Tuesday, March 15, 2005

In Praise of Live Theatre
By William S. Kowinski

Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre, where I first saw Shakespeare performed 

You've got a cableful of TV channels 24 hours a day, and for your VCR there is a sizeable selection from the history of cinema down at the grocery store. For drama or comedy outside your house, there's the neighborhood multiplex: where the big stars flash across the screen, along with the thundering cars, guns and starships. If it's flamboyant theatrical experience you crave, you can catch the latest rock star tour.

So for many people the special and unique rewards of going to a theatre and seeing a play are, in this time and place, something of a wonderful secret.

I grew up on TV and the movies---everything from Captain Video to Dr. Strangelove. The theatre was inaccessible where I lived, and if anyone I knew ever went to a play, I don't remember knowing about it. My high school had no drama class, and put on one silly play a year, like Seventeenth Summer and Time Out for Ginger.

As a so-called adult, the arts I was paid to write about were mostly rock & roll, literature, movies and TV. I wrote about theatre only rarely. Few people I knew---even the sophisticated ones---went to plays, even living in New York or Boston or Washington. (Unless of course they were actors or theatre critics.) Over the last several years I've been a traveler and not part of a community which nurtures theatre and regular theatergoing... All of these being reasons why I shouldn't care about the theatre.

But I do. I won't go into why live theatre attracts me as a writer of plays, or my affinity for performing. I want simply to send a love letter from my place in the dark, from out here in the seats. And to let you in on a few secrets.

The first secret is the one that the uninitiated may be most afraid of: there is something very different about watching a play. It isn't like watching TV or a movie. But instead of avoiding the problem by spending your going-out money at a restaurant (where you can still see glamorous, attractive actresses and actors, and even be waited on by them), consider that the rewards may be worth the effort. That no pain no gain thing.

There are lots of adjustments for the tube addict to make. Once you're there, you're stuck with the play---even if it's worse than Police Academy XX, you can't zap to the shopping channel. You can't even check out the fridge during a slow moment. Besides, those are live people up there, and to indicate that you don't like or understand what they're up to seems impolite. It's embarrassing.

But the most uncomfortable thing you can't escape is the violence. It's unlikely to be as graphic as on film, but it's more relentless. Since drama concerns conflict (which is a kind of violence) it often enacts pain. Even comedy commonly revolves around "problems." The answers aren't so easy as on TV. Watching unhappiness and tragedy unfold, witnessing the heat and sting of conflict, or sorting through intellectual difficulty is tough on the watcher. Of course, it's supposed to be. Even though a good production gives you plenty to be pleased about along the way, pitty and terror, or even joy and wonder, don't come cheap. Unless of course they are cheap---EZCatharsis, tastes great and less filling.

It takes an attention span, too, and that in itself can be painful for generations accustomed to having their retinas lit up by some new bit of visual dazzle every millisecond. And as much as people complain about them, one of the theatre's problems is that it has no commercials. Instead you get the unmitigated art of the play: the rhythms that guide you through a story and an experience, that are the story and experience: the sculpting of time as well as space on stage. Deciding where the funny bits and the melancholy soliloquies go is as important as the content. On TV you get pieces; at the theatre you get the flow.

Still, the payoff is usually some relentless rendering of events, when emotion gets piled upon emotion, threads of plot and character fly together even as pretenses and illusions are shed like coats of sugar in a rainstorm. It's called transformation, and the experience of it is proportionate to the audience's immersion. And there's no substitute for time. You've got to be there.

So why not just go to the movies? You've heard about the "magic of live theatre" and that nebulous "relationship between the actor and the audience," but what does it mean? Is it only the rush you get in realizing that you're in the same room with the lasers and the trained animals? Is this "relationship" like the club comedian who singles you out for abuse and you're supposed to be a good sport, or the fascist smiley face at the microphone who demands you "put your hands together!"

There is an undeniably special quality about actually being in the presence of real people and objects collaborating in a fantasy, and because you're there, being part of that collaboration. So much depends on you, and everything is designed for you. But on any given tonight, nobody knows what will really happen.

You don't get that every time, or at least I don't. If I'm too far away, and the audience is emotionally remote, or the play is dishonest, or the actors are relying entirely on memorized effects, I feel distant or cheated or trapped. But there are moments, sometimes entire acts, entire plays, when it is like nothing else, in a very good way.

So there is the thrill of sharing the uniquely here and now, the sharing of the mutually unexpected, the quality of quiet of a spellbound audience, or even the audience's forgiveness for the lapses or accidents onstage, or a sudden moment of intimacy with the actors and action---all part of the live theatre experience, the palpable relationship that links audience to actor and text in complex and involved play. When all the elements are in balance, the experience is unique, yet there is also the sense that it has been repeated since antiquity.

Plus, if you're seeing a play in your own town, those people up there probably come from the same community as you. They are your representatives in this communal art of fun and meaning, your cosmic stand-ins.

A play can take you through a process---from interest to identification to involvement: you laugh, you cry, you feel---not once, not just one feeling, but many, sometimes many at once. You share amusement, amazement, recognition, embarrassment---you suddenly sense the essence and enjoy the ephemera. And you do it seeing real bodies move and speak in real world continuity---you don't see only the pores on their faces one moment, and their blurred backs speeding away in a car the next. You see whole persons but in an artificial space, and in smaller theaters you are forcibly reminded of their humanness, and therefore your own, our own, even as you always know that what you are looking at is a play on a stage.

The Miller play but at U. of MA

I think of moments during Arthur Miller's The Creation of the World and Other Business, as produced by Pittsburgh's New Group Theater this fall. The performance space was large but the few rows of seats were very close to the action. Although humorous, the play is about very weighty matters, which is hard to avoid when God has a speaking part. But that physical closeness brought the philosophy home. You could stare into the eyes of the actors---a very different experience than watching close-ups distanced by film or tape---and when that actor does not break character as you stare, the reality of the moment takes on greater power.

And you could be startled at the connection made by something as simple as...their bare feet. Close up and personal, real feet of real people: puffy or long-toed, healthily hued or vulnerably pale, feet are simultaneously grotesque and graceful, mundane and impressive and assertively human, right there alive and doing their thing. The play's questions of meaning of good and evil, of individuality and community, fate and freedom---are what theater has always been about. But that search for meaning, the few uncertain discoveries of our exploration, are not completed until the connection is made to our full beings, to our aspirations and vulnerabilities, our confusions and our capabilities---from God to our bare feet.

Of course, the ideal theatre experience doesn't happen all the time---being ideal, it never happens. It's a gamble, and for me, a play that didn't make it, or inadequate direction and acting of a great script, has been more painful to experience than a bad movie. But each production is different---it can say different things to be brought alive, again and again. So I've learned patience, which pays off in appreciation.

Jeremy Irons and Glen Close in the original production of
"The Real Thing" I saw on Broadway

But the second secret is that there are wonderful surprises out there. Not just in Pittsburgh and not just in shiny culture palaces, but in an alley past a dumpster and an old washing machine, and up some stairs at the Changing Scene theater in Denver; and at the Solar Stage in the bowels of an office complex underground in Toronto. Even in New York I've seen some terrifically acted, highly intelligent plays performed both to packed houses on Broadway (such as Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing and David Rabe's Hurlyburly) and to an audience consisting of myself and four or five members of the cast's families (when I saw Mark Pizzato's very worthy The Crime of Art at the 13th Street Playhouse.)

All kinds of theater, from lavish musicals to avant garde performances, can call up the magic. Theater is old---old enough encompass everything and infuse different styles into various forms, so the most rarified is reenergized (the application of gospel music to Greek tragedy in Gospel at Colonus) and the popular is enhanced (as when the musical met ballet, and classical elements of music and storytelling in the original productions of Showboat and West Side Story.)

But theatre is new. It is the one form of the lively arts that can embrace everything: story, poetry, oratory, painting, song and dance of all kinds, and increasingly these days, even the electronic media have become features of---and characters in---stage plays. Performers like Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian, Lily Tomlin and Spalding Gray show how the stage can be used to synthesize and create exciting and invigorating new experiences, and paths to meaning. American theater also includes styles that reflect the diversity of the country and the world: styles born in Asia and Africa and Latin America.

When Polonius sees the Players coming, he describes to Hamlet all the styles of theater they can perform: tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, and so on. But Hamlet's request of the Players was more basic: "Come," he said. "A passionate speech!"

And this is the final and most important secret. In these strange times, when the arts are more respected but artists are less supported---when, in the words of Dan Sullivan in the Los Angeles Times, there are "millions for the roof, pennies for the fiddler," there are nevertheless still people willing to not only work for next to nothing in the theatre, but to support their work and the theatre by depleting their energies doing menial jobs unworthy of their talents. The theater lives by their passion.

They are playwrights, actors, directors and theater craftspeople who come together and work hard to do what the rest of society judges by word and deed to be frivolous if not insane, and they do it with dedication, with intense love, and more often than anyone has a right to expect, with brilliance. It is impossible for me not to feel this fact every time I see a play, especially in the 1980s.

I think of Lee Strucker and Nadine Curacciolo, two modern day minstrels I met in Seattle, where at the Pioneer Playhouse they performed The Gump Show, a "trans-dimensional comedy" they wrote. They are married and performed their previous plays---wild, fetchingly homemade but often breathtaking amalgams of music, text, science fiction and puppetry---all over Europe and North America. "I know a lot of starving artists," Lee mused one afternoon. "But it's funny---I don't know any starving arts administrators."

Nevertheless they keep going, although they know there's no telling how long they'll be able to continue on the edges of their resources, depending on youthful energy, good health, charity and luck. Others like them, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, struggle to share a basic version of the American life their audience has (some decent digs, a respectable place in the community, and maybe even a family) while they do this one weird thing: they make theatre.

We know that the myth of talent always winning out is a lie, as corrupting as it is comforting, just as we know that we don't get the quality of theatre we could have. So for the spectator it is all the more astonishing when the magic really happens, the kind you will always remember: not just William Hurt's tour de force in his first Broadway performance at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, but when Kathyrn Charles does her woman-in-the-moon dance to end the world premiere of "Frontiers" by M.Z. Ribalow in that theatre in the alley in Denver.

To make this magic takes years of effort and hearts full of belief. I don't mean just the actors, writers, producers and directors and so on, though they are the main ones. I mean those of us out here, too. If we approach the theatre actively, with humility and passion, our rewards can be multiplied---and a night of fun is just the beginning. How about the jolts to our hearts, the permanent changes in the way we see ourselves and the world, like growing secret extra eyes and new dancing bare fugitive feet? We enact our part of the human mystery. We share in the secret.


This piece was originally published in In Pittsburgh weekly in 1989 or so, and reflects theatre experiences of that year and a few immediately preceding. Some Internet nebbyness reveals that in 2005 M.Z. Ribalow is a writer in residence at Fordham U., having been a production associate to Joe Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival, and the author of some 20 produced plays, 10 childrens books, poetry and screenplays. Mark Pizzato is now Dr. Mark Pizzato, an assistant professor of theatre at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, an author and playwright. The most recent item I found for Nadine Caracciolo and Lee Strucker was 1996, and their contribution ("Falling 1980") to the Twentieth Century Project of linked ten minute plays, at the American Living Room.

A strange and sad postscript to this article, which is one of those personal associations that nevertheless leaps out at me every time I even think about this piece: for me, the central experience that led to it was the production of Arthur Miller's "The Creation of the World..." in Pittsburgh. Later I got to know several of the people involved in that theatre and production, including the actress whose bare feet most impressed me. I'm pretty sure she played God. Her day job (I later found out) was working for In Pittsburgh, the weekly tabloid where this article appeared, so I would see her around the office. She was still in her twenties I believe, just a few years later, when she suddenly collapsed and died, on stage, during a performance.

Monday, March 14, 2005

The Price of Art
Also for the In Pittsburgh weekly, I did several features which, in the process of reporting, tried to get at the experience of various art forms. I knew that my audience came from more or less the same background as I did, so I went at the subject partly from a personal point of view. This one is from 1987. I've omitted some material that I'd recycled from my research on New York arts, included elsewhere in this bloggical archive.
by William Severini Kowinski

"Here we are now, living in a world of painting which is unutterably paralytic and miserable. The exhibitions, the picture stores, everything, everything, is in the clutches of fellows who intercept all the money. And do not suppose for a moment this is only my imagination. People give a lot of money for the work after the painter himself is dead."Vincent van Gogh

I don't remember really looking at a painting until I went away to college. Even then it was intimidating. Although the campus artists felt free to invade our literary circles, we weren't made welcome in their precincts of paint and print-making. I didn't know that just as we were diligently copying Joyce, Hemingway and Fitzgerald in our stories, their awesomely original paintings were in fact earnest imitations of de Kooning and Pollock.

After college I got interested in Dada and surrealism and the painters as well as the writers who occupied Paris in the first decades of this century. There I found not only kindred spirits but actual kin: Gino Severini, painter and theoretician, who was the living link between the Italian Futurists and the Cubists in Paris, was a blood relative. My maternal grandfather's family didn't talk about him, though: the black sheep of the family who wouldn't learn a trade and fled to France. That he became an intimate of Braque and Apollinaire, that he was saved from starvation one winter by no less than Picasso himself---wouldn't have cut any gelato with them anyway.

So after that, every time I went to Manhattan I made a point of visiting the Museum of Modern Art, where a large Severini was exhibited. I still didn't know all that much about paintings, but I was immensely attracted and deeply involved by their physicality---the bold Picassos with gaps of canvas and lines painted out, the softly swirled and twined colors of Renoir, the muted moodiness of Manet, even the photo-like objects mysteriously juxtaposed by Magritte (who once said, "There is a mystery to life, but what is it?") They were all different, all intensely beautiful, and most moving to me, seeing them as actual objects a few inches from my eyes---they were perfect and imperfect at once, all suddenly revealing that they were in fact painted by real fellow human beings.

Seeing a real painting is a tactile as well as visual experience---there are dimensions totally missed by flat, dulled reproductions in a book or poster. It was true for me again when I went to see "The Plain of Auvers," an oil canvas by Vincent van Gogh, in the Scaife Gallery of the Carnegie Museum of Art.

It's not only that the brilliance of its colors and its textures are barely suggested by postcard reproductions. Up close, this Van Gogh no longer looks like a textbook illustration but something a man did with his hands---he painted, he painted over, he used brush and palette knife, he patiently worked on this corner (the Japanese-like daubs of detail); over here he slashed bold, perfect, passionate strokes. Suddenly a few squiggles of paint become a stand of trees on the horizon. The colors become tones---these luminous blue-greens in several shades, these sudden swirls of white, the strange corrupted reds, the famous yellows. The patterns play and repeat. You can almost see the actual time its composition took, incorporated in it. You can see the action still taking place...and it became a picture, and it became a painting. This is the process before you, and the result.

The experience of seeing it is somehow strengthening: you see what an odd sort of perfect a work of art is. Once it's done, it seems inevitable: yet the day before it was created, it was at best an unorganized potential of ideas, feelings accidents waiting to happen and choices yet to be made, and tomorrow's light.)

But you also see that it doesn't arrive fully perfected from some alien life-form or machine: no conglomerate or textbook company manufactured it from a pre-set, committee-derived design. It was pulled into existence from the talent and experience and (dare we say this today?) the soul, and the sweat and passion of a given person on a given day. So now a relationship: one person who painted it on that day or days, and one person who is looking at it now, today.

And here it is: the one, the only. The very one that a man named Vincent van Gogh made with his own hands in some silent field in another country, almost a hundred years ago...

But how long will it be here?

It's a good question, even in 1987, especially after the latest sale of a van Gogh for a shade under $54 million. With the proceeds from just two previous sales, van Gogh's take this year is over $114 million. Not bad for a painter whose health was ruined by worry over money and not getting enough to eat, who never made more than a few cents---let alone a living---from his prodigious artistry, who died in despair with a bullet in his brain at the age of 38.

This latest record-breaking price for a single painting raises questions that concern art exhibitors, the arts audience and artists themselves. For with rising insurance and security costs---and the temptations to sell major paintings to private bidders---the sight of a real van Gogh could become an experience of the past for all but a few.
a detail from Van Gogh's "Irises"

Consider the story behind the sale of van Gogh's "Irises," the $54 million canvas. Back in 1947, an American named Joan Whitney Payson bought it as a gift for her seven year old son, John. She paid about $80,000. John eventually built a gallery in his mother's memory at tiny Westbrook College in Portland, Maine, and the painting was exhibited there. Portland was proud to have it, and the college told everyone it would eventually be theirs by bequest. Most people thought it was part of the gallery's "permanent collection."

But then early in 1986, van Gogh's "Sunflowers" sold to a Japanese insurance company for $39.9 million, then the world's record for a single painting. This, ironically or not, sent insurance costs sky high as other van Goghs of similar prominence were immediately revalued, including "Irises." John Payson, who still owned the painting, decided he couldn't afford to keep it.

He promised to donate part of the proceeds to the college and another chunk to the gallery, plus an even dozen paintings: a Renoir, a Chagall, a Degas. Although many Portlanders were shocked to learn he (and not the gallery) owned "Irises," his plans for the money won general but not unanimous approval. Portland takes its art seriously (their new museum is one of the best designed for viewing that I've experienced in this country.) One strong dissenting voice was that of Edgar Allen Beem, art critic for the weekly alternative paper, Maine Times. "This is one of the few works of genius in our midst," he said. "The local press has portrayed Payson's plan to spread the money around as 'a great act of philanthropy,' when in fact to me it looked like nothing but greed...The rich are the custodians of culture, and we get what they give us. I'm not sure how to change that, but they are not to be applauded."

Pittsburgh has two van Goghs, the aforementioned "Plains of Auvers" (1890) and "Le Moulin de la Galette" (1886-88), both in the permanent collection of The Carnegie. I talked to Vicky Clark, curator of education, shortly after the "Irises" sale in November. "We're absolutely amazed at the prices," she said. "Not just for van Gogh---it's everybody." The sale will probably make a "tricky" insurance situation even trickier, she admitted. "It could affect us in the future. But we have no problems yet. We're certainly not going to sell our van Goghs." One reason is that "even if you can sell it, you can't replace it with anything comparable, because prices are so high." As it is, art museums can't afford to buy a van Gogh or anything like one. Anonymous corporations and private collections buying art for investment and perhaps prestige are, in Clark's words, "pricing museums out of the market."

Could major paintings disappear from view, only to be seen as color plates in art books, never to be experienced as paintings? Some have, but many works of art have always been in private collections. One reason the prices for van Goghs are so high, one theory goes, is that so many of them are already in museums, and few come on the market.

Should we be afraid that museums won't be able to acquire or exhibit art (especially if the insurance gets so high and restrictive that security becomes prohibitively expensive?) Maybe, but according to John Russell, eminent art critic for the New York Times, not quite yet, as long as we still have collectors who "have their community in mind, and an awareness of the enormous pleasure that can be had from works of art than even now do not involve a lot of super-numerary noughts."

So, you notice, we are still dependent on the rich.

But what effect does all this monumental money-changing have on living artists? The market for old and modern masters is only part of a high-priced international art casino variously described as "hot" and "inflated." All that money is bound to affect artists and the art they make.

"The prices paid for contemporary art are so high," says Sande Deitch, director and curator of exhibitions of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, "that artists feel they have to cash in." In order to get known immediately---which is particularly important in today's Young Flavor of the Month art market---even the first sale has to be for a high price.

"For emerging artists as well as artists in mid-career, psychologically, money is the bottom line today," Deitch said. "Instead of developing their own skills as art makers, the art market is a great part of what they think about. Art has become a commodity."

Part of the reason is the money it takes to survive, especially in the high-rent New York scene, but it's also middle class expectations and increasingly, upper middle class entitlement, since surviving takes some hefty patronage and helpful connections. The bottom line for today's artist is is someone who isn't a big success finds it difficult to even survive as an artist.

Which brings us back to Vincent van Gogh, perhaps the prototype of the popular "starving artist" and "need to suffer" images. As is usual with clichés, there are kernels of truth however distorted. Van Gogh certainly starved, but he was far from naïve about money or the art market. In fact, before he became a painter he was an art dealer, and his brother, who supported him all his life, remained one. It wasn't that van Gogh didn't understand the role of money. He just felt it necessary to reject it as a force that would determine what kind of pictures he would make. Although his letters almost all begin with financial matters, they go on to talk about the really serious substance of his life: colors.

"Van Gogh was one of the comparatively few artists whose anguish really was inextricable from his talent," writes art critic Robert Hughes. But that is not the same as saying that van Gogh needed to be poor, to be constantly begging for small sums of money, or even to be tortured by abrupt rejection by the woman he loved, or by his attraction to the simple family life he was unable to sustain. He had enough demons in his head, enough passions pulling and pushing and driving him, enough doubts and obsessions and emotional turmoil. The anguish that informed his paintings would not have disappeared if he'd had a decent income, although it might have been mitigated by better nutrition, and he might have lived longer and painted wonders we still can't dream of.

As for demons, the devil's chief function (according to novelist Robertson Davies) is to put a price on things.

I wonder sometimes if there aren't relatively unexplored aspects, dark and hidden, to the attitudes of non-artists towards artists. Isn't it possible that the role of the artist is given in society (generally to be poorer than anybody except the most wretchedly poor) and the paradigmatic arc of an artist's career (isolation, rejection and apologetic praise after they're dead) is an acting out of resentment, envy and jealousy? Businesspeople think of artists as impractical, as children---and like children, they seem to get away with murder. They don't have to sweat getting to work on time, or worry about what their suits say about them, or play any of the hypocritical games that go into a regular career. They drink and sleep too much, and they get to sleep around. They can be indulged for awhile, like cute children with their fingerpaints, but sooner or later, they have to be punished.

Sure, the social and economic facts tell us that art involves business, but saying that art is business is something else. and isn't turning art work into a commodity a kind of revenge? Listen for example to a manager's praise for a theatrical group's marketing style (which incidentally brings national touring shows to Heinz Hall.) "They know how to market a Broadway touring show the way it needs to be marketed---like a bar of soap. They don't look at it as art for art's sake, but hard-sell it like a consumer product." Remember, this is praise.

So if the Pittsburgh Symphony, as another example, markets itself as a kind of aural Magic Fingers for the huddled masses in the office buildings of the Golden Triangle, fine, maybe, but...what are composers supposed to compose? Lullabies for yuppies? Is it still possible to understand and accept the simple formulation made by James Rosenquist, a financially successful artist? "Business is business," he said. "And art is art."

Some artists can perhaps deal with all this, and most must try, though it is increasingly difficult. It's also harder for the public, which could be more confused than pleased by being pandered to. The kind of artist who survives may be the less senitive, the better businessman. the audience may feel misled by marketing into believing that art is solely a form of recreation (as harmless and empty as a sitcom) or conversely, just a civic duty...or a good investment.

The socioeconomic context is always a problem for art in our culture. It invites phony piety or self-righteous ignorance from the audience, and pretentiousness and dishonesty from artists. And some problems are the result of the sheer quantity of art. But when art and artists are bought and sold, things get complicated, and there is plenty of paradox and irony to go around---and, I suspect, a fair amount of suppressed conflict, rage and violence.

Why do we find the suffering and tragic lives of artists romantic? Is it the triumph of art we love, or the tragedy? A twisted enjoyment of whatever forces prevent artists from doing their best work and also living decent lives, because, why should they get away with it, when we can't?

The blindness of those who didn't buy van Gogh's paintings when he was alive is at least matched by the obscenities committed today by those who bid them up and lock them behind steel doors. The beginning of antidotes to any of this may be quite simple: go and experience a work of art as nothing but itself in a room with you. A real one. While you still can.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Phipps Conservatory Pittsburgh. Kowinski photo
 RUNNING ON ICE: State of the Arts, Pittsburgh 1991
by William Severini Kowinski

Except for her paintings propped against the walls, the living room of her Friendship apartment was bare. Twenty-one year old Christine McBride sat crosslegged in the meager November sunlight that slanted through a small window, and talked about her next move towards an arts career. She wants to go to New York.

She was busy working on her portfolio that would mark her graduation from the Pittsburgh Institute of the Arts, while she prepared her first gallery show at the Turmoil Room in Wilkinsburg. Meanwhile, every late Friday night she adds her acting energy to a comedy improv group that plays to enthusiastic crowds in the Cathedral of Learning basement studio theatre.

outside Carnegie Library and Art Museum,
Pittsburgh.  Kowinski photo.
Christine grew up in Edgewood, where her father had a dry cleaning business. She started taking Saturday art classes at the Carnegie when she was ten, and began acting in community theatre at thirteen. Now she can't conceive of a life that isn't centered on painting and performance. "This is how I understand things. I do this because I have to. I don't know much about the art world. I'm inspired by the world around me---things take hold of me and I can't shake them. I get fascinated. Painting makes me really happy. Acting is part of who I am. This is what I'm good at, what I have to offer the world."

But now school was almost over, her parents were nervous and Christine was facing decisions. She had visited a Pittsburgher she knew in New York, an art student at the Cooper Union. It opened her eyes. "New York is this mythical, magical place. You think all kinds of wonderful things are going to happen. But when I was there I saw it was a lot of hard work. But if I go and I last six months there, I last six months. I'm going there not expecting anything from the city except to learn from it."

But feeling that she lacked the formidable means to survive in New York on her own, Christine decided to apply to Cooper Union for the fall. Meanwhile she'll stay in Pittsburgh and work, probably as a waitress.

Her friend and classmate, Sharon Majorien, was also applying to study art in New York, but first she concentrated on starting her commercial career. "I came to art school because I love to paint, I love to draw. But the question is, how to eat?" She rigorously researched advertising agencies with New York offices and invited their local representatives to her portfolio review. Her resume in the style of an ee cummings poem begins, "independent freethinker for hire."

"Pittsburgh is a good place to start out but not a good place to stay," Sharon said. "I'm not saying I'd never come back here, but as an art student you need to expose yourself to different experiences." Sharon wears a colony of tiny gold earrings on one ear, none on the other. On her feet are a handsome pair of wingtip shoes. "I know the lifestyle in New York would be hard, and things like marriage and children run through my head. But I'm very, very young. I need to be jarred. to grow as an artist and as a person you can't be comfortable."

Derek Walton is a founding member of the improv group Christine belongs to, and a founding member of the Young Company at the Pittsburgh Shakespeare Festival. With an MFA in acting from the University of Pittsburgh and almost qualified for his Actor's Equity card, he would seem to be a prime candidate for New York. But he isn't going.

"The actors from New York who came to the Shakespeare festival told me not to do it," he said over coffee, on his day off from selling clothes at a downtown store. "Half of them are afraid for their lives. Actors get rejected for parts if they're an inch taller than the producer wants. I don't want to sacrifice my integrity or my standard of living. I don't want to be afraid and alone."

The dreams and fears of these young and aspiring artists, the textures of their idealism and pragmatism, the choices they face, suggest the outlines of Pittsburgh's place in the United States of the arts, as well as what it's like to be an artist today. There are elements of the classic search for success and fulfillment, but there are also new wrinkles in the struggle to balance art and life, the ways and means of survival, the relationship of artists in Pittsburgh to New York, and to Pittsburgh itself.

Pittsburgh is part of a new national arts context. Beset by high costs and a deteriorating urban environment, New York is declining while the arts have been growing phenomenally almost everywhere else. Some cities, like Chicago, Seattle and Minneapolis-St. Paul provide new opportunities that are in some ways superior to New York.

This growth implies and depends on a change in the artists themselves, who typically are now as well-educated as members of most professions. However, artists have the distinction of being in the only profession that fails to pay a living wage to those it qualifies, credentials and employs.

Even in Pittsburgh, the work of artists generates prosperity. More people attended performing arts events in 1989 than saw the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins combined. The growth of the arts in America has created new careers in arts institutions, universities and corporations, but the financial security of artists has not noticeably improved. While controversies rage over all the arts should be financed, it is a salient but often overlooked fact that the arts in America are subsidized chiefly by the artists themselves.

Artists are often viewed as frivolous and impractical---perhaps more so in Pittsburgh, with its combination of corporate and working class cultures. But in this era, each artist typically has three careers: the art, the business of the art, and the job that pays the rent.

The business of the art is about getting work commissioned, sold, shown, published or mounted---or for performing artists, getting to work at all. Especially in recent years, this aspect consumes more time, energy and attention, as has making a living.

To try to be an artist at all is to invite insecurity and hardship. To try this as a Pittsburgher in Pittsburgh can resurrect working class attitudes of self-doubt, self-subversion and social pressure against those with different dreams. They also face the assumption that artists are supposed to suffer, and so exploitation is justified; their internal struggles aren't enough.

So why do artists stay in Pittsburgh? For even though many leave, many do stay, and more are arriving from elsewhere. These are not necessarily often seen at the Carnegie or the Benedum or Heinz Hall. Their work may not fill museums or theatres for years to come, if ever, and therefore they are the artists with the most delicate relationship to society. But their presence, their creativity and their survival helps to enliven and define Pittsburgh as a city.

The New York Question

by David Goldstein
 Born in Ambridge, David Goldstein has been painting and showing in Pittsburgh for about fifteen years. He lives on the South Side, across the street from the Carson Street Gallery, where he most often exhibits. In fact, for a month in 1989, he moved his furniture into the gallery itself, and lived there among his paintings for the run of his one-person show.

He saw the banner strung across the Carnegie façade that year, advertising the Andy Warhol show: "Success is a job in New York," it said. He doesn't buy it.

He has a friend, another Pittsburgh artist who moved to New York two years ago. "He was happy here," David said. "He was broke all the time but he painted all the time, and his work was very well regarded here. But in New York he has not painted at all, because he's so busy making a living so he doesn't get thrown out of his apartment. He's had art-related jobs there, but the only time he's done any of his own work is when he's come back here and used my studio."

David respects New York as the historical Mecca of American art, and likes to visit the city. But he wonders about the effects on artists of the extreme financial pressures there, and the resulting need to make it big very fast just to survive.

"New York is a little tarnished for me now because it seems to be so fashion oriented," he says. "Artists produce work in order to shock people or grab their attention, because it's a tough place to get noticed. So I often wonder about the sincerity of what they're producing. I don't think that makes for the kind of art that lasts, that has value. I often wonder if New York really has the best artists anymore. I almost tend to doubt it."

Paying heed to the horror stories from New York is easier when there are prominent examples of Pittsburgh artists (like ceramic artist Ed Eberly), playwrights (Arthur Giron, Frank Gagliano) and actors (Lenore Nimitz, Tom Atkins) who manage to hold onto New York careers while living in Pittsburgh. And it's better still when there's a steady stream of dancers (Judith Leifer, Douglas Bentz, Maria Rendina), actors (Larry Myers) and even a performance artist ("Animal X") who've escaped to Pittsburgh from Manhattan's madness.

But there are lots of caveats: most artistic immigrants are already successful, and come for specific positions in established organizations or academia. For Pittsburghers without prior contacts, there is considerably less chance of gaining international recognition while living here. There is still a prejudice, both outside the city and inside it, that defines anything produced here as "regional" or otherwise limited in nature or quality. Often that attitude lessens an artist's success even within the city, where its infamous inferiority complex causes it to ignore anyone whose achievements haven't been recognized elsewhere---and even then, Pittsburgh residency makes that success suspect.

Most of the artists Pittsburgh likes to claim for its own did not live here in their productive years. So why do we have artists here at all?

Their stories are different. As composer Virgil Thompson observed, "The outcome of everything is the way it happens, and the way it happens is the story of your life." But there are a few common elements, perhaps symbolized by David Goldstein's month-long residence within the exhibition of his paintings: Pittsburgh's artists are trying to find better ways to bring their art and their lives together. Or as Goldstein put it, "My art should enhance my life---not drive me crazy." For artists trying to manage three careers when even one of them is almost all-consuming, such considerations are important.

The Life of Art

Many talk of the quality of life, lower costs, and slower pace of Pittsburgh that allows them more of a life outside the pressures of their art, and its attendant business.

Playwright Melissa Martin, whose plays have been produced at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and other western Pennsylvania theatres, moved here from Chicago when she married a Pittsburgher. "It was the smartest thing I ever did," she says, "and the dumbest professionally. But you can only bring to your work what you are as a human being. This career is unpredictable, and I've had problems with the art-management side of it. But when you bottom out as I did, you realize that a life of grace and dignity is best. Theatre successes come and go, but I have a husband and child who keep me alive. I won't look back at 65 and say, I didn't make it in the theatre, so nothing ever happened to me."

For artists on their own, Pittsburgh's more modest cost of living still requires sacrifices, which loom larger when social respectability is more expensive, and artists have middle class expectations. Avi Wenger, a mixed-media performance artist, left New York because of its economic pressures, and returned home to Pittsburgh. He does financial analysis for a living, but worries about the future. "When I got serious about my performance pieces, my upward mobility ended because I had to let my business slide. Right now a new car is out of the question. But I'm struggling with that now. I've got to decide what to do for the long term."

Although not yet as bad as New York, living costs often still require more time and better jobs than the old stand-bys of waiting tables and driving cabs. Wenger's last work, performed in February, was a collaboration involving actors, singers, artists and a musical composer. "We've become a company, an ongoing unit, so we accumulate and use this common experience. One reason we can do that is that no one has financial problems---everyone owns or partly owns their business."

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

The balance and integration of art and life is crucial to why many former New Yorkers come here. Before coming to Pittsburgh, dancer Janet Popeleski had a career that started in New York with the American Ballet Theatre, and became international. She had residencies in several European cities, and (before the fall of the Shah) in Iran. "They used to say I was the only ballerina between Tel Aviv and Tokyo."

She joined Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as the company's prima ballerina for both professional and personal reasons. "To grow as a dancer, you have to dance," she says, "and I liked the repertoire, the director and the company, and the number of performances. I also wanted to put down some roots after traveling around so much. I feel at home here. It's a civilized city. And now I'm engaged to be married---so I'm getting more roots than I thought."

Managing Clarity

Helena Ruoti 
 It isn't just a matter of making life better that attracts artists to Pittsburgh---it's giving their art a chance to be better. Even though Helena Ruoti, perhaps Pittsburgh's most prized actress, moved here from Philadelphia to be with her husband and raise a family, she works here because Pittsburgh gives her the opportunity to fulfill her artistic goals.

"My ambition was for a career in regional theatre," she says. "To be able to do good roles with good people is what I always wanted to do. That I would be able to do this in Pittsburgh is something I didn't know."

Her list of credits---lead roles in plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Tom Stoppard and Lanford Wilson, among others---plus an artistic home at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre and good parts in two Pittsburgh-based Hollywood movies, all add up to a career that would be the envy of any serious actress, especially one who in Manhattan must endure humiliating rejection if she's an inch too tall, or whose credits tilt towards soap operas and Draino commercials.

by Kathleen Mulcahy
 With this premise of integrity and quality, artists manage their three careers in different ways. Nationally known glass artist Kathleen Mulcahy recently stopped teaching, and she uses the business of her art to give her more time to dream, develop her ideas and work at her art. "I have more control over my time now," she says. "I need to concentrate fully on my work, not be interrupted. I never could say no to my students. And without all those responsibilities, I'm free to show more across the country and sell my work." She can also accept interesting local commissions, like the installation she and her husband, artist Ron Desmett, are doing for the Temple Rodef Shalom in Oakland.

But Derek Walton uses his day job to protect himself from becoming too dominated by the need to have a consistently profitable acting career. "If you 'businfy' yourself too much---make yourself into what succeeds---you lose your spark," he says. "It's not you anymore. You aren't an artist---you're a businessman."

Art of the Future

What's missing in Pittsburgh that its artists need? More galleries and especially people who buy art. More performances and performance spaces. More knowledgeable critics. At least one professional theatre that develops playwrights as well as directors and actors. Day job employers who are less intimidated by artists...These are among the items on artists' wish lists.

Perhaps the most vital question for the future of Pittsburgh's artists is whether the arts here will attain a certain critical mass, a high enough level of activity, energy and community to move Pittsburgh up a notch among civic centers of the arts. It's not inconceivable---and it could happen quickly.

"I just spoke to a friend in Seattle," says Bob Hoffman, Assistant Producing Director of Pittsburgh Public Theatre. "There was a lot going on when I was there five years ago. But he says it's doubled since then."

There are some encouraging signs here. At least for actors, the prospects for livelihood here may be improving. Lamont Arnold, a McKeesport native who has managed to make a living ("not a great living") primarily by acting and theatre-related activities in Pittsburgh for the past ten years, points to increasing film and television production as the key to the future. "That's giving actors a strong base to stick around here, and their presence will help stimulate small theatres and other activity, because actors want to work and be seen. And this becomes a good regional base---for New York, Chicago, Washington, Toronto, whatever."
In fact, Pittsburgh is virtually unique in being within five hundred miles of all of those cities.

The completion of the Cultural District with smaller and more locally oriented facilities, the forthcoming Andy Warhol Museum, the health of the Public Theatre and the expansions of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the City Theatre (which moves into the steadily growing arts district of the South Side) all help solidify an institutional base. Meanwhile, places like the Mattress Factory, the Artery and Metropole are more receptive to new and multi-art work, fostering a certain entrepreneurial openness.

The next step would be an actual artistic community, a perennial dream of artists and a major part of the New York myth (though New York artists lament that it no longer exists there.) "Things are beginning to jell," as Melissa Martin observed.

Attaining that critical mass depends in part on larger factors. When Pittsburgh was officially the most livable city, it still lost population. But Seattle, its most livable successor, is growing fast, and so are its arts. Among Seattle's new citizens are such ex-Pittsburghers as playwright August Wilson and best-selling novelist Michael Chabon.

But one thing Pittsburgh can do now is a better job of honoring its own. After all, for Andy Warhol, success was in fact a job in New York---he was not successful here. Neither was August Wilson, despite writing plays about Pittsburgh now known around the world.

This Pittsburgh penchant for ignoring its own unfortunately continues. The latest case in point is Pittsburgh playwright Elvira DiPoalo, whose "Bricklayers" was selected for the most prestigious play development workshop in the country, the Eugene O'Neill National Playwrights summer. It was produced by one of the most prestigious theatres in America, the Yale Repertory. Soon it will be part of an exchange program with Russia. But no Pittsburgh theatre has plans to produce it: this play about Pittsburgh by a playwright who still lives here.

The Art of Success
Even in the recent past, aspiring artists could see their prospects in a more romantic glow. What is remarkable now is that despite their new pragmatism, they still insist on trying to become artists. Their reasons for doing this are even more remarkably echoed by those Pittsburgh artists who've achieved some success, but are still struggling.

While living here, playwright Margaret Thomas Kelso's first professional production was in New York. Pittsburgh affords her opportunity to work in interactive drama with the Carnegie Mellon Computer Science department, edit radio dramas for WYEP, have a short play done on short notice at the Artery, and obtain an occasional commission, such as her play for the Pittsburgh Regatta a few years ago. But she must also continue to try to find time to write and seek productions, while earning a living teaching and freelance writing.

"I started later than most, but when I finally discovered playwriting, I fell in love with it," she says. "Now I tell students, if you can do something else, do something else. People are in this who have to be in it. Maybe you'd like to have a different life, but if you have to do this, you take the life that comes with it."

"You have to have that desire, that want," says Kathleen Mulcahy. "There is no logic in it. This is what I have to do." And the internal struggle never stops. "I reject failure as a concept," Melissa Martin says. "The only failure is not taking a risk."

Young artists who leave Pittsburgh may or may not return, but in the increasingly fluid United States of the arts, others will come for significant parts of their careers. Whether they will be the best artists---and not simply the best able to survive and manage their other two careers---will depend in large part on the understanding, respect, acceptance and support they find.

The city already benefits from the presence of its artists. "In Pittsburgh, art isn't just what's on the wall," says David Goldstein. "There are artists here, and they are available to everyone. You can know them. This is a wonderful thing---what chance would you have to meet an artist in New York? You certainly can't call them on the telephone as you can here. And artists are real interesting people."

How to be an Artist in Pittsburgh (and elsewhere)

"For young artists, different experiences are so vital. You have to go away to encounter different things, and then you can come back or not."
---Kathleen Mulcahy

Lamont Arnold, City Theatre, Pittsburgh, 1989  

"I wouldn't advise every black actor to stay in Pittsburgh. There are places you can get a lot more positive experience. I'm kind of an exception in the skills I have and in having a support group rooting for me, and I've been lucky in the people I've worked with. But I know a number of very talented black actors who were forced to leave because they got pigeon-holed in a situation where they couldn't find work here."
---Lamont Arnold

"It's so important to have someone who believes in you. There's a prominent theatre agent who won't even take a client who doesn't have a 'life partner' because it's just so difficult without emotional support."
---Margaret Thomas Kelso

"If you're a playwright, a university is where you need to be. Then New York may happen." -Melissa Martin

"Even in a form as new as performance art, it's important for young artists to know what's come before so they can build on it. If they don't, their work is often simplistic and can't compete."
---Avi Wenger


This article was commissioned in 1991 by Pittsburgh Magazine, but the magazine changed editors and it was never published. I'd been living in the city of Pittsburgh for a few years, and for awhile I had three jobs: my first real job in awhile as a senior writer for an editorial agency, a weekly column in the In Pittsburgh tabloid, and I taught a course in magazine writing at the University of Pittsburgh. By 1991, I'd lost or left all three, (the separation from In Pittsburgh being a story in itself) but remained in the city as a freelance writer and editor until 1996. I'd grown up in a town less than forty miles away, so western Pennsylvania and its people were pretty familiar.

So I knew some of the people in this story when I began it, and several I met remained part of my life in Pittsburgh, some pretty prominently. Margaret Kelso (who I'd met less than a year before this article) became my partner, and I moved to California with her. I'd met her at a Carnegie Mellon Drama Department event. I'd rather unexpectedly gotten a public reading of a play I'd written several years before, at one of Pittsburgh's home-grown theatres, while I was in my last months at the editorial firm. (That no one from the company came to the reading made it a lot easier to leave it. And ironically, given the themes of these articles, the people who ran the theatre advised me to take the play to New York. Indeed, somebody at Joe Papp's Public Theatre wrote me a nice letter about it---it was a rejection letter however.) So when I was free of daily job obligation, I decided to put more energy and attention into becoming part of Pittsburgh theatre, as a playwright. Meeting the CMU folks and other theatre people was part of that.

One of my first efforts was a short script for an art event called "Luxus" at the Artery. I directed it as well, and Christine McBride was in it. I don't recall how I met her. But I do remember that in reporting this story I went to the Turmoil Room gallery with her to help set up her show. Just hours before the opening, the place was locked up. We had to essentially break into the basement, and I'm afraid I was the lead breaker. Got a little too involved in the story, it seems.

It was at about that time that Ted Hoover, a long-time local playwright and the theatre critic for In Pittsburgh, and several others put together a playwright's group and several productions of short plays. Ten minute plays were just beginning to be the rage, and my first was called "Naked Under Their Clothes." Margaret also had a play on the bill, and later she asked to direct the script I'd written originally for the Luxus event: "A Brief History of Light." It was done at the Birmingham Lofts, with two excellent CMU student actors (Maduka Steady, who had a featured part in the film, "Lorenzo's Oil," and worked as an actor in New York theatre and television.) I knew it was a special night for me, though I didn't realize it would be the high point of my life in the theatre. (I did win an award and a little production for a one-act from the Pittsburgh new plays contest the next year.)

In any case, this is how I'd met Melissa Martin, along with other local playwrights, like Tammy Ryan. In 2001, Melissa directed a feature film, released on DVD as "A Wedding for Bella" but also called "The Bread, My Sweet." Her husband had quit his corporate job to take over a small bakery, and the story was based on real people in Pittsburgh. Melissa had joined up with a former producer of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood (a Pittsburgh production) and they continued to pursue film and TV projects.

I met Helena Ruoti at Pittsburgh Public Theatre receptions. Since this interview, she's continued her prominent acting career in Pittsburgh and other regional theatres. Lamont Arnold has been seen in several feature films shot in Pittsburgh, including "Bob Roberts," "Lorenzo's Oil" and "Silence of the Lambs."

Elvira DiPaolo's play "Bricklayers" did get a Pittsburgh production, and a very prominent one. It was the first production at the new City Theatre, a beautiful facility on the South Side. But Elvira stopped writing, and if I may venture an opinion, I think it was the success of this play that stopped her. She was clearly uncomfortable with so much attention, and I recognized the immigrant working class inferiority complex at work. It must have all seemed phony to her, and she may have felt undeserving and phony herself. I've felt those feelings, in any case.

Ron and Kathleen in a more recent photo
 I met Kathleen Mulcahy while doing this story, and she became a friend, particularly to Margaret. We prominently display one of her "Spinners" glass sculptures (as well as several ceramics pieces by Ed Eberly, who we met at about this time.) Kathleen and her husband Ron continue to work in their art forms and sell nationally, and remain important art community figures in Pittsburgh.

On the net, there is an Avi Wenger listed with Allegheny Investments in Pittsburgh, and an Avi Wenger credited with some song lyrics. So maybe he's continued with feet in both camps. As I recall, Christine McBride did leave Pittsburgh and returned, probably more than once (not uncommon in western PA), but I don't have any fresh information on her or her friends quoted in the first part of the piece.

I've only been back to Pittsburgh a few times since 1996, though I miss it quite a bit. Tey Stiteler, who I'd worked with at In Pittsburgh, is publicity director for the Carnegie now, and she brought me up to date on Melissa and Ted Hoover (who has stopped writing plays, she said, but he's done that before) and others. Tammy Ryan is an active playwright in the city, and there is much more of a thriving playwrights group.

And as the first decade of the 21st century ends, there's a new August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh. The city continues to honor its own greatest playwright also with new productions--in 2010 alone, a much-lauded remounting of his first play, Jitney, and a production of his last, Radio Golf.
The Pittsburgh Public Theatre moved to a new facility in the downtown cultural district, and from what Tey said, there's even more vitality in Pittsburgh arts these days. But the city continues to lose population, and the city government is officially bankrupt. Some corporation have moved their headquarters away, and the once promising growth in high tech businesses seems to have stalled. The U. of Pittsburgh's medical facilities have expanded, taking over many of the old steel mill sites on the South Side. But I'm told that's been the only economic bright spot. Still, Pittsburgh has been counted out before. I wouldn't count it out now.