Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Monday, October 31, 2011

Irish Poets at City of Asylum

Posted By on Mon, Oct 31, 2011 at 5:36 PM

A group of four Irish poets made City Of Asylum/Pittsburgh's big white tent on Sampsonia Way one of three stops on their U.S. tour. 

Rita Ann Higgins, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Caitríona O'Reilly and Leontia Flynn were all included in the new anthology The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women's Poetry. The other two stops were at Chicago's prestigious Poetry Foundation and New York's famed 92nd Street Y.

About 120 people attended the free reading here this past Friday. 

Higgins was a hit with her droll, sometimes salty work. One darkly comic poem consisted of remembered lines of conversation spoken by a family friend from her childhood, a woman who criticized even her newly deceased husband: "That's the type of person he was. He'd rather die than please you."

Chuilleanáin's wonderfully lyrical work included selections from her 2010 book The Sun-fish, about the basking sharks that live off Ireland's west coast. She memorably described the big animals "feeding through their fixed yawn."

O'Reilly offered work including a poem written from the perspective of a geisha, with evocative imagery like "the new moon's incised smile."

And Flynn featured poems about classic authors, adroitly suggesting their personas. The F. Scott Fitzgerald piece had a nicely elegaic tone: "What we were straining for, it was already lost."

Given the anthology they were touring behind, an implicit theme of the reading was "women poets." But as the poets themselves agreed, that theme is a bit dated. The eldest, Chuilleanáin (b. 1942), said that when she was starting her career, in the early '60s, women poets were all but unheard of. (She said that at readings, she was sometimes taken for "a male impersonator.") But O'Reilly and Flynn, both under 40, hadn't experienced any such prejudice.

There was also some discussion about the use of Gaelic -- or, as the Irish call it, "Irish." While the language is still taught in schools, it's not widely spoken. Some poets just enjoy its sound, though. Higgins read one complete short poem in Irish, then its English translation.

An hour later, during the Q&A, a man in back asked Higgins why she'd bothered to write the poem in Irish if she were only going to have to translate it anyway. Well, Higgins replied with tart good humor, if she hadn't done so, "There'd be a guy at the back of the room asking, ‘Why didn't you fooking translate it into English?'"

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Public Theater's Electra and Occupy Pittsburgh

Posted By on Wed, Oct 26, 2011 at 1:42 PM

It's not that I think people have changed that much. But what interests me about the art of antiquity is whether it's possible to relate to, or even fully comprehend, pictures and stories created in societies so different from our own.

Sophocles wrote this play about 410 BCE -- roughly contemporaneous with the construction of the Parthenon -- and the dialogue references myths, tales and historical figures centuries older still. The play's 2,400-year-old characters inhabit a cosmos of multiple and quite fickle living deities, one where fate depends partly on making appropriate offerings to the dead.

Indeed, theater itself even had a different purpose, more religious ritual than vehicle for personal expression.

Still, in Electra you can see theater as we understand it take shape. That's largely because Sophocles' Greece was more or less society as we understand it. Back then, no ship had yet crossed an open ocean, and telecommunication seemed less likely than telekinesis. Nonetheless, the royal palace of Mycenae is a setting where wealth, power, fame and privilege exist -- in ways they hadn't before the rise of civilization -- and sit at odds with justice.

At moments, the story resonates with current events.

In this staging, directed by the Public's Ted Pappas, Electra (intensely portrayed by Catherine Eaton) enters crawling; she's spent 20 years mourning her father, the king. He was slain by Electra's mother and her mother's scheming lover, now queen and king. Yet Electra is not driven by pure grief: Daily she must live with the flesh-and-blood reminders of the wicked deed. She wants justice, but isn't capable of claiming it herself.

Especially pointed is the relationship between Electra and her sister, Chrysothemis. Chrysothemis, dressed in flowing finery to Electra's rags, isn't any happier about their father's murder than is Electra. But she's accommodated herself to it. As Chrysothemis points out, it's simply easier to take the side of the powerful. "They are on the rise and we are sinking," she tells Electra. "Learn to give in."

Afterall, bending to power gets you nice things. And you can sleep inside, rather than outside, the castle walls.

Chrysothemis reminds me of the two suit-wearing young men walking to their office jobs Downtown this morning whom I overheard mocking the Occupy Pittsburgh protestors camped on Mellon Green.

Protest? Why bother? It's so much easier to just buy stuff. 

Electra sees protest as her job. She's even under threat of exile and imprisonment.

Here, for sure, the analogy breaks down: Electra is royalty, after all, and desires not better government per se, but only the restoration of a rightful monarch. (She could, unlike most of us, be in the 1 percent, if she liked.)

Meanwhile, justice in Electra wants only the assassination of a couple of malefactors, as Electra's long-lost brother, Orestes, intends.

Compared to creating a more equitable global economy, that's kind of a snap.

Electra has seven more performances tonight through Sun., Oct. 30, at Pittsburgh Public Theater ( 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Quantum's The End of the Affair

Posted By on Tue, Oct 25, 2011 at 12:20 PM


The last time I was inside Polish Hill's old Emma Kaufmann Clinic, about two years ago, it was because some activists had turned the now-vacant building into a makeshift free clinic for G-20 protesters.

The building has a much different feel hosting Quantum artistic director Karla Boos' adaption of the Graham Greene novel. And most of the wounds in the play, emotional rather than physical though they be, go untended.

From the first, we know (or at least sense) that the affair between the writer Bendrix and married Sarah Miles will end sadly. What's haunting about the play is not that the characters won't do what would make everyone happiest; it's that they can't.

Bendrix (played by Tony Bingham) is too impassioned -- the man who would rather die than face the moment of parting after one of the couple's assignations. What drives Sarah (Gayle Pazerski) is harder to pin down. 

"One can't love and do nothing," she tells Bendrix, explaining their affair. But she won't leave her gray, mid-level-bureaucrat husband (one of several roles expertly assayed by James FitzGerald). And it's never clear whether it's because of propriety, because she thinks it's wrong, because it would hurt him too much -- or because of God, the play's large, invisible character.

Come down to it, this anguished play's biggest conundrum is arguably the existence and function of that higher power. Both Bendrix and Sarah profess not to believe in God -- but the idea of God shadows their every move.

Sarah even uses that idea as an analogy to explain how the lovers can be apart. "People can love without seeing each other," she tells Bendrix. "People go on loving God, don't they, all their lives, without seeing him." 

The script has a certain transparency that might be mistaken for oversimplication. These characters are, throughout, as naked emotionally as they occassionally are physically. That transparency is the quality of a vitrine that simply contains a greater mystery.

The show is acted with craft and commitment (that's Bingham and Pazerski, pictured) and directed by Martin Giles on a striking set by Tony Ferrieri.

Quantum ( stages The End of the Affair through Sun., Oct. 30.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Comedian W. Kamau Bell at Papa J's Centro

Posted By on Mon, Oct 24, 2011 at 12:50 PM


After interviewing Bell for last week's CP (, I wanted to check out the San Francisco-based comic for myself, especially at this curious Downtown venue.

The bar-restaurant in an historic Boulevard of the Allies building isn't known as a performance spot. Indeed, when you walk through the front door, you're simultaneously entering the bar and skirting the edge of the "stage" area: a little clearing with a mike stand hemmed in by the bar on one side and on two others by 20 repurposed chairs from the dining room.

But it was a felicitous venue for Bell. Maybe 80 people packed the space (not uncomfortably), and most were well in tune with his smart, occasionally uproarious riffs on race, racial politics and pop culture in America.

Bell's made his name largely at performance festivals, including Scotland's famed Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He effectively combines a friendly, even slightly goofy stage presence with a race-in-your-face approach: He started his set by counting out loud the black faces (there were five, I think) in the overwhelmingly white crowd.

In Bell's take, Herman Cain is a man who's paid his way into a "presidential-campaign fantasy camp": The worst thing that could happen for him is he wins the election, then learns he can't really hit the fastball.

Bell offered two ways to get the economy moving and the country solvent again. The first way is to legalize pot, then tax not only weed itself but also snack foods, shiny things and other impulse purchases: "Hey, look at this DVD! I didn't know Steven Segal made a musical! Put all that food back." The second way is to cut labor costs by reintroducing slavery -- though Bell noted that he should be exempt because it was his idea.

The show opened with a nice set by locally based comic Ron Placone, a friend of Bell's who booked him at Papa J's when he learned Bell was coming to the area for a college show in the region.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Good Program, Discount Tix at Pittsburgh Symphony

Posted By on Sat, Oct 22, 2011 at 2:55 PM

With two (really, three) notable guests, some gorgeous music and $20 tickets, the BNY Mellon Grand Classics "Rising Stars in Debut" show makes for as good a weekend as any to check out the PSO.

I saw it last night.

The rising stars include the award-winning, Mongolian-born young violinist Xiang Yu. Xiang, now studying in Boston, won first prize last year in the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition; this weekend, he's the internationally celebrated soloist for the PSO's rendition of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 in G minor for violin.

It's a stunning 26-minute work; the Heinz Hall crowd liked Xiang's performance enough to demand an encore, for which he performed (solo) Bach's Adagio in G minor. He said it had been, in his childhood, the first piece he'd ever played on violin. 

The PSO program opened, however, with "Radical Light," a 2007 work by the orchestra's current composer of the year, Steven Stucky. Stucky himself came on stage to briefly introduce the piece, which he called a "tone poem." The principal tone was a shimmering one, toward the high end of the violins but short of piercing, and true to the work's title evoking the spiritual air of daybreak.

The evening closed with Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Opus 120. It's a work alternately lush and exuberant (even somewhat chesty). As with the rest of the program, the orchestra was led by guest conductor Xian Zhang (the other "rising star" making her PSO debut). The Chinese-born Xian is a compact, animated figure, the soles of whose feet frequently leave the podium entirely. She's as much fun to watch as any conductor I've seen.

The bonus this weekend is that the PSO is offering a limited number of $20 tickets, available in all seating sections, for a savings of up to $73 a ticket. Call 412-392-4900 or see, and keep handy the promo code 28164.

There's one more performance of this program, at 2:30 p.m. Sun., Oct. 23.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dance Alloy/Kelly-Strayhorn Merger Formally Announced

Posted By on Thu, Oct 20, 2011 at 3:21 PM

It's pretty clear what Dance Alloy Theater gets from a merger with the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater: The venerable but financially struggling group will continue to exist, if no longer as an independent outfit.

But what does the Kelly-Strayhorn get out of the deal? And, more importantly from the perspective of arts patrons, what does the merger mean for dance in Pittsburgh?

Answers to such questions came into a little clearer focus last night, as the groups formally announced the merger at a reception at the Kelly-Strayhorn, in East Liberty. (This blog first reported on the merger in late August:

 "We believe this is going to be a win-win for both organizations," Kelly-Strayhorn board chairman Fran Escalante told the 50 or so attendees, who included members of both boards and two of the five Alloy dancers whose seasonal contracts were not renewed as merger negotiations progressed this past summer.

Under executive director janera solomon, the Kelly-Strayhorn has been an growing presence on the local dance scene in recent years. Last night, Escalante, solomon and Dance Alloy board president Cabot Earle all said that the merger would strengthen dance in Pittsburgh.

Merger talks were initiated early this year by the Alloy. "They knew that they couldn't sustain themselves in the current situation," said Escalante. (He said, however, that the Alloy had no significant unpaid bills, and emphasized that the merger wasn't "a bailout.")

For the moment, the move leaves a big gap in the local arts calendar, where the Alloy has been a presence for 35 years, for much of that time as the region's premiere modern-dance company.

While some former Alloy dancers continue to perform through the Kelly-Strayhorn on a project-by-project basis, the group's usual fall and spring main-stage shows have been canceled. solomon said that the group is on "hiatus," and that the earliest there might be an Alloy show is next fall.

But whether the Alloy will return as a troupe with its own artistic identity remains to be seen. Solomon said while the Kelly-Strayhorn remains dedicated to dance, the Alloy's future as a performing entity is largely a matter of funding. "How much is this community willing to give to support dance activity?" she asked rhetorically.

The Kelly-Strayhorn, meanwhile, gains from the association with the Alloy's name and its community ties through its education programs.

The Alloy's community dance school for children and adults, for instance, continues to function, solomon said, with 70 students in nine classes this fall. And Alloy instructors continue to lead classes for 100 K-12 students in area schools.

The Kelly-Strayhorn also gains other resources. For one, Alloy board members were invited to join the Kelly-Strayhorn board. Some agreed, raising the total number of board members from 14 to 22, including Alloy board president Earle.

Not least, the Kelly-Strayhorn will take over the Alloy's leased two-story studio space, located just a few blocks down Penn Avenue, in Friendship. The studio provides an additional space for small-scale theatrical or dance performances. (It lacks a stage, but has a sprung floor suitable for dance.) And, says Escalante, it will free up the Kelly-Strayhorn stage, which is often occupied by rehearsals on nights when the theater could be staging or hosting performances. (The Kelly-Strayhorn had in fact previously rented the Alloy space for rehearsals.)

In recent years, the Kelly-Strayhorn has produced the increasingly popular NewMoves dance festival -- the fourth is scheduled for May -- and hosted residencies for visiting choreographers to create new work. Both initiatives have brought cutting-edge artists to town, and solomon says the theater's dance audience has grown.

The merger, she said, could allow, for instance, for more residencies for local and even international choreographers.

"We want more dance-making to happen in Pittsburgh, and we're going to do whatever we can to support that," said solomon.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Jonathan Franzen Talks Writing at Monday Night Lectures

Posted By on Tue, Oct 18, 2011 at 4:45 PM


Last night, writer Jonathan Franzen visited Carnegie Music Hall to present a nearly packed house with a "craft talk." 

That was how Franzen described his appearance at Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Monday Night Lectures. The acclaimed author of The Twenty-Seventh City (1987), The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2009) is also a dedicated bird-watcher who didn't waste time mentioning the donation of his speaking fee to the American Bird Conservancy.

Those familiar with Franzen's work would have found recurring themes of media, technology and over-stimulation unsurprising. Partially veiled confessions of his insecurity as a writer, however, were striking — especially after three best-selling novels, gratuitous awards nominations and a Time cover photo.

He explained the necessity of apprehension for creating meaningful narrative. "Each new novel should represent personal struggle," he declared. 

"If the writer doesn't face some kind of insurmountable challenge during the creative process, he cannot create a worthy literary experience. Literature cannot be mere performance."

Franzen emphasized the idea of loyalty to oneself as a writer, and the notion that effective literature depends on the writer's willingness to dig beyond unsettling self-analysis. Sometimes, it can constitute a degree of "betrayal" against loved ones and those whose lives are drawn on for inspiration. 

But he assured that this concerted effort, demanding of writer and reader, ultimately served both by dismissing any invitation for a passive read. "We need writers who will create more opportunities for introspection," he pled. 

At the conclusion of his speech, an audience member asked the author what kind of advice he had, particularly, for young writers. Franzen pointed to the young man and said, "I need you to be a good writer."

Friday, October 14, 2011

Kelly-Strayhorn Launches New Program for Artists and Small Arts Groups

Posted By on Fri, Oct 14, 2011 at 5:26 PM

Pittsburgh's small arts groups perennially enrich the cultural landscape -- and perpetually struggle to make ends meet and produce work that's as good as they're capable of.

CenterStage, a new initiative of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in partnership with the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, aims to address the problem.

CenterStage launches Mon., Oct. 17, with the first installment of its workshop-style component, called Monday Night Rounds.

CenterStage is designed to support professional artists, managers and administrators of small arts groups. The idea is to promote connections between such folks and resources they need for both creative endeavors and arts-administrative purposes -- to bridge the gap, as Kelly-Strayhorn executive director janera solomon puts it, between  "great ideas [and] limited infrastructure."

The Kelly-Strayhorn is itself a small-arts success story. Under solomon, the East Liberty theater has become an arts producer and a host to cutting-edge touring companies, mostly in dance but also other performance genres.

CenterStage, to be facilitated by local planning consultant Susan Blackman, has two components.

Monday Night Rounds is a series of eight monthly workshops allowing artists and arts managers of smaller companies to review each others' presentations and work thorugh case studies offered by fellow practitioners and guests. Topics will include developing an action plan, budgeting and fundraising, building a team and production issues. All the workshops will be held on Mondays from 7-9 p.m., in the Kelly-Strayhorn's lobby.

No application is necessary to attend Monday Night Rounds, but reservations are required; the fee is pay-what-you-can. Regular attendance even earns your company reduced rentals of the theater itself.

The second component of CenterStage is a 1-on-1 Coaching Intensive. These free intensives with Blackman include four one-hour sessions over a four-week period. Prospective participants must apply -- see for an application.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Graphic Novelist, Honey and Mead at Bee-Themed Toonseum Event

Posted By on Thu, Oct 13, 2011 at 12:52 PM



Jay Hosler's acclaimed graphic novel Clan Apis follows honeybee protagonist Nyuki on her journey through metamorphosis. Both writer and illustrator, Hosler conveys similarities between human and honeybee behavior in format accessible to child audiences. 

"It's a balance between science and illustration," says Hosler, who visits the Toonseum Saturday evening.

Hosler, a professor of neurobiology at Juniata College, in Huntingdon, Pa., is fascinated by what connects us to the winged creatures, beyond their impact on agriculture. Speaking by phone from his office, he explains that this notion of interconnectedness, though fascinating, is not always poetic. 

 "You have a situation in which bees live on a wax hive -- wax they secrete from their own bodies. Imagine living in a house made from your own bodily secretions. It's gross, actually." 

But Hosler emphasizes that both bees and humans exist in family-oriented communities and encounter like struggles. "We fight to protect our homes, we have to leave to find food and we defend our loved ones." 

On Saturday, Hosler lectures and signs books in a two-part event. The first segment invites children to discover insect anatomies through illustrations. The demo culminates with an opportunity for each child to construct his or her own "super insect" by mixing different bug parts -- on paper, of course. 

Additionally, the group Burgh Bees conducts a Q&A about urban apiaries and the role of honeybees in the promotion of local, sustainable agriculture. Local honey and meads will be in stock for sampling.

Afterward, Hosler presents "Attack of the Comic-Book Insects," a lecture on what it means to be both scientist and cartoonist, squashing the "left brain-versus-right brain" argument, once and for all. He'll also touch on what he considers to be the necessity for greater illustrated resources in children's science education. 

Hosler's "Drawing a Super Insect" workshop is at 4 p.m. The Burgh Bees event is at 6:30 p.m. And Hosler's lecture and book-signing is at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $5.

The Toonseum ( is located 945 Liberty Ave., Downtown (412-232-0199).

Friday, October 7, 2011

Art Students Mark 10th Year of Afghan War

Posted By on Fri, Oct 7, 2011 at 3:35 PM

Melissa Bryan has planted hundreds of tissue paper poppies in a trail that leads to a black bench where they congregate in eerie innocence, out of time, out of place.
  • Melissa Bryan has planted hundreds of tissue paper poppies in a trail that leads to a black bench where they congregate in eerie innocence, out of time, out of place.

Today's the tenth anniversary of America's war in Afghanistan, and if you don't think that fact is getting enough attention, join Susanne Slavick.

The Carnegie Mellon University art professor says she listened to NPR this morning and didn't hear a word about the war that's taken an estimated 1,670 U.S. military lives and well over $1 trillion in funds, with 100,000 U.S. troops still in country.

Not to mention the lives of countless Afghans.

Slavick is a founding member of 10 Years + Counting, a nationwide initiative to support and encourage efforts to mark the war's human and material costs through art.

"10 Years + Counting is a challenge to all of us to not forget that we have been at war a decade and it's still not over," Slavick said in a statement. "It is about shunning passivity and amnesia and spurring creative expression and action to reassess what we might have done, realize what we can do now and re-envision tomorrow as a world without war."

10YAC claims more than 350 events nationwide. Slavick and associate professor of art Andrew Ellis Johnson provided the impetus behind the event at CMU. 

My Heart Is In The War, which opened yesterday, includes the work of 15 students in Concept Studio I in CMU's School of Art. The exhibit's title plays on the university's motto, "My heart is in the work," words attributed to Andrew Carnegie.

The multidisciplinary group exhibit includes installations, sculpture and video.

Mishq Laliwala's gleaming hand grenades of precariously stacked pennies.
  • Mishq Laliwala's gleaming hand grenades of precariously stacked pennies.

One sculpture is Mishq Laliwala's hand grenade made of pennies (pictured); another is a wind chime made of bullet casings. Another work is an audio mash-up of traditional and popular Afghan music. Melissa Bryan's installation consisting of a black bench and red paper poppies is also pictured.

In another installation, visitors can follow a trail of poppies to a machine where both printed hundred-dollar notes and donated real money may be shredded. 

My Heart Is In The War runs through Sat., Oct. 8, in the Ellis Gallery on the third floor of the College of Fine Arts, on the CMU campus. Works in the foyer are on view through Tue., Oct.11. 

 Partners of 10 Years and Counting include CODEPINK, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace. 


Postscript: 10YAC has just announced the 10YAC Cultural Commons for artworks illustrating "the true cost of war and ... your vision of a peaceful world."

The contest will select "the five most creative and inspirational" submissions in music, poetry, visual art or dance to be featured in an October issue of the e-zine Alternet. The judges include Pittsburgh artist Diane Samuels.

Submissions must be made by video (via Vimeo), and the deadline is Oct. 21.

For more information, see or contact (and put "Cultural Commons" in the subject line).


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