletic duet, danced by Natiya Kezevadze and Juan Rodriguez to a clever soundtrack that joined a Handel piece to a John Cage composition. An excerpt of "Moody Booty Blues" for five dancers demonstrated that Rhoden is among the few choreographers who could combine blues music and ballet. And Rhoden's "Solo" (1998), danced by Richardson, was a brief but powerfully piece performed to music by Prince, its dark soulfulness enhanced by the red-lit stage.

All that would have made for a full and satisfying evening. But while I'm probably in the minority on this, I would been happier without "Rise," Rhoden's 25-minute work set to U2 songs.

Not that I dislike U2. In fact, it's somewhat the opposite: I can seldom abide dances choreographed to music I've heard 500 times. Especially if I like those songs, and especially if there are seven of those songs in a row. There's just too much mental topography there for a dance to fruitfully refashion.

I was also a little surprised by the choreography: As anyone who's seen his "Ave Maria" can attest, Rhoden's work can be deeply moving. (The PBT staged it here a couple months back.) And even this evening, until "Rise," I'd caught nary a whiff of cliché. So why, when Bono sings, "I'm still running," do we see dancers running across the stage? And why have dancers repeat the arm-pumping, jumping-up-and-down gestures we've seen a million times at rock concerts? I would have doubted even Rhoden could make something new of them, and "Rise" proved the point.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Price at Pittsburgh Public Theatre

Posted By on Fri, Apr 2, 2010 at 4:54 PM

I had read this 1968 play by Arthur Miller in preparation for a preview piece for CP ( And given how straightforward Miller is, it didn't seem too difficult to envision how it would all play out on stage.

On the other hand, a smart opening directorial gambit by Tracy Brigden surprised me a little, and also helped emphasize an important aspect of this production: the set.

The play opens with Victor Franz, a middle-aged New York cop, entering the attic where he once lived with his father, a businessman ruined by the Depression. The place has been vacant for years; Victor's here now only because the building's to be demolished.

The Price is a talky if engrossing play for four characters; it's two acts (which Miller originally wrote as one) that take place in real time in a single room. Brigden's well aware this set-up contravenes current theatrical trends, which is all about five-minute scenes and as many set changes as you can feasibly manage. (Witness The Clockmaker, which Brigden recently directed at City Theatre, where she's artistic director.) You think she'd be keen to move things along.

But for several minutes at least as The Price begins, Victor's on stage alone, and doesn't speak a word. Instead, he lingers over the detritus of his family's lost life -- incarnate reminders of his own affluent childhood as well as his unhappy young adulthood. Dusty armchairs, the big old harp his late mother played, the remains of boyhood electronics experiments, the family gramophone. Brigden has him take wordless stock of each, and lets them sink in for us, too, before most of the audience even knows much of what the play's about.

Of course, if they know Miller, they could hazard a guess: It's a family drama about the weight of the past. That's where Luke Hegel-Cantarella's set comes in especialy. These six or seven minutes -- a pause before there's anything to pause -- lets the audience take in Hegel-Cantarella's expressionistic addition to the realistic set. It's a sort of three-story-tall flying buttress upstage, comprised of more of what's on the stage itself: armoires, armchairs, straight-backed chairs, a sofa, a bicycle.

It reminded me of the set for the Point Park REP's production of Miller's Death of a Salesman a few years back: another wall of a lifetime's accumulation, that one heavy on the sports equipment Biff and Happy left behind.

Here, likewise, this backdrop looms over all the action, unchanging, reminding us of what the characters can't shed: Willy Loman his baseless hopes and dreams, Victor Franz his bitterness and resentment. (Miller's counterpoints in each play also have counterparts: Willy Loman's wealthy adventurer of a brother -- and even Biff, who finally abandons the domestic charade; here, Walter Franz, the brother who virtually abandoned the family and got on with his life.)

Without the dramaturgical rest stop Brigden provides, we'd probably never have a chance to soak in all the set provides. Because once The Price gets going, it flies along pretty quickly after all.

The Price continues at the O'Reilly Theater through Sun., April 4. 


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