The legacy of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in Pittsburgh cannot be overstated. Standing for decades in the East Liberty community, the theater has brought music, dance, conversation, and poetry to residents from the neighborhood and beyond, exposing Pittsburghers to new and exciting works from local and national artists.
After moving its annual fundraiser online because of COVID-19, which resulted in the popular Hotline Ring events, this year’s fundraiser returns in-person. House Party will take place on Sat., July 16 from 7 p.m.-12 a.m. with an immersive VIP reception occurring from 7-9 p.m.
“We knew we wanted to bring back in-person fundraiser following our two years of the virtual collective fundraiser Hotline Ring with six other organizations, and we knew this was our opportunity to kind of freshen up Full Bloom, our in-person fundraiser,” says Joseph Hall, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater.
Reviving the in-person fundraiser comes with new and old faces. A new face that has been brought on as the co-director of the series is Ariel Xiu, who first collaborated with KST as part of their Freshworks program, and then was asked to participate in House Party as a performer.
“A big part of our work is born out of the question: ‘What happens when people are given different tools that they wouldn't normally have access to with the opportunity to then perform?’” says Xiu.
House Party is part performance, part dance party, described as “The Met Gala meets Studio 54.” Guests will bring the Met Gala element with their own eclectic fashion and looks, while the theater will focus on bringing the unique experience of the popular discotheques of the 1970s.
Both Xiu and Justin Kelly will serve as performers and directors of the event, which includes seven other performers: AJ Liebert, Merisa Skinner, Tanzim Syedd, Billy/Bree aka Bb, Samira Mendoza, Marcus Shutrump, and Luis Zul.
“In a way, as the performers, we are kind of acting like hosts or guides for the event. And at the same time, we are working with KST’s vision and finding connections within it through our own practices,” says Xiu. “I can personally say, I love the theme of House Party and resonate with the radical and simultaneously homey space it alludes to.”
Kelly, Xiu’s collaborator, is originally from Maryland but came to Pittsburgh for an undergraduate degree at Carnegie Mellon University in 2013. Kelly also serves as a percussion teacher and event producer in the city.
Kelly fell in love with the orchestra in the 10th grade and went on to study music at graduate school in New York. Upon moving back to Pittsburgh, Kelly realized that the studying he did up until then was based on an idea of perfection he didn’t want to associate with any longer and began to focus more on the art of improvisation.
“During my first solo performance, I remember being horrified. It's a recital, right? It's this very rigid ‘you prepared a piece of music and you will get on stage and then perform it perfectly,’ this idea of perfection is always present,” says Kelly. “So, if I remember correctly, I had a memory slip, which is, you forget what notes are next. And I just stopped for three to four seconds, panicked, and then kept going.”
Kelly says that just because something is improvised doesn’t mean no preparation went into the act. This is a philosophy he takes into his work and will bring to House Party.
“The net of what is considered preparation is expanding when you're improvising because it kind of opens up any moment and the possibility space, right? Like, what is possible in your performance is much, much, much broader than what might be possible in that kind of perfection model, and it opens up the whole of your life experience,” says Kelly.
Kelly and Xiu performed together for the KST Freshworks program in May, and were asked to come back to perform and help curate performances for House Party. The two have a strong creative bond, and their Freshworks collaboration Bad Form: A Scratch Symphony, asked questions about who makes the rules in performance spaces and how we can move beyond the rigidity of form.
In addition to Kelly and Xiu and the other performers, House Party has a host committee stacked with big Pittsburgh names like Kendra Janelle Ross, Alecia Dawn Young, Damon Young, Marita Garrett, and Brian Broome.
“I think attendees can expect to be immersed in a strange and yet familiar world,” says Kelly. “They can expect to be to be brought into the present moment. It's going to be a party.”
Kelly Strayhorn Theater's House Party. 7 p.m.-12 a.m. Sat., July 16. 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. Pay What Moves You $50-250. kelly-strayhorn.org/houseparty