Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Monday, August 30, 2010

Michael Clinton's American Portraits

Posted By on Mon, Aug 30, 2010 at 10:31 AM

It's hard to look at this forthcoming volume featuring glossy color portraits of 93 Americans without thinking about the current immigration debate. But Clinton, a South Hills native who's ascended to the heights of the magazine industry, doesn't seem to have meant it that way: He just likes America's diversity -- looking at people's faces and hearing their stories. 

Clinton, 55, is executive vice president, chief marketing officer and publishing director for Hearst Magazines. He oversees 15 publications, including Esquire, O: The Oprah Magazine and Seventeen. The Pitt grad is also a photographer and inveterate traveler, with 120 countries on his passport and three other books to his credit, including Wanderlust: 100 Countries.

American Portraits (Glitterati Incorporated) was inspired in Lithuania, when Clinton saw a woman who looked like she could have been his grandmother's sister -- though arguably, the book really began in Pittsburgh, with visits to his Lithuanian grandparents themselves, who lived on the South Side.

On his return from Lithuania to the States, Clinton (whose father's side of the family is English and Irish) started asking Americans he met (most of them strangers) their stories and ethnic backgrounds.  

While he was "shocked," he says, how many Americans don't know their ethnicities, he collected great stories about families from all over the world fleeing persecution, seeking economic opportunity and more. Ancestries he documented in the book range from Native American to Turkish, Welsh to Bangledeshi, Pakistani to Haitian -- 100 in all.

One of the more complex geneaologies, in fact, is claimed by the book's lone Pittsburgh-born sitter, Adam Brunk. Brunk (pictured), a friend of Clinton's family from Mount Lebanon who's now in Philadelphia, has Cherokee, French, German, Sri Lankan, Swiss and Yemeni ancestry.

In Clinton's handsomely lit studio portraits, we see a wonderful variety of faces. On the whole, it should be said, the collection paints Americans as a decidedly photogenic lot; half of these folks could model.

Moreover, they're a pretty well-heeled bunch. A handful of teachers and an elevator operator notwithstanding, typical occupations include architect, real-estate broker, veterinarian and opthamalogist.

If you're thinking about immigration, it might strike you that our debate over things like Arizona's repressive new law aren't about such highly educated, well paid folks (all of whom are American citizens, so born or naturalized). It's more frequently waged over the heads of people looking to scrape a living together on a construction site or landscaping crew.

From the first European invasion on, "[W]e have always been a country of immigrants," says Clinton, by phone from New York.

"Every group went through its acculturation period when it was tough for them as a group," he adds, recalling, for instance, the nativist prejudice against 19th-century Irish newcomers.

I ask him whether putting the book together gave him any insight into today's immigration debate.

"Hasn't it always been a debate?" he says. "It's never changed. Yet at the end of the day, we welcome all people."


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Gallery Pulls Naked Artwork

Posted By on Tue, Aug 24, 2010 at 10:16 PM

A show of political poster art opened to the public minus a work apparently deemed too provocative.

Paper Politics, a nationally touring show, opened at Downtown's SPACE gallery on Aug. 13. Mary Tremonte, who curated the exhibit's local component, says that two days earlier, Wood Street Galleries curator Murray Horne had told her to remove "Tea Baggers," by local artist Stewart Williams.

The poster spoofs the right-wing "Tea Party" movement by parodying a recruiting poster. "Are you pissed-off, ill-informed, and easily influenced?" reads the text. "Scared Shitless? Well Good!"

Visually, the 11" by 17" poster is dominated by the floating heads of two white-haired people. But in the lower right-hand corner is an indistinct black-and-white photograph depicting the sex act known as "tea-bagging," with one man's face under another man's genitals.

"Accept no substitutes!" reads a big blue arrow pointing at the photo. "While often mistaken, Tea Baggers are not affiliated with similar associations of the same name." 

"It was really funny," says Tremonte, herself an artist with work in the show. Mocking the Tea Party, she says, is "a really easy shot, but [Williams] did it really well."

Tremonte liked the work so much she cited it in the large-scale wall-text introducing the show, which describes posters that are "brazenly humorous, as in Stewart Williams' Teabaggers silkscreen print."

But the poster isn't among the 200 works on SPACE's walls, which also excoriate such evils as greed, repression, militarism, racism and environmental destruction.

Horne did not return several voice messages and e-mails. Wood Street Galleries is the "sister gallery"of SPACE. Both galleries are operated by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.  

The bulk of Paper Politics is a traveling show curated by Josh MacPhee, a printmaker who launched the nationally known Just Seeds artist collective (whose headquarters moved to Pittsburgh this year). The show has visited 12 cities and inspired a book version.

Tremonte, a printmaker who works with local youths through groups including The Andy Warhol Museum, chose about 50 locally made posters for the show. Most were by youths, and 18 were by adults including Williams.

Tremonte says Horne told her Williams' poster had to come down because the show had to be suitable for public viewing. (SPACE is located on a busy stretch of Liberty Avenue, and admission is free.) Tremonte says that previously to that, Horne hadn't told her that any type of imagery was off-limits.

In fact, the show contains two other posters depicting drawings of bare-breasted women. In other posters, there are such overtly disturbing images as dismembered limbs and a severed head lying on a table.

Williams, 44, is a freelance book-designer in Lawrenceville who moved to Pittsburgh two years ago, after stints in Seattle and New York.

He says "Tea Baggers" was previously hung publicly in Pittsburgh, in June at a show at Garfield's Space gallery. He says the "teabagging" image, rendered blurrily in large, newspaper-style half-tone dots, is small enough that "most people didn't even see it at the other show."

Its removal from Paper Politics "seemed pretty knee-jerk to me," he says. "It's a very hot topic and people should be able to say what they want."

Interviewed four days after the show's opening, Williams said he was upset that no one from the gallery had called him to explain the removal. 

"I don't think political posters should pull any punches," he said. "I think that kinda goes against the concept of free speech"

Williams also said that in terms of provocativeness, Paper Politics is pretty mild. "The show was intended to be more family-friendly," he says. "I think family-friendly and politics don't go together very well."

Monday, August 23, 2010


Posted By on Mon, Aug 23, 2010 at 1:08 PM

Parents usually want their children to learn. But sometimes kids just want to watch TV.

John Pollock, an associate professor of biology at Duquesne University, has found a way to please both generations. His new WQED-TV television show, Scientastic!, teaches adolescents about health and social issues in live-action 30-minute episodes.

Often we learn the most when we're not aware we're being taught. Think about those songs filled with rhyming animal facts that get stuck in your head at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. Or the interactive screen at the Carnegie Science Center that lets you look up what was happening in astronomical history the day you were born.  

Officially, this is called "informal science education," the National Science Teachers Association's term for all science education outside the classroom. And it's Pollock's method of choice: He's helped create popular exhibits and multimedia projects for Phipps Conservatory, the Carnegie Science Center and the National Aviary, among others.

"I try to create things that add to what an institution already has and create some new lessons for people to learn," Pollock says. "People can pick up more about the fundamental principles of science and do so in a way that's really fun and engaging."

Scientastic! is Pollock's first television broadcast. It follows 12-year-old Leah as she encounters everyday issues relating to health, friends and the ins and outs of life in middle school.

Pollock wants the show to encourage teens and their families to become active participants in their own health care. That requires knowing both the right questions and how to ask them.

"The way I look at it, our health literacy is intimately linked with our society's science literacy and our general literacy -- how well we read and collect information," Pollock says.

"For example, nowadays when most people are faced with the challenge of finding the answer to something, they Google it. In Scientastic!, Leah learns briefly about using the web, but she wants to use the library. She wants to talk to experts. And that's what we're trying to show people -- that kids can find the docent or the curators and ask questions, that they can talk to their doctors about medical issues and expect reasonable answers."

In the pilot episode, one of Leah's friends breaks a bone playing soccer. That launches Leah on a quest to understand how bones work, how they heal and how our diets effect bone health. The episode also confronts the issue of bullying among teens.

Funding for Scientastic! comes from UPMC Health Plan; The Pittsburgh Foundation's William K. Fitch Fund and Lewis H. & Jess Morgan Kelly Fund; and the Science Education Partnership Award of the National Center for Research Resources of the National Institutes of Health; Duquesne University; and the U.S. Department of Education.

Pollock hopes to produce the rest of the 12-episode season and broadcast it weekly on WQED. Meanwhile, Scientastic! has traditional classroom applications, too: The show will be made into DVDs and lessons plans available to teachers throughout the region. 

Scientastic! premieres on WQED-TV at 8 p. m. Thu., Sept. 2.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Quantum's The Howling Miller

Posted By on Thu, Aug 19, 2010 at 1:02 PM

Last month, when I interviewed Quantum's Karla Boos and her collaborator Peter Duschenes for a preview of this new production, there was one of those awkward little moments.

Boos and Duschenes had not just adapted their script from the 1980 novel by Finnish writer Arto Paasilinna. As our interview commenced, they were simultaneously both in rehearsal and still revising the script.

Revisions during rehearsal are common with the first production of a play, but Howling Miller, a social satire with fabulous overtones set in remote Lapland, had a specific tone they were striving to capture. Because I'd read a recent version of the script, they took the occasion of my interview to ask me how I'd describe what I'd read.

That wasn't the awkward part. The awkward part was the sort of nonplussed silence from Boos and Duschenes after I said their script struck me as a mix of Monty Python and Grimm Brothers tales.

We moved on quickly, but I later realized that the problem was what they thought I meant by "Monty Python." I never compare anything to Python unless I'm praising it, but Boos and Duschenes were perhaps thinking that I'd likened their work to the high silliness of the dead-parrot sketch, or the killer rabbit scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Rather, the script about a social-outcast miller whose fellow villagers want to put him in an insane asylum reminded me of the pointed-but-uproarious social satire in later Python films like Life of Brian or Meaning of Life

At any rate, the stage production, which I saw last night, suggested Python but little. Rather, I was reminded of another of my favorite artworks.

Here's a mid-century microcosm where the hero, who's a little off (howling his lungs out at night, for instance) only really goes crazy after he takes the pills the village doctor prescribes to make him seem sane.

Here's a town where everybody's at least mildly batty -- but only our hero's eccentricities are deemed detrimental. Things get so bad that the only way he can buy groceries is to hold up the grocer at axe-blade, then force him to take the money; and the only way he can withdraw his own cash from of the bank is to rob it, thus putting the police (indeed, the army) on his trail.

Combine that series of running battles with martinets, clerks and functionaries with the strange satisfaction the characters get from erecting civilization's totems in unlikely places (like a mailbox in the wilderness), and by Act 2 I was thinking Catch-22.

Like Heller's novel, Quantum's adaptation of Paasilinna's work is a eulogy for sanity in a world gone mad. Except, to name just a few differences: Yossarian never consorted with magical-realist forest creatures; never howled for succor, in the midst of depression; nor, as the Miller begins to do here, howled for joy.

The Howling Miller, staged outdoors at the Frick Environmental Center, concludes this week, with four more performances through Sun., Aug. 22 (

Friday, August 13, 2010

Pinter's No Man's Land

Posted By on Fri, Aug 13, 2010 at 1:47 PM

Sam Tsoutsouvas (left) and Rick McMillan in No Man's Land. Photo courtesy of Daisy Block.
  • Sam Tsoutsouvas (left) and Rick McMillan in No Man's Land. Photo courtesy of Daisy Block.

It's hardly an insult to say that Harold Pinter can strike you as less a playwright than a poet. PICT's production of the 1975 play widely regarded as the late master's masterpiece is as good evidence as any. 

The play suggests a spin on Waiting for Godot. Instead of two compatriot tramps on a desolate roadside, it's a rich man and a poor one, in the rich one's house.

There's progression, if little traditional story. The penniless Spooner soon meets wealthy Hirst's two manservants, amiable Foster and glowering Briggs. The protagonists, strangers who've just met in a pub, are both poets, though we don't definitively learn that until Act 2.

This monumental play is somehow all built of atmosphere and suggestion, the two men's jaded, rueful, meandering talk seemingly leading nowhere, even as you sense it's actually going somewhere that will leave you comfortless.

I started thinking of Pinter's amazing wordplay more as poetry after Spooner, typically despairing, laments to Hirst, "All we have left is the English language." 

The suggestion that we're traveling, as in poetry, through the characters' subconsciousnesses (rather than some "reality") is supported by the stunning Act 1 moment that occurs after Hirst relays a nightmare in which he saw a drowning person he can't identify. "I was the one drowning in your dream!" blurts out Spooner.

Act 2 begins with content more prosaic, scenes superficially more "normal." There is less overt dread and menace. Briggs give comical driving directions; Hirst's monologue consists of nostalgic (if probably invented) recollections about the past he and Spooner probably never shared. But then the play tumbles toward its shadowy end.

Scholars often cite The Waste Land and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" as touchstones of No Man's Land. But I recalled another great modernist poem. 

Late in Act 2, when Pinter's dialogue begins to conjure some kind of eternal limbo for the characters, expressed in terms of endless winter, I thought of Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man," which begins, "One must have a mind of winter to regard the frost, and the boughs of the pine trees crusted with snow ..."

Pinter has a mind of winter. And his characters, along with the audience, are Stevens' "listener, who, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is."

PICT's fine production of No Man's Land -- part of its multi-play Pinter festival -- is directed by Andrew Paul and stars Sam Tsoutsouvas, Rick McMillan, Jarrod DiGiorgi and David Whalen.

There are two more performances: 7 p.m. Tue., Aug. 17, and 8 p.m. Sat., Aug. 21 (

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

War is Boring

Posted By on Wed, Aug 4, 2010 at 12:36 AM


The subtitle of this new graphic novel is "Bored Stiff, Scared to Death in the World's Worst War Zones."

It's 125 pages of terse, illustrated storytelling -- danger, bitter humor, outrage, the aforementioned boredom -- from freelance conflict journo David Axe and artist Matt Bors (whose sardonic strip Idiot Box graces CP each week).

The Columbia, S.C.-based Axe, still a pretty young guy, has spent the past five years covering wars for everyone from Defense Technology International (the deep-pocketed arms mag whose paychecks financed his sojourns) to The Village Voice and The Washington Times, C-SPAN, Wired and Esquire.

He's filed from Iraq, Lebanon, East Timor, Afghanistan, Somalia and Chad, among other locales, witnessing bloodshed, corruption and glimmers of humanity.

War is Boring is a very personal work, but there's nothing feel-good about it. Axe is alternately (and simultaneously) soul-searching and self-loathing. He runs away to war because stateside peace seems mind-crushingly dull (even if the cure strikes us as worse than the disease). He's happy to be home ... then itching to head back overseas, personal relationships falling by the wayside. He earns his cynicism, but ends up jealous of the people at home who are ignorant of all he's seen.

It's all rendered in Axe's tight prose and Bors' lean but affecting (and often bitingly humorous) style.

The book is new this week on New American Library. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Hothouse at PICT

Posted By on Tue, Aug 3, 2010 at 6:37 PM

A friend I ran into during intermission at the July 29 performance of Harold Pinter's 1958 play (part of PICT's Pinter festival) categorized it as "absurd." He spoke approvingly, of course, but it's easy to forget that absurdity cuts two ways.

The farcical comedy in this play set in a government-run "rest home" of some sort stands side by side with the administering of electroshock (both by and to the institution's staff), along with casual talk of the rape of patients and a general atmosphere of dehumanization.

The residents are never seen -- only a cross-section of staff, half a dozen in number, all monsters of various kinds of self-justification, alternately horrifying and pathetic.

It's easy to understand Pinter's explanation for hiding the play in his desk for 22 years after he wrote it: Originally, he just didn't like any of the characters.

But we should be glad he changed his mind. For one, the play scorchingly dramatizes, with dark hilarity, how institutions can poison the people who work inside them, in ways those people not only accept but come to embrace. (Pinter's "hot house" is easily seen as a metaphor for society at large.)

Two, this Pittsburgh premiere of a show first staged in 1980 gives us a chance to savor a brilliant cast tearing it up under the direction of Matthew Gray. Witness Leo Marks, as the sort of executive assistant Gibbs, go from hyperwatchful flunky to scheming mastermind; see Tami Dixon, as the ambiguously employed staffer/mistress/seductress Cutts, simultaneously embody and critique the gamut of female stereotypes. Scarcely less impressive in other major roles are Larry John Meyers, Michael Hanrahan and Martin Giles.

Pinter is regarded as Beckett's heir in illuminating humanity's existential dread on stage. But half of his genius, it's clear, is knowing just what great actors need to get even better.

The Hot House continues at the Henry Heymann Theatre with four more performances: 2 p.m. Sat., Aug. 7; and Aug. 13, 18 and 22 (


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