City Guide: Arts + Entertainment
We outline the local arts in a wide range of categories to remind you why Pittsburgh is an arts mecca.
Every season, every month, every day of the year, one thing remains true: There’s something worth seeing in Pittsburgh. Probably quite a few things, actually. You’ll find anything from full orchestras breathing life into centuries-old classics to a lone comedian capturing a room with a one-liner to grace in movement onstage. There has never been a more engaging and enchanting time to be part of an audience around here. In our Pittsburgh Arts Guide, we suggest great places and groups to check out — innovative, venerated institutions, venues and troupes worthy of your continued attention. We can’t cover everything worth seeing, though; there’s just too much going on, every day, every month, every season.
By Robert Isenberg
Everybody loves drama — on the stage, that is. No matter what the season, Pittsburgh is always bursting with theater. Whether you prefer the glitz of musical comedy or the simplicity of a shoestring-budget production, you can find a different kind of show just about any day of the week.
The most impressive local company is Pittsburgh Public Theater, with its generous auditorium, professional casts and lavish set pieces that make each show a tour de force. The Public specializes in every kind of theater; some productions adapt Shakespeare, while others feature scripts fresh from Broadway. Though producing artistic director Ted Pappas loves grandeur, he also enjoys modesty: The Chief is a one-man show, but after numerous revivals, it may be the most successful stage production in Pittsburgh history.
Theater is more than just a script, some actors and an audience. Bricolage Production Co. thrives on experimentation and invention. The company performs genre-busting stage-plays, such as Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers, but it also produces B.U.S. (a 24-hour play cycle), “Midnight Radio” (an old-time radio show) and avant-garde extravaganzas including STRATA. Co-directors and spouses Jeffrey Carpenter and Tami Dixon regularly assemble some of the most interesting performing artists in the city, and despite its small size and budget, Bricolage has become a Cultural District giant.
Out in the suburbs, you’ll find plenty of time-tested community theaters — but the acclaimed Off the Wall has created quite a buzz after it relocated to Carnegie from its former space in Canonsburg; the company has wowed audiences with its challenging plays, high-quality productions and stellar casting.
These playhouses represent a sample of local talent. Pittsburgh stages can accommodate any taste, neighborhood and budget. If you’re bitten by the drama bug, audition calls are everywhere.
Other Theater Companies
City Theatre: For the past 38 seasons, City has presented Pittsburgh debuts of contemporary plays.
Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre: Strengthening the artistic Irish culture in Pittsburgh since 1996.
No Name Players: An extravagant twist on radical plays for all audiences.
By Sean Collier
To get a sense of the impact Stage AE has had on Pittsburgh’s concert scene, look at its upcoming lineup and ask yourself a simple question: Where would these artists have performed before it was built?
Prior to the North Shore venue’s birth in 2010, local options for touring acts were limited. In warmer months, musicians who could draw in thousands might opt for the former amphitheatre in Station Square; prestige acts could head for the Byham or Benedum. Plenty of musicians in need of a venue larger than a club but smaller than an arena had nowhere to turn, at least within a few miles of the city. Accordingly, many artists skipped Pittsburgh when planning tours.
Today, more than ever, a majority of those bands and solo musicians are stopping here, thanks to Stage AE’s ability to accommodate year-round. During the winter, it’s an expansive club with great sound, clear views of the large stage and — gasp — reasonably priced drinks. In the summer, it transforms into a great outdoor venue, where you can rock out on the lawn or slide up to a stage-side view with ease. With recent appearances from A$AP Rocky, Lyle Lovett, Fiona Apple and Marilyn Manson, you should be able to find an act you like.
The playfully naughty Altar Bar sits a few miles down river in the heart of the Strip District. The smaller club plays up its history: Guests know that they’re rocking out in a former church. You’ll often catch up-and-coming metal, punk or alternative acts at Altar Bar. This spot has a thing for ’90s acts with cult followings — The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Fishbone and Orgy have all performed. Legendary acts such as Snoop Dogg and The Misfits have been known to stop in as well.
Other Concert Venues
Mr. Small’s Theatre: Another converted church, it has become a go-to place for venerable alternative acts.
Club Cafe: An intimate venue hosting local talent and buzzworthy touring musicians almost nightly.
Thunderbird Cafe: Trendy spot to look for the next big thing, as well as seasoned Pittsburgh music veterans.
By Robert Isenberg
Pittsburgh is a city of festivals. We like to honor our rich tradition of arts and culture — and frankly, we love a good party. Aside from our wide array of ethnic celebrations (from Little Italy Days to the Pittsburgh Irish Festival), the Steel City manages to fill its neighborhoods with movie screenings, music summits and art fairs.
Long ago, Pittsburgh was an incubator for the Harlem Renaissance, and jazz and blues continue to thrive in various clubs throughout the city. But no single stage can rival Pittsburgh JazzLive International, which gathers at least 240 jazz performers from around the world. JazzLive is a sort of R&B caucus, where musicians of all styles and origins prove their improvisational mettle. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Blues Festival is a carnival of craft tables, snack vendors and renowned blues artists. (It doubles as a benefit for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which has received $1.5 million in proceeds since the festival’s beginning.)
Our city pulses with performing arts, so it’s no wonder that stage festivals abound. The Pittsburgh Folk Festival is a massive presentation of live acts, representing a rainbow of folk traditions ranging from Lithuanian to Lebanese. Designed to commemorate global peace and diversity, the festival showcases dancers, singers and musicians. Families will also enjoy the Pittsburgh International Children’s Festival, where edu-taining shows, interactive sculptures and mesmerizing storytellers engage kids and parents alike. Finally, the Pittsburgh New Works Festival gathers the talent of a dozen local theater companies. New Works is like the Steel City’s version of a fringe festival — except every one-act play is staged for the first time.
For film lovers, there are all kinds of independent screenings — from the reigning champion of Pittsburgh cinema, the Three Rivers Film Festival, to the 48-Hour Film Project, which challenges young filmmakers to shoot and edit a short film in two days. Special-interest festivals are represented, too, including the Pittsburgh International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, which summons LGBT-themed movies from the United States, Britain and beyond.
But ’Burghers spend a lot of time indoors as it is, and we really look forward to strolling the streets on sunny days. Summer is so packed with arts and craft fairs that nary a weekend goes by without one. The most venerable of all is the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival. Ever since the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust started handling the fest, the downtown bonanza became better than ever. Crowded into tents beneath the skyscrapers of Gateway Center, the festival resembles a Persian bazaar, where crowds flow through displays and collectors haggle over items including oil paintings and handcrafted jewelry. Stages at Point State Park and Gateway Center also host musicians, from local faves to national chart-toppers. If you crave barbecue fare and funnel cake, the sidewalks are jammed with kiosks and food trucks.
For calmer crowds in quainter neighborhoods, consider The Art Festival on Walnut Street or the Polish Hill Arts Festival. Even residents find their neighborhoods transformed when creative types take over the streets — it’s a celebration, after all.
Art All Night: Twenty-four hours of free music and diverse local art.
CMU International Film Fest: An annual themed festival of rare flicks.
By Karen Dacko
Classical ballet and modern dance can be worlds apart, as are two of Pittsburgh’s most popular dance companies — Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, a traditional repertoire ensemble, and the culturally conscious STAYCEE PEARL dance project. That artistic diversity enriches Pittsburgh’s pulsating dance scene.
Delving into social and human issues via dance-driven multimedia productions, STAYCEE PEARL dance project, a three-year-old troupe directed by artist and choreographer Staycee Pearl, hits the stage with exciting, thought-provoking work performed by excellent movers of varied physiques, each with a unique, riveting stage presence. Pearl thoroughly researches her subjects (among them, pop culture, science-fiction literature and last season’s foray into “post-blackness”) to create striking visuals and impressive choreography from an eclectic movement palette. Her co-director and husband Herman Pearl designs original soundscapes. For 2013-14, she plans to pursue collaborative avenues and topics based on personal circumstances. SPDP performs regularly at East Liberty’s Kelly-Strayhorn Theater and hosts informal presentations at Pearl Arts Studios in Wilkinsburg.
An institution in Pittsburgh’s dance community since 1969, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has advanced the region’s dance education and cultural sophistication, and it takes its classic style on the road via annual tours. Its 27 artists, who juxtapose grace and powerhouse proficiency, enthrall audiences with their theatrical savvy and technical capabilities. Their versatility embraces 19th-century classics — including Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Don Quixote — while they impress with confident performances of challenging contemporary masterworks by Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor and Mark Morris. Guided by Terrence S. Orr, the company’s fifth director, PBT enhances its artistic reputation by commissioning new works and programming ballets by national and international trendsetters John Neumeier, Jean-Christophe Maillot, Dwight Rhoden and Julia Adam. PBT’s season frequently offers live musical accompaniment and includes performances at the ornate Benedum Center.
Attack Theatre: Celebrating 17 years of nationally and internationally lauded modern dance.
Texture Contemporary Ballet: Founded in 2011, this troupe presents original contemporary dance with classical standards.
By Kurt Garrison
Pittsburgh has always held its own when it comes to jazz. From Art Blakey to Billy Strayhorn, the city has been home to its fair share of legends. While those halcyon days passed decades ago, everyone from present-day Pittsburgh-bred piano icon Ahmad Jamal to modern-day jazz trumpeter Sean Jones has taken up the charge to help preserve the genre.
Want to embrace the city’s rich heritage? Consider visiting MCG Jazz at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. Formed in 1987 by Bill Strickland and Marty Ashby, MCG Jazz preserves and nurtures the tradition of jazz, hosting everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Dianne Reeves. “Jazz artists come to the guild to perform with an understanding that we’re a school,” says Amy Kline, patron services and marketing director. Tickets go quickly at this North Side establishment, so be sure to reserve seats the moment you learn about a forthcoming performance.
Also on the North Side, James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy offers food and live jazz music. “Pittsburgh is home to some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world — Roger Humphries, Dwayne Dolphin, Etta Cox, Kenny Blake, Harold Betters and Jimmy Ponder, just to name a few,” says co-owner Adam Johnston. Noting that, James Street schedules a rotating group of acts that “[t]he people of Pittsburgh, young and old, truly appreciate,” says co-owner Lisa Saftner; past events have included “jazz jam sessions.”
Little E’s also provides various styles of jazz music via its performances, plus food and drinks. George and Elias P. Kazas, owners of the second-floor downtown club, strive “to showcase our people and our city.”
Other Jazz Venues
CJ’s: Open Wednesday through Saturday, this Strip District hot spot books musicians of all stripes, such as local star Roger Humphries.
Andys Wine Bar: Inside Fairmont Pittsburgh, this wine bar hosts numerous live performances each week from acts including jazz songbird Tania Grubbs.
By Sean Collier
Yes, we all miss corner video stores and second-run $1 movie theaters. But don’t bemoan the lost grindhouse days; it’s a thrilling time to be a movie fan. Streaming services give cinephiles more access to flicks than ever before, every screen from your living room to the Carnegie Science Center looks as crystal-clear as life itself and very cool things are happening at cinemas. Revivals of classics, special events and film festivals are de rigeur all around the region, from multiplexes to arthouses.
Even as technology and trends advance, though, some things stay the same — namely, that the ’Burgh film flag is proudly hoisted by the team at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. The long-standing training ground for aspiring local film students isn’t just an institute; the organization also runs three of the city’s best theaters:
Downtown’s Harris Theater and the Regent Square Theater are single-screen homes for American independent films, foreign hits and classics; the Melwood Screening Room at Filmmakers’ home base in Oakland isn’t open full-time, but it schedules special programming. All are affordable, inviting and intimate. Keep an eye out for special events — among them Regent Square’s Sunday Night Series, with a new theme every month, or the once-a-month Essential Cinema showings at the Melwood (admission is only $2!).
While the drive-in movie theater isn’t the cultural force it once was, the practice of taking in a blockbuster from behind the steering wheel is still alive and well in western Pennsylvania. Moon Township’s Dependable Drive-In, which opened in 1950, offers four screens, all showing double-features year-round. The single-screen Riverside Drive-in in Vandergrift is home to the Monster Rama festival of old-school horror.
The Oaks Theater — Current hits and special events housed in a beautifully restored neighborhood theater.
The Hollywood Theater — Dormont’s lovely single-screen gem was featured in last summer’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
AMC Loews Waterfront 22 — The reigning multiplex king distinguishes itself with Wednesday-night revivals of the classics.
By Sean Collier
Nationwide, improv and sketch comedy have grown rapidly throughout the past 20 years. Once difficult to find outside of New York, L.A. and Chicago, unconventional ways to get crowds laughing are thriving in most cities — and while it was perhaps a bit late to the party, Pittsburgh is no exception.
Leading the charge is Steel City Improv Theater, opened in 2011 by Manhattan-trained improvisers Kasey Daley and Justin Zell. The group graduated earlier this year from its original North Side home to customized digs in Shadyside. Every weekend will feature local troupes, touring acts, podcast tapings and special events, with three or four performances typically scheduled on Fridays and Saturdays. For a trial run, stop by on Mondays to see local improv outfits perform gratis as part of “Totally Free Monday.”
Downtown gained its own full-time comedy space earlier this year, when Arcade Comedy Theater opened its doors on Liberty Avenue. Dedicated to laughs of all varieties, Arcade showcases stand-up, improv, musical-comedy acts and anything else that can make an audience chuckle — from all-star, staged readings of unlikely scripts (think The Sandlot) to variety-show antics.
Meanwhile, dozens of aspiring stand-up comedians are vying for stage time at open-mic nights. Standouts include a Wednesday-night session at Strip District wings-and-beers haven The Beerhive, a late-night Tuesday open mic at South Side’s famous Smiling Moose and a regularly loaded lineup on Thursdays at Hambone’s in Lawrenceville. A full calendar of stand-up events big and small is always posted at pghcomedy.com.
Other Comedy Venues
The Improv: The Pittsburgh branch of the legendary stand-up home hosts top touring comedians.
Latitude 40: The new entertainment destination boasts an expansive showroom, plus weekly visiting and local comics.
Friday Nite Improvs: Before improv hit Pittsburgh, this long-running tradition was packing crowds into the Cathedral of Learning’s basement.
By Mike May
Our region offers a wealth of visual-arts scenery, from the traditional to the avant-garde, in major cultural institutions and private galleries. Here are a few highlights painted with broad brushstrokes:
The center of gravity is Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland. A permanent collection comprises painting, sculpture, decorative arts, photography and even video art, with a timeline extending from B.C. to the 21st century. Changing exhibitions, both traveling and local, ensure there’s always something new to see. All eyes turn to Pittsburgh for the Carnegie International, a world-class exhibition of contemporary art held every few years. The 2013-14 International opens Oct. 5.
Another East End attraction is The Frick Art & Historical Center. Visual arts are represented in Clayton, former home to the Henry Clay Frick family and now a house museum, and at The Frick Art Museum, which offers a permanent collection of paintings and decorative art and galleries, where a variety of major changing exhibitions are featured.
Head over to the North Side for additional visual-arts energy, where the specialty is art of 20th- and 21st-century significance: The Andy Warhol Museum, a Pop-ular shrine to this fabulous native son, is the largest U.S. museum dedicated to a single artist. A permanent collection and changing exhibitions keep Warhol’s memory vital and vibrant for much more than 15 minutes.
The always-cool Mattress Factory — so named because the building in which it is located once produced the bedding essential — will never make you yawn, much less sleep, with its often-provocative 3-D wonders of installation art. It, too, features a permanent collection and changing exhibitions showcasing artists from around the globe, many of whom create their installations at one of Mattress Factory’s three locations in the North Side’s Mexican War Streets.
Other Visual-Arts Spots
Cultural District: A concentrated cluster of downtown gallery spaces within a few minutes’ walk of each other.
Pittsburgh Center for the Arts/Pittsburgh Filmmakers Gallery: Two related East End spaces with a wide variety of changing exhibitions.
Westmoreland Museum of American Art: A permanent collection and changing exhibitions with local and national artists.
By Kristofer Collins
Pittsburgh celebrates the written (and spoken) word with the same passion and pride as a Steelers playoff berth. Catch talented wordslingers of every stripe as numerous galleries, cafes and bookshops all over town provide stages for touring authors and our own scribes to give readings and meet with lit buffs.
Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Literary Evenings has long made the historic Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland a destination for national authors of nonfiction and literary fiction. The 2013 season brings literary heavyweights George Saunders and Colum McCann to Pittsburgh, as well as fan favorites Sue Grafton, Ian Frazier, Ann Patchett and others. Around the corner, you’ll find the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Sunday Poetry and Reading Series for a more intimate experience. Held in the Quiet Reading Room and hosting academic, experimental and spoken-word poets, this series is free to the public.
The Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series brings outstanding writers to Pitt’s campus annually to work with students and offer free readings that are open to the public. Usually held in the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, it has scheduled appearances by writers as different from one another as John McPhee and Maxine Hong Kingston to Gay Talese and Ian McEwan.
SpeakEasy Reading Series is curated by the Pitt MFA program and held in the atmospheric Cathedral of Learning. Chatham University’s MFA folks hold their own Word Circus at Most Wanted Fine Art Gallery in the East End.
There are scads of series run by folks who aren’t affiliated with the universities, though — including Hemingway’s Summer Reading Series, the grandaddy of ’em all. Still going strong after nearly 40 years, this series, hosted by Jimmy Cvetic and Joan Bauer, provides the best way to spend a Tuesday evening.
Keep track of it all online via the Pittsburgh Literary Calendar.
TNY Presents: Offering a relaxed party vibe, this reading series hosts memorable events at area spots.
Steel City Slam: A thriving East End tradition, this monthly shindig brings together like-minded poets.
City of Asylum/Pittsburgh: A home for exiled writers, City of Asylum fills its calendar with readings from internationally praised scribes.
By Robert Isenberg
Youngsters love to brag about the city’s music scene, and they usually think of pop, rock and hip-hop. Pittsburgh is also home to some high-caliber classical — from epic operas to intimate orchestrations. In a city that claims venerable WQED as its airwave authority on classical music, instrumentals get their due.
The godfather of them all is the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which has played continuously since 1926 and counts the late Marvin Hamlisch among its many astonishing Pops conductors; its current classical leader is Manfred Honeck. The PSO may call Heinz Hall its home, but it’s known to make its way all over town (fun fact: it was the first American orchestra to play the Vatican).
Our answer to the Met is Pittsburgh Opera, a world-renowned company that performs in grand opera tradition. With its new facilities in the Strip District plus artists from around the globe, Pittsburgh Opera produces the gamut of classical pieces in addition to contemporary surprises. Stay tuned for next season’s lineup, with shows from Mozart’s The Magic Flute to Philip Glass’ Ophée.
The Opera Theater of Pittsburgh SummerFest series is a celebration of classic opera, contemporary opera and musical theater. Among other productions this year, you can sample Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, revamped for new audiences by Jonathan Eaton, and Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music — plus “Night Caps,” a world-premiere series of comedic mini-operas.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Microscopic Opera Co. presents shows that are small, modern and digestible for opera outsiders. Watch for the world premiere of Night of the Living Dead, co-created by Todd Goodman and librettist Stephen Catazarite, which kicks off on Halloween night.
Finally, the Renaissance & Baroque Society of Pittsburgh has revived Old World melodies for more than four decades. International musicians use period-based instruments to perform arrangements that once filled the air of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque times. Historical preservation never sounded so good.
Other Musical Companies
Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra: A variety of performances by local musicians since 1969.
Undercroft Opera: Giving challenging and diverse “operatunities” to Pittsburgh performers since 2006.