Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Point Park grad returns with inventive musical

Posted By on Wed, Oct 31, 2012 at 2:47 PM

Actor and Shaler native John Allen Biles is back in town to present his independent production of the well-regarded, cleverly structured musical The Last Five Years.


The show’s at Off The Wall Theater’s new space, in Carnegie, tomorrow through Nov. 10. Admission is free (though a donation is requested).

Biles graduated from Point Park University’s theater program in 2000 and moved to New York. His work as a professional actor includes stints off-Broadway, in regionally touring shows and more.

He moved back to Pittsburgh in April, but The Last Five Years marks his theatrical homecoming.

“After spending over a decade in New York City, I saw many of my talented Pittsburgh friends struggling to find an outlet for their craft,” he says in a press release. “I wanted to produce this show to not only give myself some exposure but also my talented friends.”

The Last Five Years, by Jason Robert Brown, is a 2002 musical about the relationship between Jamie, a rising young novelist, and Cathy, a struggling actress. The story is told two ways at once: chronologically by Jamie, starting with their first date, and in reverse chronology by Cathy, going backward from their divorce.

Biles plays Jamie, and Cathy is played by Pittsburgh-based actress Holly Bryan Scott. Locally based Nick Mitchell directs.

The production premieres tomorrow and runs Thursdays through Saturdays through Nov. 10. Shows are at 7:30. The requested donation is $18 cash, at the door.

The Off the Wall venue is located at 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

For more information, or to reserve seats, email

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Games as art in new gallery show

Posted By on Thu, Oct 25, 2012 at 2:55 PM

The Sewickley Arts Initiative is readying an intriguing exhibition that should attract gamers and people interested in social issues and education, not to mention art-lovers.

Input/output is a show by artists who use games to present interactive art addressing social issues such as immigration.

“These artistic games highlight how a didactic message is understood through play,” says a press release.

The forms range from board games to mobile apps, and the works sit alongside examples of classic games like Frogger, Tank and Battleship.

A screen grab from Rafael Fajardo’s video game “Crosser” gives some idea.


Fajardo is an associate professor of Electronic Media Art & Design at the University of Denver.

Other participating artists include Francisco Ortega-Grimaldi, assistant professor of communication design at Texas Tech University, and Devin Monnens, assistant course director of Game History at Full Sail University.

Sewickley Arts Initiative was founded in 2010 by independent curator Ingrid LaFleur and artist Timothy Hadfield, head of the media arts department at Robert Morris University.

Input/output opens tomorrow, at 419 Beaver St., Sewickley, with an opening reception from 6-9 p.m. The show is also open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., Oct. 27.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Halloween Parties and the Arts

Posted By on Wed, Oct 24, 2012 at 2:40 PM

If you polled artists about their favorite holiday, odds are Halloween would be right up there. (For sure it would kick Valentine’s Day’s ass.) Here are a few Hallow's Eve things local arts venues have planned this weekend, for kids and adults.

Two of the adult events are Downtown this Friday. From 6-9 p.m., Future Tenant Art Space hosts Disco Graveyard, a Halloween Happy Hour. The attractions are live music, food, drinks and dancing, with a costume contest including prizes for Most Dead and Most Original. Future Tenant is at 819 Liberty Ave.

Meanwhile, just around the corner, ToonSeum hosts … wait for it … Drawn of the Dead, an animation screening and costume party. The evening begins at 7:30 p.m. with an outdoor screening of Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated. The unique 2009 take on George Romero’s 1968 classic features work by nearly 150 international artists and animators who reenvisioned favorite scenes from the film through their own artistic lenses (from oil paintings and CGI to sock puppets); the results are paired with the film’s original soundtrack. The fun also includes vintage cartoons (Casper, et al); a costume contest; pumpkin-spiked hot chocolate; adult beverages; and more. The free, 21-and-over party’s at 945 Liberty Ave.

On Saturday, also for adults, is Fe Gallery’s Eat, Drink & Be Scary. The event, in Lawrenceville, is a costume party notable for its inventive contest categories: best handmade costume; best use of fake blood; best movie reference; best dead celebrity; best costume in the form of a pun; and best use of a sheet (without being a ghost). There are also food, drinks, music by DJ Zan Naz and a chance to see the gallery’s spooky exhibit, Creep. The party’s from 7 p.m.-midnight, and a $5 donation is requested.

Meanwhile, here’s the kid stuff. (Yes, Halloween’s for kids, too).

Family events this weekend include the fourth year of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater’s Halloween Mayhem. The free day of activities and performances at the East Liberty venue features special guest Mr. McFeely and includes mask-making and face-painting for the costume parade, plus music and dance on stage from Hope Academy students. Halloween Mayhem runs 11 a.m.-2 p.m. this Saturday.

From 1-3 p.m. Sunday, head a few blocks south to the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, for the PCA’s Halloween Party. This event also includes family-friendly art activities for the kids, the obligatory face-painting, entertainment, refreshments and more. Costumes are encouraged, and there is an entry fee of $5 for member families, $10 for non-member families.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Mahalia Jackson tribute concert

Posted By on Mon, Oct 22, 2012 at 1:15 PM

A big cross-section of the city’s top gospel singers will gather in the Hill District this Friday night for a concert honoring the gospel legend.

The Mahalia Jackson Birthday Concert, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, will also mark the debut of the Lemington Seniors Community Gospel Choir.

Other singers performing include The Clara Ward Singers, Deborah Moncrief, Zanetta Wingfield, Yolanda Rodgers Howsie, Cheryl El Walker and at least one performer well known outside gospel circles: Mandy Kivovitz Delfaver, a.k.a. Phat Man Dee.

The show, featuring songs Jackson made popular, is presented by Deryck Tines of deryck tines group (no slouch behind the mike himself).

Jackson, who died 40 years ago, at age 61, was billed as “the world’s greatest gospel singer.” Her recordings included “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” “Didn’t It Rain,” “How I Got Over” and “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”

Ebenezer Baptist is at 2001 Wylie Ave., in the Hill.

Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door, and are available at Central Baptist church offices, Dorsey’s Records, in Homewood; Stedeford’s Records, on the North Side; and at

For more information, call 412-983-8895.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Cirque du Soleil's "Saltimbanco"

Posted By on Fri, Oct 19, 2012 at 8:09 AM

Chinese Poles
  • Olivier Samson Arcand Costumes : Dominique Lemieux © 2007 Cirque du Soleil Inc.
  • Chinese Poles

Saltimbanco is Cirque du Soleil’s longest-touring show, playing for seven performances at Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center. I caught the opening night on Thursday. With its breathtaking stunts, silly clowns, elaborate costumes and music combined in a general surreal spectacle, the show fulfilled all expectations of the troupe with eerie precision.

In Hard Times, Charles Dickens used the circus to represent the fanciful alternative to the world of facts and industry; to the machine. In Cirque du Soleil it seems the metaphors have merged. They create razzle-dazzle machines of entertainment in which everything is choreographed to smooth perfection. And with 5,000 employees, 20 different shows and an audience of millions worldwide, the Quebec-based troupe is seemingly unstoppable.

Utter reliability shouldn’t be a problem for a show like Saltimbanco, in which people unfurl from ropes tied fifty feet in the air and somersault off swinging platforms to be caught by human towers. But it does rob these fantastic feats of suspense or a sense of the performer's personalities. The possibility the bungee swingers, trapezists, and jugglers could screw up seems more remarkable than the fact that they don’t. In its 20 years of touring Saltimbanco is a victim of its own success.

Moreover many of the acts are over-saturated. The mind-bending "Cane Balancing" act or multi-person "Chinese Poles" come accompanied by booming Muzak — played live but sounding thoroughly artificial — and masked clowns faffing around in the background. It’s like watching the Olympic gymnastics final on your smart phone during a pop concert. There are some amazing displays of human ability in front of you, if only you weren’t too stimulated to concentrate on them.

The most effective acts in Saltimbanco are also the most stripped back. A drumming and whip-cracking duo in the "Boleadores" act create a vivid tango with minimal window dressing, and the schoolboy-attired solo clown "Eddie" is the star of the evening.

Using no more than mime, his personableness and beat-boxing skills, Eddie mocks up a spaghetti western standoff with an audience member. And what I’ll remember the most from Saltimbanco is when he flushed himself down the toilet, despite the fact most of the visuals of the scenario took place in my mind.

Saltimbanco plays through Sun., Oct. 21. Tickets are $32-80 and available here.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Transgender Artist Couple Speaks Here

Posted By on Wed, Oct 17, 2012 at 1:34 PM

Los Angeles-based artists Rhys Ernst and Zachary Drucker met three years ago, when Drucker was transitioning from male to female, and Ernst from female to male.


Artistic collaborators as well as “reverse heterosexual" life partners, on Thursday they’ll be at Carnegie Mellon for a talk titled “A Perfect X: Intersecting Transgender Perspectives in Film, Video and Performance.”

The pair will discuss their creative work apart and together — including their new experimental film collaboration, “She Gone Rogue” — and talk about gender and sexuality in their lives.

Ernst and Drucker regard gender and sexuality as distinct, and focus on fighting gender inequality.

Ernst is a filmmaker whose latest short, “The Thing,” premiered at Sundance. He’ll also discuss that film along with his “New Trans Cinema” approach, which seeks a more complex view of gender representation in film.

Drucker is a multimedia artist, working in performance, photography and more, whose work has been exhibited nationally and overseas.

While visiting CMU, they’ll tape an episode of Trans-Q Television, a web-based variety show being developed by students of Associate Art Professor Suzie Silver.

Their talk, which is free, will be held at 4:30 p.m. Thu., Oct. 18, at Porter Hall 100, on the CMU campus.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Series Begins Tonight with JFK Play

Posted By on Mon, Oct 15, 2012 at 2:41 PM

As if on cue following the death of Arlen Specter, a public reading series launches Downtown with a new play about the killing of JFK.
The play is Noah’s Ark, by locally based Ginny Cunningham. It's inspired by James Douglass’ 2009 book JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. (For what it’s worth, Oliver Stone is a fan.)
The free public reading at 7 p.m. tonight, at Pittsburgh Public Theater, begins a new series curated by lauded local playwright Tammy Ryan.
The series is sponsored by the Public. A short discussion will follow the reading.
Specter, you’ll recall, first made his name nationally by expounding the controversial “single-bullet theory” about JFK’s assasination.
Cunningham’s full-length play, according to a press release, “delves into unexplored and previously classified aspects” of the assassination."
Actors reading the play include Jack Erdie (as JFK), Thomas Fuchel, Richard Cavalucci, T. Scott Frank, John Gresh and Brandi Welle.
Ryan, the series curator, recently won the American Theatre Critics Association Francesca Primus Prize.

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Suspicious Package at Future Tenant

Posted By on Thu, Oct 11, 2012 at 8:09 PM

Heath Kelts (on screen) and Gyda Arber
  • Michael Gardner
  • Heath Kelts (on screen) and Gyda Arber

The fourth wall has always been my favorite wall, so being assigned a character and given a script to read out in play Suspicious Package is far from my comfort zone.

Fortunately the noir thriller presented by Future Tenant holds your hand digitally. Each audience member is given a Zune Player - an ipod-type device - that guides you through the plot via character-specific audiovisual instructions. It’s like a real life video game and it takes place up the back alleys of downtown Pittsburgh.

The play, devised by Gyda Arber and Wendy Coyle, is a riot of stimuli both digital and real. When you’re plugged into the Zune every street sign looks different and every stranger seems a possible character in the narrative. Your character’s thoughts play through earbuds and video flashbacks appear on its screen. I’m instructed to enter stores then linger about suspiciously awaiting further instructions, feeling the eponymous package may be the one the storekeeper thinks I’m about to shoplift.

It’s hard to be objective about a show when you’re inside it - I only get to see one character’s trajectory - but the plot is secondary to the experience of enacting it. The play itself is more about the theatrical world than the noir one. Its characters include a ruthless showgirl, a hardboiled producer and a starstruck heiress, all clawing their way to the top, all played by members of the audience.

It’s a world I start to embrace. My first emotional reaction during the show is jealousy; other participants are definitely delivering their lines better than me. Then I adapt to my character of the heiress so much that I purchase a few superfluous items in a store during the show - some method acting so good I even have the storekeeper fooled.

In the wrap party afterwards (your ticket price includes a complimentary drink) I find out that other characters had better sexual tension and start suspecting other cast members are sleeping together. Suspicious Package certainly gives you a real feel for showbiz.

It’s a discombobulating and unrepeatable experience. The play required extensive rewrites just to be performed for four days in Pittsburgh and has been staged previously only in Brooklyn and for a sold-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. With four to six tickets available a showing, it will be a crime if it doesn’t do the same here — a camp theatrical crime that the audience have to solve themselves.

Suspicious Package runs daily through Sun., Oct. 21, with hourly performances 1 - 4 p.m. Tickets are $25 and available here.

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Sunday, October 7, 2012

The first Figment Pittsburgh

Posted By on Sun, Oct 7, 2012 at 10:00 PM


It was chilly, blustery, the ground was damp with rain and more was forecast on the first weekend of proper fall weather — and also the debut weekend of Figment Pittsburgh. The unique, free festival of interactive art has been held in New York and various other cities. Here's CP's preview of Pittsburgh's two-day version, held on the North Side.
On Sunday, the weather in Allegheny Commons was not affecting the spirits of the organizers. “This is my favorite!” gushes volunteer Priya Shah, wearing a bright red afro wig. She swirled through a grid of streaming fluorescent ribbons contributed by the Mattress Factory, pursued by some fascinated children.
The festival’s airport security-esque tagline, "What are you bringing?," seemed to be mostly answered with "my offspring."
“I biked over with the kids,” said Robert Blackwell, a computer programmer from nearby Manchester. “Any event that get us all out doing things is fantastic. The kids are loving it. I’m missing the Steelers game for this and I’m happy about it!”
He was at the silk-painting stall, "Silk Sensations," where organizer Janice Patrignani told me: “This lady came yesterday, painted with us, and then she brought her grandchildren today. We’ve experienced a lot of that.” She continues: “I think we’ve had a good turnout but it could have been better.”
Also popular with children was the plate-spinning costumed storyteller "Burgh Man" and a medieval sword-fighting troupe. Most successful overall might have been the "Modern Fossils" project, where passersby were invited to make clay imprints of outdated technologies. "Yesterday I had 60 fossils made," organizer Jessica Cieslak said. "It was busy."

It wasn't all kids. Melissa Ciccocioppo, a graphic and clay artist, came fully dressed as a woodland fairy. “I heard there were costumes and art and interactive stuff and I live close by so why not?” she said, shruggomg. Looking round the Commons, where projects were somewhat sparsely dotted around Lake Elizabeth, she said: “This is good but I feel like there should be more.”
While the whimsical affair was more of a walk in the park gone particularly surreal than an actual arts destination, but it was hard to get through without making some. I was cajoled into joining a drum circle, and when this turned into a rain dance, took shelter in the costume tent. Donning an antlered panda head suddenly seemed a practicality rather than an affectation.
Sheltering with me was volunteer Clifford Reese. “We’re going to do it earlier in the year next time,” he told me. “This was the earliest we could get things approved, and as you can see we’re in a rainstorm right now. We managed to get 27 artists to participate. New York in their sixth year has 200.” He added, "My daughter’s having a nice time and she’s met a lot of other kids to play with."
For a first showing, the festival's projects were endearingly low-fi and welcoming, but it's the children who brought the most to them.

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Monday, October 1, 2012

The Movement: A New Perspective at The Space Upstairs

Posted By on Mon, Oct 1, 2012 at 4:29 AM

Continuum Dance Theater’s production The Movement: A New Perspective is billed as “an autobiographical examination of the distinction between our public lives and the artist that we are beneath the costumes.” This might be shortened to “dancing about dancing." But The Movement is postmodern dance made highly accessible.

So accessible in fact that all the dancers are onstage as the audience arrives — greeting them, stretching, chatting amongst themselves — and remain there during the interval, adjusting costumes and reapplying make-up.

Everything about the show is intimate. Continuum is an up-and-coming concert jazz dance company, composed primarily of local artists. An all-female cast of six perform this two-act piece, choreographed by founder and artistic director Sarah Parker as well as the dancers themselves.

The first act, “Work,” evokes familiar tropes of office labor — subway rides, shirts and ties, and the rat race. Industrial soundscapes play over a collage of servile, repetitive movements and competitive duets. This is high-stress work. Dancers adopt attitudes of frustration and leap so aggressively they send light bulbs hanging from the ceiling of The Space Upstairs swaying before a striking shirt-shredding conclusion.

To those unfamiliar with The Pillow Project’s venue, The Space Upstairs is as nebulous as its name. A 4,000-square-foot canvas used by Continuum to create a 360-degree show; audience members dotting sofas and barstools throughout. It’s suitable for the company that take as much pleasure in dancing as it does deconstructing it.

Their second act, “L’effect,” is a playful pandering to this cabaret-style set up. In a series of theatrical jazz routines, every movement is exaggerated through a layer of frou frou and tat — flowers, feathers and lipstick. But the manic smiles of the performers grow unsettling as music-box chimes creep into the music and the dances take on a sinister circus-clown bend.

It ends with props being cleared by the dancers, who then retreat to share seats with the audience and gaze at the melancholy shambles of vanity tables and hairspray cans now occupying center stage.

These DIY elements belie the professionalism of Continuum’s performance. Following the show, Parker thanks the audience: “People can feel so strongly about buying local produce and other products, but it’s not the same with the arts.” Her production’s powerful mix of innovation, intimacy and artistic expertise is ample proof of why dance is Kickstarter’s most successful category.

The Movement: A New Perspective continues for two more shows on Oct. 5 and 6. Tickets are available here.

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