Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Friday, December 30, 2011

Stagehands Union to Protest at First Night

Posted By on Fri, Dec 30, 2011 at 5:44 PM

Earlier today, I talked with Pittsburgh Cultural Trust CEO and President Kevin McMahon, who says he remains optimistic that the Trust will reach a settlement with members of IATSE Local No. 3 before New Year's Eve, and avoid a First Night protest. The two parties have been in talks for days, and "Those conversations are continuing," McMahon told me. "I like to be optimistic about these things."

But McMahon didn't seem aware of an IATSE press release (which hit my in-box at 1:20 a.m. today). The release branded as "lip service" a Dec. 16 statement by McMahon expressing hopes for "a long-term mutually agreeable solution to the issues" between the union and the Trust. And it indicated that the 400-member union will "banner" the Dec. 31 community event, meaning members will carry signs and hand out leaflets to the 35,000 or more visitors expected Downtown.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tension continues between stagehands union and First Night organizers

Posted By on Tue, Dec 27, 2011 at 5:25 PM

Last week, I.A.T.S.E. Local No. 3 announced that it would "banner" the First Night celebration to protest the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's use of outside labor for the event. But the union's business agent, Robert Brown, told City Paper this morning that he's hopeful the Trust and the union can come to an agreement and avoid a protest.

"Hopefully, First Night is a wonderful event and we're not forced to take any action at all," Brown said. He declined to comment further on what he characterized as continuing talks between the 400-member union and the Cultural Trust, which runs First Night.

The union and the Trust have a relationship that goes back to the Trust's inception, in 1986. The current dispute dates to 2003, when the Trust took over First Night, the Downtown community New Year's Eve celebration encompassing events on the street and in dozens of galleries, theaters and other venues.

The Trust employs I.A.T.S.E. members throughout the year at such venues at the Byham Theater and the Benedum Center. But while union members also staff those theaters during First Night, the Trust has continued the First Night practice of hiring outside, nonunion workers to staff outdoor venues, like the mainstage located at Penn Avenue and Stanwix Street.

Last week, Trust CEO and President Kevin McMahon told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he was concerned that using union stagehands would have a negative effect on First Night's finances. But according both to the paper and a blog post by an informed observer, the pay scale does not appear to be the only issue.

The Trust pays $20.50 an hour for the nonunion First Night workers, slightly less than I.A.T.S.E. workers make. The union agreed to work the event for that scale, but the dispute continues. The trust and the union have also discussed whether the union would get "jurisdiction" for other Trust-organized events, such as the mostly outdoor Three Rivers Arts Festival.

The impasse has even resulted in an early-December meeting between the two parties in the office of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

I.A.T.S.E. officials have contended that as an event that receives taxpayer funding, First Night should provide workers the prevailing wages, benefits and conditions. According to the web site of the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development, First Night received grants totaling $125,000 for this year's event.

(Correction (Added Dec. 30): The $125,000 in DCED funding for "First Night 2011," as listed on that agency's web site, was actually awarded for the December 2010 First Night (though the funding wasn't issued until 2011). This year's First Night received no government funding of any kind, says Trust CEO and President Kevin McMahon.)

The Trust also receives considerable funding from local taxpayers. Between 1995 and 2011, the Trust was awarded $9.6 million in funding from the Allegheny Regional Asset District, which administers proceeds of a 1 percent sales tax. (RAD funding, which cannot be used for festivals, was not used for First Night. But among arts and culture organizations, only the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has received more overall support than the Trust.)

The Cultural Trust is one of Downtown's largest property owners, with properties including the Byham, the Benedum, the O'Reilly Theater (home of Pittsburgh Public Theater), Wood Street and SPACE galleries and numerous other small gallery and theater spaces. It is also a programmer, presenting series including PNC Broadway Across America, the Pittsburgh Dance Council, and the Pittsburgh International Children's Theater and Festival.

Friday, December 23, 2011

$10,000 Short-Film Contest

Posted By on Fri, Dec 23, 2011 at 4:00 AM

There seems to be no shortage lately of local filmmaking contests. Just in time for the holidays, here's another one, from the Pittsburgh Jewish Film Forum. It carries a top prize of $10,000, and two $3,000 prizes too.

The forum -- which puts on the long-running J Film fesival -- this week announced a call for entries for The Robinson International Short Film Competition.

The contest is open to all independent filmmakers, including pros and collegiate and graduate-level film students. 

The entry criteria: The film must be a Pittsburgh premiere, have a running time of 40 minutes or less, and have been completed in 2009 or later. Entries can be narrative, documentary or animated, and -- here's the key and most subjective criteria -- "must contain an essence of Jewishness as represented by theme, history or culture."

The deadline is Jan. 31. You can find full details at

Friday, December 16, 2011

East End Fashion Magazine

Posted By on Fri, Dec 16, 2011 at 3:10 PM

Earlier this year, men's magazine GQ named Pittsburgh the third worst-dressed city in the nation. Fighting to overturn our reputation for oversized hoodies and tube socks are East End Fashion Magazine's Abby Gleason and Cassie Kay Rusnak, who began the online publication last spring.

"The title is more of a general term," Gleason told CP by phone from a Garfield coffee shop. "We want to reflect each neighborhood's uniqueness; Lawrenceville's boutiques, Shadyside's consignment."

Cassie Kay Rusnak.

Gleason, 28, and Rusnak, 21, became friends last summer via multimedia dance company The Pillow Project. Rusnak photographed a performance in which Gleason was a model and dancer. That quickly led to the online forum melding their mutual love for fashion, photography and their native city.

The two grew up in the South Hills and now reside in Friendship. Like many creative professionals, they have day jobs: Gleason is a freelance web designer, and Rusnak a media consultant for a locally based non-profit, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. They meet in the evenings at local coffee shops to discuss upcoming issues. 

The magazine ( currently functions with volunteer efforts by local writers, models and photographers. Sponsorship is exclusively local and the pair are always seeking like-minded, local contributors and collaborators. Each monthly issue features one or two narrative-driven photo spreads — shot by Rusnak — in addition to columns about menswear and reader-powered surveys. 

December's issue features the first installment of Rusnak's column about the industry's ecological impact. The piece about clothes recycling came just after she and Gleason successfully completed their first clothing swap, in November at Construction Junction. The event drew close to 90 visitors. 

"These are concerns that we wanted to represent," Rusnak says. "It's about fashion, but it's also about sourcing local goods and spending less money in any number of city thrift stores." 

Gleason agreed that if asked to choose one defining style for Pittsburgh, it would be vintage. "I don't know if it's geography or preference, but this city isn't big on strip-mall shopping. People gravitate to local boutiques and consignment stores and we want to represent that local mentality with the magazine." 

Since the inaugural issue, released this past April, EEFM continues to expand by incorporating local artists, writers and musicians into their coverage.

The duo are planning an anniversary fashion show for April, ostensibly based on Pittsburgh fashion by each neighborhood. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Quantum Theatre's Fat Beckett

Posted By on Tue, Dec 13, 2011 at 4:50 PM


This two-actor show is an homage to and updating of Watiting for Godot — Beckett's classic recast for 21st-century women (partly because his estate allows only men to play the roles). Like Godot, it raises existential questions via a highly theatrical aesthetic: There's no attempt at realism here. 

What's fresh about the show is that instead of impoverished vagrants, Sophie (played by Gab Cody, who wrote the play) and Kiki (Rita Reis, who helped write it), are the unmoored flotsam of affluent Western society. Though they inhabit a stage-bound limbo, they're well-traveled, frequent fliers and privy to an endless supply of the little cream-filled pastries known as profiteroles.

As Kiki notes at one point, "It is harder to stop eating than it is to starve."

Still, in its bones the show is old, in the sense of "classic." Its comedic touchstone is clowning, which both Cody and Reis studied at Point Park University, notably with the internationally known theatrical clowning expert Gale McNeeley.

Though it's paired in Fat Beckett with stream-of-consciousness wordplay and a dab of social commentary, this ancient form of comedy is as undisguised as Cody's padded-out posterior, or Reis' prosthetic pregnant belly.

The primacy of clowning is evident in the show starting with its prologue, which Cody delivers while Reis translates, with increasing simultaneity, in French. Their skill in getting through the bit without tripping over each other's tongues is half the humor, while the other half is how the message gets lost, or garbled, for the audience.

There's more vaudeville to come, including a physical-comedy bit lifted directly from the Marx brothers (who of course started as stage clowns themselves, and surely lifted it from someone else).

Comic formula gets to be formula because it works. Cody, Reis and director Sam Turich know their gag construction. And here those gags more often than not meld surprisingly well with the show's exploration of the human (especially the female) condition in a world that, while it might be more comfortable for many of us than the world Beckett lived in, is at least as absurd.

Quantum ( is staging the show in a former school building on Hatfield Street, in Lawrenceville, near the Allegheny Cemetery.

Fat Beckett has five more performances through Sun., Dec. 18. The Wed., Dec. 14, show is a ladies-only performance with a pre-show reception.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Spaces Corners Photo-Book Store Debuts

Posted By on Fri, Dec 9, 2011 at 6:06 PM


Dutch photography critic Ralph Prins described the photo book as "an autonomous art form, comparable to a piece of sculpture, a play or film." No perfunctory portfolio, the photo book represents a genre merging narrative and poetic license. 

While stores dedicated to photo books might be underrepresented outside cities like New York, Los Angeles or Santa Fe, the medium has raised its profile within recent decades due to the collectibility of limited-edition prints, many released by independent presses. Not to mention that the genre's history offers something for every curiosity or aspect of human nature, from 1930s Third Reich propaganda to Swiss photographer Robert Frank's seminal work The Americans.

As Melissa Catanese, owner of photo-book shop and gallery Spaces Corners, put it: "When you visit an exhibition, all you have left is the memory of what you saw; you revisit the photo book with a new perspective every time."

Catanese spoke to CP from her newly opened shop in Lawrenceville's Ice House Studios. Catanese, 32, is a native Ohioan who lived in Bloomfield before moving to Brooklyn three years ago, where she worked as an art-book distributor. 

"Part of coming back was about sharing my experiences in contemporary photography, and how it's represented elsewhere, with the community," she says. 

With contributions from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, she amassed a limited but unique selection of titles. Her partner, photographer Ed Panar, created their website.

Panar's exhibition for his photo book Animals That Saw Me opened the gallery last month; Brooklyn photographer Darin Mickey's Strange Fruit is currently on display, and the artist will host an informal discussion next Monday.

While she plans to expand her inventory of about 40 titles (most in the $20-40 price range), Catanese emphasized the importance of featuring each book so that it stands out on the shelf. "It's designed to be a very user-friendly shop. I want people to browse for an hour if they feel like it." 

Eventually, Catanese would like to host workshops for professional and amateur artists.

"This is very experimental for us," she admits, and an "incubation" period. "Eventually we would like to have something more like a traditional storefront, but for now, we're still introducing the idea to the community."

Spaces Corners ( is located at 100 43rd St., No. 104. Spaces Corners' hours are 2-7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, and 1-6 p.m. Saturdays.

Strange Fruit runs through Jan. 21. The artist talk with Darin Mickey is at 7:30 p.m. Mon., Dec. 12.

Monday, December 5, 2011

SPdp's Octavia at the Kelly-Strayhorn

Posted By on Mon, Dec 5, 2011 at 1:31 PM


One drawback to covering dance as a weekly paper is that most dance troupes stage shows for one weekend only. And just as with rock concerts, CP doesn't run print reviews of shows readers won't have another chance to see.

So with exceptions, including Attack Theatre, that stage multi-week runs, we cover dance with previews only, and hopefully a blog post.

That troubles me when there's a show as good as this one, the latest from Staycee Pearl's young company. 

The show's a tribute to and evocation of the work of the late Octavia Butler, a noted science-fiction author and one of the few African-Americans or women to make a mark on the genre. (See Steve Sucato's preview for CP at

To evoke science fiction in dance would seem an enterprise fraught with risks - not least that of literalness. (The accompanying image, by the way, is a promo image, not something from the show.) But at the performance I saw Saturday, Pearl and her collaborators, including a company of eight dancers, avoided those pitfalls and then some. 

For those unfamilar with Butler (as I am), the production set the tone smartly with a series of audio clips of interviews with her interspersed throughout the evening. These were brief and to the point: The first established Butler's penchant for depicting strong female characters - a fitting introduction to the five-dancer group piece that began the show.

Like most of the rest of the hour-long performance, this sequence was set to a sountrack designed by Herman Pearl (Staycee Pearl's husband). It included some live instrumentation and brief bits of an old Hendrix track, but mostly had an electronic feel, chirps and squeals setting a heady but quirkily rhythmic atmosphere.

The second piece was a marvelous solo by Jasmine Hearn, full of wary, sinous motion. Good place too to note Suz Pisano's fabulous costume design: Hearn's outfit was especially striking, with its bare midriff and poufy mauve train accenting her motions.

Later sequences were likewise exciting - all but a few featuring fresh, inspired movement giving passionate life to everything from Butler's take on vampires to a piece on sexuality set to a particularly crazy beat. The dancers, also including Gwen Hunter Ritchie (formerly of LABCO), were excellent, with fine lighting design by Bob Steineck.

SPdp, which seems to have retooled significantly, with mostly new dancers, since its previous show, and Octavia is a great step in the right direction.

Keep an eye out for this work by the Kelly-Strayhorn's resident dance troupe in case it surfaces again. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.’s New Space

Posted By on Sat, Dec 3, 2011 at 10:27 PM

Congrats to Playwrights on officially opening its new venue, on the third floor of 937 Liberty Ave. Occupying the same Pittsburgh Cultural Trust-owned building where Bricolage Productions occupies the first floor is a big step up in both visibility and creature comforts from Playwrights’ former space in the parking garage at 6th and Penn.

By which I mean that the new space, along with its hardwood floors, feels well-scrubbed, with finished-out walls and ceiling. It also has heat – a makeshift affair in the old space – and air-conditioning. And the lobby’s better-lit.

Yet as demonstrated by the troupe’s inaugural production at 937 Liberty, its eighth annual Theatre Festival in Black & White, artistic director Mark Clayton has also retained what was agreeable about the old space – especially the friendly, welcoming atmosphere, typified by Southers himself taking tickets at last night’s show.

Meanwhile, the black-box-style theater space itself will be pretty familiar to veteran Playwrights audiences: The seating arrangement and capacity (about 100) is the same. I’m pretty sure that the ever-resourceful Southers even reused some of the same seats.

As to the Black & White Fest, the quality of the one-acts varies, as always. But the fest – which pairs white playwrights with black directors, and vice versa -- remains a unique attempt to promote diversity and collaboration in the Pittsburgh stage scene (among audiences as well as artists), and that’s always a good thing.

The Fest continues with two separate programs of four plays each running in rotation, at 3 and 7 p.m. both today and tomorrow. See

Playwrights remains the sole local company dedicated to producing works by local playwrights – and not just August Wilson, though Playwrights has arguably become the premier producer of Wilson’s works.

The company executes a quick turnaround, staging its next production in January: Elder Hostage, by Ray Werner, and directed by Marci Woodruff.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Bricolage's Midnight Radio Voting

Posted By on Fri, Dec 2, 2011 at 5:51 PM

The ever-innovative, not to mention democratic, Bricolage Productions is putting the themes for next year's fourth season of its signature enterprise on a ballot.

Midnight Radio is a series of live stage shows produced as if they were radio programs, complete with sound-effects generated live in the studio and actors taking multiple roles (often with funny voices).

The seasons have started in summer and ended in fall, and last year featured themes including superheroes, sports and zombies. Midnight Radio has produced classic radio scripts (like War of the Worlds), new full-length pieces and tons of parodies of game shows, advertisements and newscasts.

Perhaps not surprisingly, co-creators Jeffrey Carpenter and Tami Dixon regularly recruit some of Pittsburgh's top stage actors to ply their trade without having to worry about makeup, blocking or costumes -- let alone memorizing dialogue.

The series has proved popular, with regular sell-outs at Bricolage's small Downtown theater ... where even the lobby is decked out according to theme. (A gangster-themed show last season, for instance, found the lobby transformed into a speakeasy, complete with secret password to gain admittance.)

Still, next year Bricolage is scaling down to just three Midnight Radio episodes. But the troupe wants the audience to choose the themes in an online ballot.

Bricolage ( has 11 suggested themes, including Cult Classic Movies, The Industrial Revolution, Seafaring Edition, Suffragettes and even Vintage Radio. There's a write-in option too.

The deadline is 5 p.m. Fri., Dec. 9, with winners announced the week following.

Here's the link:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Imprint of War at the University Art Gallery

Posted By on Thu, Dec 1, 2011 at 1:30 PM


This student-curated exhibit strives to remind us of what it means to live in a war-driven society. 

The project -- conceived and installed by students in the University of Pittsburgh's Museum Studies Seminar -- began with the University Art Gallery's permanent collection and the 17th-century Jacque Callot print series Miseries of War. 

Chronicling religiously motivated atrocities during Europe's Thirty Years War, Callot's work was selected as a foundation upon which other artists' collections were applied, demonstrating centuries of resonance between the responses to war. 

 "The interconnectedness between artists who address war was something we wanted to explore," says seminar student Lucy Peterson.

Among the contributors, Los Angeles-based Sandow Birk and Kansas City-based Nicholas Naughton display works that range from intentionally crude to painstakingly detailed. Most striking are Birk's 8-foot- by-4-foot woodblock prints from his 2007 series The Depravities of War, thoughtfully displayed in the Frick Fine Arts Building rotunda. The prints reference rural scenes from Callot's Miseries with modern, urban additions of Golden Arches, ATMs and military-recruiting tables advertising "free college" in exchange for service. 

Birk is familiar to local audiences from his illuminated-Koran series, displayed earlier this year at The Andy Warhol Museum.

Local artists Andrew Ames, Dan Buchanan and Susanne Slavick were also invited to contribute to Imprint of War. Slavick, a Carnegie Mellon art professor and painter, contributes the mixed-media series Equus. It's a commentary on history's conquerors, their silhouettes painted against digital print backdrops of car skeletons, twisted by detonation. Her goal is to address how well we perceive world cultures.

"It's hard to understand why we do the things we do, but we tend to forget our own history, which makes it impossible to respect someone else's," says Slavick. "When we talk about the war in Afghanistan, we're talking about the origins of civilizations." 

Slavick is also guest curator for Out of Rubble, a exhibition of work by international artists addressing the cost of war that opens Friday at Downtown's Space Gallery.

 " It's interesting to be part of the lineage Callot established with Miseries," Slavick says. "At the time, he used printmaking technology to mass-produce images and disseminate awareness." As artists, we need to use whatever tools we can to form a collective voice against indifference." 

The Imprint of War: Responses in Print continues through Mon., Dec. 5, at the Frick Fine Arts Building, on Schenley Drive, in Oakland (

Out of Rubble opens with a 6-8 p.m. reception on Fri., Dec. 2, at Space Gallery, 812 Liberty Ave., Downtown (


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