Monday, September 10, 2012

Week One: Pittsburgh New Works Festival.

It's that time again. Thursday marked the beginning of the twenty-second annual Pittsburgh New Works Festival. Every year the Pittsburgh New Works Festival seeks to aid in the development of original one-act plays. Eighteen theatre companies. Eighteen new plays. Four solid weeks of performance.

I attended the festival on Thursday evening. Come Friday morning I was having a hard time finding a way to describe my experience at the New Works Festival... and right as I walked into Market Square I noticed massive clouds of smoke, pandemonium and curious bystanders. I realized that attending the week one of New Works was like witnessing a kitchen-fire -- or an explosion.

It started off with a bang. Literally. In Sara Baines-Miller's A Light Subject Matter a bomb is detonated outside of an abortion clinic and drastically changes the lives of five women inside. These five individuals are all from different walks of life but have two important things in common. The obvious one being that they are all pregnant and not happy about it. The other being that they all have a compelling story to tell.

The "scenic design" of this play is composed of my favorite stage-sittables. The ever versatile and always pleasing folding chair. The play opens with five empty chairs all positioned in a flying-v formation pointing upstage. Each of the women claims a chair and occupies the space around it for the duration of the play. They take turns telling their story; simultaneously explaining how they got there, the event of the day and the aftermath.

Now don't be fooled by this simple description, this could not have been an easy play to stage. The way that Baines-Miller weaves these stories together is at times difficult to follow but at the same time paves the way for a pleasantly bi-ploar roller-coaster of emotion. The stories bleed together in a documentary-style commentary on the heavy topic of abortion during which each character holds up a different lens for the audience to gaze through.

Each of the actors stepped up and shared the weight of the evening by creating their own play within the play at large. The transitions between monologues were (most of the time) not just smooth but transformative and gave the overall play it's unique dramatic arch.

Keeping with my Market Square metaphor A Light Subject Matter was the explosion that got everyone's attention.

Next came the part of the evening where everyone is looking around, scratching their heads and wondering what the hell is going on. This was Seeing Purple People by Michelle Guisto.

In this play a fictitious purple being, who lives in a mirror, gives a chubby adolescent girl life advice. The moral of the story is nothing new and has been blasting from car speakers since the rise of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry: Baby, you're a firework. You were born this way.

The play seems to be a learn-to-love-yourself, anti-bullying dialectic. However, it comes across as a little odd because the actress who plays the purple person in the mirror is a thin, pretty, twenty-something -- all done-up in glitter, basically the opposite of anyone who experienced anything like the drama of the child in the play. Seeing Purple People sort of reads like an after-school-special or an episode of Barney.

Don't get me wrong, plays like this have their merit and I support the diversity the play brought to the evening. Someone once told me, "never get on stage with dogs or kids." And I think it can be so difficult to stage a play that completely banks on the journey of a child. Granted, Annie and a number of others are obvious massive commercial counterpoints, but these plays have a larger backdrop (like the depression) to give them their meat.

There was one particular audience member sitting a few rows in front of me and to the left who thought the show was hilarious and would laugh out loud hysterically even if no one else was. Maybe I just don't care much for the insecurities of pre-teen girls or understand the culture that they reside in.

I think this would be a great show for children to perform in schools, keeping with the "theatre-is-a-mirror-to-society" thing. I was previously involved in a production of HONK! that toured schools for the same purpose that I feel was very successful in its endeavors.

Moving on: The post-fire disorientation and wondering continues into the next play.

Art Initiates Life by Connie Dillon (the multi-talented playwright and photographer) takes most if its time wondering what it wants to be about. At first this play seems like your basic faux-realistic family-room drama: A married couple confronts their problems and things change. During the first half of the play the performance entertains a number of ideas and raises multiple questions about what could be the cause of the couple's current distress. But there is a point where the (questionably irrelevant) exposition halts and the main character finally starts to realize his faults and qualms with his current life.

This is where the play picks up momentum and like the kitchen fire, becomes entrancing again once the firetrucks come.

Personally, as a 22-year-old male, I love to see characters around my parents age questioning their generic world views, pursuing careers as artists, acknowledging their shortcomings and coming out of the closet. So that was what hooked me at first but once the play narrowed its focus and possibly diagnosed the curse of this modern-family I was sold.

I specifically remember holding my breath during a monologue delivered by the main character's best friend about 9-11 and the following dialogue. This was the moment when the reason for discontentment became clear. This play raises big questions about life and art, what we're letting go, and what we're letting ourselves have.

The thing about the New Works Festival is that every play struts and frets its brief moment on the stage and then is heard no more because their limited run is over. But luckily for everyone there is still three more weeks of performances! The Festival is playing at the Father Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks and tickets can be purchased here.

If you happened to attend Week One of the New Works or were involved with the productions, please feel free to share your experience or post a response below. I'm most interested in how people as audience members made sense of the evening as a whole. I think that in experiences like the New Works Festival the night becomes one big performance (composed of smaller parts).


  1. Hi Michael Y,
    As the director of the third play and the Managing Director of the Festival, I would first like to thank you for your comments. Your insight made me feel as though we succeeded in getting the message across. However, the title of the show is ART INITIATES LIFE, not Imitates. I hope you will be able to attend future weeks of the Festival and continue blogging about the shows. We appreciate your feedback.
    Lora Oxenreiter

    1. Lora,

      Thanks for your response. I corrected the title on this post and apologize.

      Funny that I also made that mistake considering it happened pre-show as well.

      Best of luck with everything.

  2. Lora -- the title is listed as "imitates" on many sites, including this one.

    michael you did, however, spell bi-polar incorrectly!

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  5. Hi Michael Y,

    I'm the playwright of Seeing Purple People. I know that this was a typo in the program and don't fault you for it, but, just to put it out there, my name is spelled GIUsto. I'm sorry that you didn't see much in my play; it's not for everyone, and I appreciate your honesty (although I would hope it was at least a notch above Barney). I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the evening and was honored to have my play performed amongst such wonderful productions. I think it was great to see a community of theater lovers from all places, ages, dynamics and levels of experience. I think the festival served its true purpose, which was to bring a real diverse community of theater-goers together. I attended on Saturday night, and found everyone involved to be talented, gracious, pleasant and very supportive of both the writers and the performers.

    PS - is there any way of deleting the piesky23 comments? Those are from my gmail and I didn't want to link them. Thanks! :)

  6. Very thoughtful review! As a fellow attendee, I have to say that you were quite often spot on with your comments. I have to disagree with your negative review of the second play, however, and indicate that your claim of it as "nothing new" could readily apply to the last play as well. EXTREMELY well crafted, yes. Distinctly drawn out, yes. An excellent, note worthy play - completely. However, a mid life crisis, a marriage on the rocks, someone questioning his life choices, the horror inflicted by 9/11, a man losing his partner - those have also been done before many, many times. You may say the moral of the second play has been done before, but there were several distinct things about it - the figure did not tell the girl she was perfect the way she was and pointed out her flaws, which rarely happens. But, going back to the point, just because something is not "new" does not make it lose its merit; the reason these are "nothing new" is that these are both relevant topics that matter to people, and there is nothing wrong with drawing upon those and presenting them theatrically. I think, rather than projecting your issues with the play onto the rest of the audience (particularly since my crowd on Saturday was far more responsive, with far more than one person laughing), it would have seemed more objective of you to stress the point that these are characters that may be unrelatable to some, like yourself. As a 22-year-old male, it is natural that you won't relate to adolescent girls and would be more interested in reflections on life. I don't think it's fair to infer that these issues as insignificant, however, because the jaded adolescent grows up to be the jaded adult in play 3, and that's why I felt the progression of the plays worked so beautifully (women considering starting a person's life, a girl struggling in adolescence, a couple struggling in adulthood). Your comments on "everyone wondering what the hell was going on" and your equating the show with preschool television demerit the efforts of the director and cast, who, for such young people, did an incredible job. Anyone who caught one of the "mean girls" backstage could see how sweet and down to earth they were, and how convincingly they each transformed into a completely different person on stage, and isn't that true theater?

  7. Hello Michael!

    I am the playwright of the first play, "A Light Subject Matter." Thank you so much for your review! I have been waiting to see if you reviewed any of the other weeks - have you been able to attend? You, unlike so many reviewers here in the Pittsburgh Area, actually give your opinion of the production and that is so appreciated. Most give a re-cap of the performance and the ticket information. I really appreciate your candor and willingness to express an actual opinion!

    Hope to read more from the other weeks of the festival!

    Sara Baines-Miller