City Theatre creates pandemic-proof live theater experience with Drive-In Arts Festival | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

City Theatre creates pandemic-proof live theater experience with Drive-In Arts Festival

click to enlarge City Theatre creates pandemic-proof live theater experience with Drive-In Arts Festival
City Theatre Company
City Theatre Company's Drive-In Arts Festival at Hazelwood Green
City Theatre will venture into new territory when it brings its Drive-In Arts Festival to Hazelwood Green.

City Theatre Company recently announced the festival — currently taking place from Sept. 10-Oct. 18 — as its first in-person programming since March, when COVID-19 forced the organization to go online. Unlike at its South Side space where City Theatre usually performs, the festival, presented as part of its Reimagined 2020/2021 Season, will mimic the experience of a drive-in movie theater, where patrons enjoy the show from their cars.

City Theatre managing director James McNeel says that audiences should expect a “truly unique way of experiencing world-class art — and one that is safe for everyone.” All festival programming will be performed live on stage while projected on a giant screen in a parking lot next to Hazelwood Green's Mill 19 building.

“The Hazelwood Green site offered everything we could hope for,” says McNeel, citing its beautiful setting, a large parking lot, and accessible location, as well as cooperation from the site's developers, Regional Industrial Development Corporation. “We are so incredibly grateful to the team at Hazelwood Green for their enthusiasm for this project.”

It's an unusual use for Hazelwood Green, a 90,000-square-foot riverside project being built around the former Jones and Laughlin steel mill. Once fully completed, the expansive site will become a hub for various tech and manufacturing entities.

The festival will include Frankenstein by Manual Cinema, a Chicago-based company known for its multimedia theater shows that combine puppetry, film, music, and more. (Fun fact: their puppetry is featured in the upcoming remake of the 1992 horror film Candyman.) This rendition of Frankenstein is described on the Manual Cinema website as one that “stitches together the classic story of Frankenstein with Mary Shelley’s own biography to create an unexpected story about the beauty and horror of creation.”

City Theatre will also present the world premiere of Claws Out!, a holiday drag comedy musical yet to be scheduled.

McNeel says one hope for the festival is to demonstrate “the enduring strength and positive impact of the arts.” According to a report by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, the Pittsburgh region sees about $2.38 billion in economic impact from the arts and culture sector. As a result, McNeel believes the festival will “remind our patrons how critical we are to Pittsburgh” not only artistically, but economically.

While the festival marks a positive step towards normalcy, City Theatre, like other production companies in the city and around the country, has been cautious about bringing back conventional theater shows.

“This pandemic has been devastating to our sector, and it could be a really long time before we are able to return to traditional, indoor programming,” says McNeel.

When the pandemic hit, restrictions on crowd size meant the company had to cancel scheduled in-person performances of the parenting comedy, Cry It Out, and the world premiere of PerkUp PerKup. Both shows were then made accessible online to ticketholders.

Besides canceling or postponing much of its 2020 season programming, the pandemic also sidelined its THE BASH party fundraiser, originally scheduled for mid-September. 

As the company continues organizing shows, it does so while keeping an eye on updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local health departments.

Even as the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, McNeel says City Theatre “plans on pushing forward with our mission while also providing opportunities for our staff and artists to do their thing.” Shows like the world premiere of F*ck7thGrade by Jill Sobule and Liza Birkenmeier, originally slated for May, is now taking place online this fall. City Theatre has tentative plans to present several new shows in the upcoming winter and spring, including AmericUs from Universes, Vietgone by Qui Nguyen, The Garbologists by Lindsay Joelle, and The Sound Inside by Adam Rapp.

Until then, City Theatre hopes the festival will provide some much-needed live entertainment to theatergoers itching to go out again.

"We know this is risky, there will be challenges, and, as we have all learned time and time again, the virus is in charge,” says McNeel. "But we really felt it was a time to be bold and daring and to try something new. I guess we just want folks to come find a bit of joy with us.”