Off the Wall …and Into Packed Theaters
By Justin Hopper
Mathew Rosenblum has an infectious self-belief—which is a good thing. It wouldn’t take much waffling for RedDust, the new-music composer’s multi-disciplinary opera, to become confusing, even before its world premier as part of The Andy Warhol Museum’s Off the Wall performance art series this May.
“You can look at it from a lot of different perspectives,” says Rosenblum, a music professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “It’s about juxtaposition; there are radically different kinds of music that all come into play, from lyrical opera to a jazzy, nightclub-like passage, to techno-pulse stuff.”
RedDust’s narrative is even closer to the edge of reason. The fact that its two primary characters are an ancient Chinese author and Gertrude Stein is only one part of the story. But in the hands of Rosenblum—whose compositions have been performed by some of the world’s most prestigious new-music ensembles, including the California EAR Unit and Rascher Saxophone Quartet—RedDust somehow seems like a natural collaborative progression.
“I wanted to do a piece that interacted with a visual art component,” says Rosenblum, “and I hooked up with Kurt Ralske, a video artist who’s done a lot of installation work with sound-art people.” Throw in a joint commission from Opera Theater Pittsburgh and Sequitur Theater in New York, along with choreography from Pittsburgh-based contemporary dance-theater troupe Attack Theater, and you’ve got exactly the kind of multi-disciplinary performance that The Warhol has become known for in its Off The Wall series, now in its seventh season.
Purposely Vague, Uniquely Its Own
In 2000, The Warhol approached Mark Russell of New York City’s legendary Performance Space 122 to help get Off the Wall off the ground. Since then the series has been responsible for putting Pittsburgh on the map for performance artists. Its purposefully vague performance genre runs the gamut of experimental theater, spoken word, and multi-disciplinary performances.
“In 1999, we were changing The Warhol’s mission and becoming ‘more than a museum,’” says Ben Harrison, assistant curator for performance. “We were embarking on programming efforts outside of visual arts, including Off the Wall, and we needed a senior partner.”
Warhol Director Tom Sokolowski, a veteran of the downtown New York art scene, knew Russell and brought him onboard as guest curator for the series’ first four seasons. The result included what Harrison calls “P.S. 122’s greatest hits,” featuring internationally recognized performers such as Karen Finley, an outspoken feminist who became known as one of the “NEA Four.” (Finley and three other artists had their National Endowment for the Arts grants vetoed in 1990 for work the public agency labeled too risqué).
Off the Wall benefited in particular from a project called Field Trips, where P.S. 122’s performers traversed America, playing in places that hadn’t necessarily experienced their type of work before—which proved educational to both sides of the curtain.
Three years ago, Off the Wall concluded its relationship with P.S. 122—not only to stand on its own as one of the nation’s regular stops for touring performers, but to evolve. With this year’s expansion into the newly renovated New Hazlett Theater, as well as Fusion Festival, a two-concert collaborative series with Opera Theater of Pitts- burgh, Off the Wall has truly come into something uniquely its own.
Moving Up, and Out
Since its start, Off the Wall has gone from an anomalous trip into the wilderness for performance artists to an important part of a network of experimental-minded venues. The 2007 season, for example, has seen the return of English theatrical eccentrics Lone Twin and a performance by Mike Daisey of his comic expression of political angst, Monopoly!
On April 24, Off the Wall joins with Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center to bring Jerry Quickley to The Warhol. Quickley, one of the best known performance poets in America, has synthesized his two trips to Iraq into Live From the Front, which takes on Iraq from a hip-hop perspective.
Performances such as Quickley’s fit perfectly into The Warhol’s traditional Off the Wall spaces—the second-floor gallery, normally home to Andy Warhol’s punching bags, and the museum’s small theater. Those spaces have proven too restrictive for other performers, however.
“Some artists expect a more traditional theatrical treatment—a deep stage, for example,” says Harrison, which The Warhol can’t offer. “So in 2004 and 2005, we moved the series into our theater and concentrated on artists such as [1970s-era radical performance poet] Sekou Sundiata. Minimalist solo work is conducive to the intimacy of our theater and gallery. But after a couple seasons, we felt the need to spread our wings. This season reflects what we’ve wanted to do for the past three or four years.”
To some extent, that has meant moving house—for The Warhol and some of its creative collaborators. Artists Young Jean Lee and Cynthia Hopkins perform in the newly renovated New Hazlett Theater on the North Side this season. (See sidebar.)
Continuing to use the museum’s second-floor gallery, The Warhol is collaborating with Opera Theater Pittsburgh’s Fusion Festival. Mary Ann Lapinski understands there will be challenges. As general manager of Opera Theater Pittsburgh, the city’s home for new operatic works, challenge is a word Lapinski is all too familiar with. But usually it’s artistic boundaries her company is pushing, not the space in which they’ll perform.
For Opera Theater, the rewards of performing Fusion Festival pieces—Philip Glass’s The Sound of a Voice and Rosenblum’s RedDust—in The Warhol’s second-floor gallery outweigh the potential risks. “It’s going to be a challenge, but we’re very excited with the artistic overtones of that environment,” Lapinski says.
The Fusion Festival is less the result of years of planning and more of “serendipity,” notes Lapinski. “We were committed to producing RedDust and wanted to do something to play on the idea of the ‘Summer of Glass,’” Pittsburgh’s ubiquitous artistic theme for 2007, inspired by the Glass Art Society’s summer conference in Pittsburgh. Off the Wall’s presentation of The Sound of a Voice is its debut performance outside of Boston and will feature the original cast—including Philip Glass’ hand-picked singers, twin brothers Herbert and Eugene Perry, as well as original sets by local glass artists Kathleen Mulcahy and Ron Desmett.
RedDust, however, is the collaborative crown of this season’s Off the Wall series. It features a libretto that Rosenblum produced with Opera Theater’s Artistic Director Jonathon Eaton, Kurt Ralske’s live video manipulation, and choreography and dance by Attack Theatre.
“There’s a live quality to this opera,” says Lapinski. “It’s very much in the spirit of performance art.” For that reason, Rosenblum adds, The Warhol’s Off the Wall is the best possible match as a presenter.
“In so many ways it’s the perfect place in terms of audience,” adds Rosenblum. “They’ll go there without presuppositions, and they’ll either take it or spit it out. In that space, I think there’s a much better chance that they’re going to take it.”
Building that attitude and that audience has taken six seasons, but now it appears that Off the Wall is there—having climbed its way from an emerging, non-traditional performance-art venue to a nationally known series. It now has the option to work with a more diverse array of artists in a number of flexible performance spaces in hopes of continuing to build on the series’ loyal audience.
“We started without much precedent here and would see 50 or 60 people show up,” says Harrison. “Now we’re seeing full theaters with only a very few exceptions. And that’s one of the reasons we started this series—performance art was under represented in Pittsburgh for too long.”
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A New Lease on Life:
The Hazlett and Off the Wall
It was almost absurd for the Hazlett Theater—once the North-side home to Pittsburgh Public Theater and other performance organizations—to stand vacant. But that’s what happened not once, but twice, first for nearly 10 years in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and again after the Public Theater moved Downtown in 1999. That is, until its grand reopening this past September, now as the “New Hazlett Theater.”
In the past six years, occasional clients such as Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and The Andy Warhol Museum, which presented performances by the Sun Ra Arkestra and Incredible String Band there, proved the Hazlett not just a viable venue but one that artists adored. So in 2006, a partnership between The Warhol, Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, the City of Pittsburgh, and several performance-based arts organizations oversaw the historic renovation of the 1889 building. And this year, with performances by Young Jean Lee and Cynthia Hopkins staged there, Off the Wall will benefit from the fruits of those labors.
“Cynthia Hopkins’ Accidental Nostalgia is one performance that I knew would be great to do, but it wasn’t possible at our museum,” says Ben Harrison, assistant curator for performance at The Andy Warhol Museum. “She plays with a full live band, and she’s interacting with video screens. It toured the Wexner [Center for the Arts, Columbus] and Walker [Art Center, Minneapolis] last year, but we couldn’t
do it.” Until now.
The result is a 400-seat theater versatile not just in usage but in audience makeup. As Harrison says, “You can have a hundred people in the front seats and not feel empty.” But such a number is hardly likely. Since its opening, The New Hazlett has already hosted everything from Primestage Theater’s The Crucible to R&B performances and deejayed dance parties. Artists and audiences have quickly grown to appreciate the venue.
“The Winter and Spring schedules are completely packed,” says Sara Radelet, executive director of the New Hazlett Theater. “We’ve really jumped right in.”
Learn more about the New Hazlett Theater at www.newhazletttheater.org.
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Upcoming Off the Wall Performances
Off the Wall tickets are available by calling 412.237.8300. Single tickets: $18; $15 for students and members. Three-pack subscriptions (15% discount): $46; $43 for students and members. Fusion Festival tickets (Sound of a Voice and RedDust) are available at ProArts by calling 412.394.3353.
Accidental Nostalgia, Cynthia Hopkins
Friday, March 16 and Saturday, March 17, 8 p.m., New Hazlett Theater
Live from the Front, Jerry Quickley
Saturday, April 14, 8 p.m., The Warhol
The Sound of a Voice, Philip Glass
Thursday-Sunday, April 26-28, 8 p.m.; April 29, 3 p.m., The Warhol
RedDust, Mathew Rosenblum
Friday-Sunday, May 18-19, 8 p.m.;
May 20, 3 p.m., The Warhol